It probably won’t be able to top yesterday’s headliner at the Bernabeu, but the names alone make it a must see. One of Europe’s truly iconic clubs playing the defending champions under the lights in London. Matchups like Chelsea-Juventus define UEFA Champions League.
Chelsea vs. Juventus
Stamford Bridge, London, 2:45 p.m. Eastern
Nothing speaks to the primacy of Champions League like a qualifier who finished sixth in their domestic league. In the past there were debates as to whether even second place teams should be in this tournament, but not anymore. Nobody’s saying Chelsea shouldn’t be in this competition. Nobody’s questioning their credentials or even claiming England’s fourth place team (Tottenham) deserves the spot instead. The league criteria is almost meaningless. We have become so used to this Champions League-centric world that misgivings about Chelsea’s place have been muted.
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On Wednesday, the holders begin their first European title defense against Italian champion Juventus, a team they met in the knockout round three years ago. Then Chelsea won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, a game from which the Blues return only five starters. Juventus bring back only two (Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini). What little history these clubs have against each other becomes meaningless in the face of those kinds of changes.
Juventus’s turnover continued this offseason, bringing in Kwadwo Asamoah, Mauricio Isla, Sebastian Giovinco, and Lúcio. The results have been perfect so far, Juve on nine points through three Serie A rounds, continuing an unbeaten league run that extends back to Mar. 5, 2011. Having failed to qualify for last season’s European competition, Juventus has only lost once in all competitions since Milan won in Turin 17 months ago, falling to Napoli in May’s Coppa final.
Like Juventus, Chelsea sits at the top of their domestic league after a series of summer buys, bringing in Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin, and Victor Moses. In the process, the Blues have started to shift away from José Mouinrho’s core, seeing Didier Drogba leave while the team has become less dependent on Frank Lampard and John Terry. Hazard has quickly become the team’s best player (and perhaps their last hope to salvage Fernando Torres).
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Nordsjaelland
Donbass Arena, Donetsk, 2:45 Eastern
Don’t envy Danish champions Nordsjaelland, first time participants in UEFA Champions League. Thanks to Juventus’s diminished UEFA coefficient, the Danes are drawn into a group with three Round of 16-caliber clubs. They get the pleasure of being the team each opponent sees as a needed three points, chance to pad goal difference, and major slip should they fail to win (home or road). You won’t get that type of patronization in quotes espousing the quality of every Champions League team, but even when teams venture to Farum, they’ll be thinking “We can’t lose to these guys, right?”
That’s why this is a must win for Shakhtar. They have to assume Chelsea and Juventus will get full points against the Danes. They can’t give up any points to Nordsjaelland, let alone during the home leg. The points Ukraine’s champions drop will cancel out any progress they make against the group’s other contenders.
If Shakhtar can manage those expectations, they shouldn’t have any trouble with Nordsjaelland, particularly if Henrikh Mkhitaryan continues his goalscoring exploits. The Armenian midfielder came into the season with 13 goals in 43 league appearances for Shakhtar. In nine games this season, the 23-year-old has already scored 12 times. The next highest scorer in Ukraine has eight.
Nordsjaelland has one of the best defenses in Denmark (20-year-old center half Jores Okore may not be in the Superliga for long), but this is small fish-big pond territory for them. Copenhagen is the big team in Denmark, but their huge collapse at the end of last season allowed the Wild Tigers to barge through the door. They may be out of their depth – less Champions Leguae quality than the team that was there when FCK fell. Okore and U.S. international Michael Parkhurst may be able to hold up for a result in Denmark, but in Donetsk, it’s too much to ask.