By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Six weeks ago they looked dead and buried. Trailing late in the game against Nordsjaelland on matchday three and staring down the barrel of a two-point return from their first three games, Juventus resembled Rocky Balboa being beaten black and blue by Apollo Creed after making the step up to fight on the biggest stage. But in true Hollywood fashion, they wouldn't give up without a fight.
Against Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday night, the Bianconeri completed the fairytale ending by winning 1-0 at the Donbass Arena to clinch top spot in Champions League Group E. It took Sylvester Stallone’s character in the famous film franchise two cracks before he finally got the big prize, but Juve did it in one. Where Balboa fought with the heart, the Old Lady had all that and more.
Needing a point to progress, they could have taken a cagey approach, but instead they entered the match with real authority. With wide midfielders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah tucking in a little more than usual and Arturo Vidal given the detail of forcing Willian to play in front of their midfield instead of between the lines, Juventus got their tactics just about perfect. There were fleeting moments of worry when the Miners occasionally broke in behind to stretch their back three, but this was nothing like the game Shakhtar dominated for long spells in Turin in October.
|MATCH FACTS | Shakhtar 0-1 Juventus
As the first half developed, Juve looked more and more capable of turning the screw, and they eventually got the goal their discipline and structure deserved after the interval, albeit in fortuitous fashion. Lichtsteiner appeared to be offside when he collected a ball on the right and sent a pass towards Sebastian Giovinco, and then as the ‘Atomic Ant’ looked to convert, it was instead turned in by defender Oleksandr Kucher. Fortunate? Undoubtedly. Undeserved? Not at all.
From then on, there was never a moment’s doubt. Shakhtar had a few chances, but never seriously looked like getting one goal, let alone the two it would have taken to eliminate the Bianconeri.
This was a display of a side that has many of the faculties necessary to go far in the Champions League. They have mixed flair, technical ability and energy to become the best team in Italy. Now in Europe they have shown they have guts and determination, discipline and belief. They have fought two notable heavyweights in this competition and come out on top. It is they who have accounted for the European champions, while they have also taken four points against a team many of the big-hitters in the last 16 will be dreading being drawn against.
With the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Vidal (who kept the outstanding Willian in his pocket all night) among the best in the world in their positions, Juventus have the groundwork in place to challenge. If they can strengthen in January – Giovinco’s two first-half misses showed yet again that the striking department needs more quality – then there will surely be more reason to believe. Juventus are in this for the long haul, with the sequel to come in February and March. The Italian stallions are only just getting started.Follow Kris Voakes on