Awkward return for Old Lady
Opposing a side unbeaten in 42 league matches is not a decision taken lightly, especially when that club has two European Cups on their mantelpiece. But we’re ditching half measures and going in two-footed on Chelsea (-1) to beat Juventus on the handicap when the sides meet in West London on Wednesday night.
Juve took the Serie A title last term with a record of 23 victories and 15 draws but their absence from European competition was no small factor in their success. While runners-up AC Milan faced trips to the Czech Republic, Spain, Belarus and England, the Old Lady didn’t leave home shores.
And we fancy that a return to the Champions League for the first time since their group stage exit in 2009/10 may not be wholly straightforward. The Italian champions are hardly lacking in experience, with Andrea Pirlo the beating heart, ahead of a back line which includes Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini. But slipping immediately back into the groove of knockout action on foreign soil may not be simple.
Particularly given the continued absence of boss Antonio Conte. The 43-year-old is serving a ten-month suspension for his part in the latest match-fixing scandal and will not be allowed to attend the Group E clash at Stamford Bridge. Though his side may have the know-how to run on auto-pilot, the absence of the man who guided them to the Scudetto is not irrelevant.
Their hosts, the holders, lest we forget, may not quite still be riding on the wave of euphoria which greeted their triumph but memories of Munich will arrive with the familiar pre-match music. That ought to be enough for the Blues to put the weekend’s frustrating draw at QPR behind them and in light of their European progress last term - success which was achieved with a background of managerial instability - we’ve no doubt that they can raise their game on Wednesday.
In spite of Andre Villas-Boas’ early-season struggles, his side made light work of their home outings in the group stages, seeing off Bayer Leverkusen 2-0, Genk 5-0 and Valencia 3-0. So while the Blues are odds against to claim the points, we’re willing to take a chance on them covering the handicap again.
Though the talismanic Didier Drogba will be missed in Europe, summer arrival Eden Hazard ought to relish these sorts of nights, after frustrating forays with underdogs Lille last term.
We’re not convinced that Roberto Di Matteo holds the long-term answers at Chelsea but while the iron is hot his side can strike and triumph in their opening group match for the fourth season in succession.
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