Danger match for Chelsea in Ukraine – UEFA Champions League Group E preview


Shakhtar Donetsk caught a few eyes last match day with a draw in Turin, but coming short of a historic win over Juventus, the Ukrainian champions remaining Overlooked and Underloved ®. On Tuesday, Shakhtar get another chance to transcend their stature as plucky champions from a middle-ground league. With the competition’s holders visiting the Donbass Arena, Shakhtar have an opportunity to score one of the most important wins in their club’s history, and upset that wouldn’t be as most suspect.

That result would turn Group E on its ear. Chelsea and Juventus were picked by most to come out of this group, but if Shakhtar can fulfill their promise and get a key three points, they’ll have done most of the work needed to make the knockout round. In the process, they’ll have also pushed Chelsea or Juventus to the edge of Europa League.

Now, all they have to do is pull it off.

Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) vs. Chelsea (England)

Donbass Arena, Donetsk, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

We’ve periodically updated you on the farce that Shakhtar’s made of the Ukrainian season. Normally the Premier League comes down to the two derbies between Shakhtar and Dynamo Kyiv, but not this year. Twelve matches into the season, Shakhtar is perfect, has a 12-point lead and a +32 goal difference. They’ve lapped the field.

No player embodies that rise like Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The 23-year-old Armenian scored 13 goals in his two previous Premier League seasons. This year, he’s scored 14 times in 12 games, adding two more in Champions League. While an evolving role within Mircea Lucescu’s setup has meant more chances for Mkhitaryan, this Messi-esque goal rate has come out of nowhere.

Replicating that success against Chelsea is a big ask, but as Skahktar showed last round at Juventus, they’re capable of competing in this group. After taking a point in Turin, the Ukranian champions have carved a route into the next round, provided they stay on it. Failing to get a result against Chelsea wouldn’t sidetrack that effort, but it would leave Shakhtar open to being pushed aside if Juventus beat the Blues in November.

For Chelsea’s part, they’re coming in after a great performance at White Hart Lane, but there are a lot of circumstances conspiring against them. If the Blues weren’t playing in the Club World Cup, the trip to Donetsk would be their longest of the season. They’ve only had two days rest, much of their squad has just come back from international duty, and they have a major league match with Manchester United this weekend.

Even with some squad rotation, Chelsea will be the more talented side on Tuesday. Thanks to that superior personnel and the benefits of their formation, they’ll have fewer troubles with Shakhtar’s style than Juventus did. Still, this is setting up less like match Chelsea will win than one which they’ll try to survive.

From Shakhtar head coach Mircea Lucescu:

” I don’t want to talk a lot about their game on Saturday, because I think that at the moment we are stronger than Tottenham.”

Author’s note: He’s probably right.

From Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo:

“I remember Mircea Lucescu’s work in Italy very well. All his teams stuck to the same philosophy – they always try to play possession football. You can see how Shakhtar pass the ball. You can see the structure of the team. They are very good tactically and they have a lot of quick players.”

UEFA preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H

Nordsjaelland (Denmark) vs. Juventus (Italy)

Parken, Copenhagen, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

Juventus has only lost once since the beginning of last season (May’s Coppa Italia final to Napoli), but the realities of the three-point win leave the Old Lady in need of points. After draws with Chelsea and Shakhtar, Juventus is in third place, leaving them with little margin for error in Tuesday’s match at Parken. Anything but a win will be points dropped in a race where they’ve already been drawn at home by the team most likely to take a top two spot from them.

Though Nordsjaelland’s destined to finish last in this group, they’re no pushovers. They’ve been better than their -6 goal difference indicates, Given the pace at which Juventus plays, it’s not difficult to imagine the Danish champions snatching a point, particularly if they play for it.

In both of their Champions League games, Juventus started slowly, fallen behind, and had to comeback to salvage draws. In this weekend’s big match against Napoli, they didn’t break through until making late-match adjustments. If they’re similarly slow coming into this match, Nordsjaelland could hold on for their first Champions League point. However, if Juventus is intent from the opening kickoff, they could replicate Chelsea’s result.

From Nordsjaelland head coach Kasper Hjulmand:

“The team is the star. Andrea Pirlo is the key, though, as his distribution is second to none. He is a joy to watch – at least when you are not up against him. I am not the first coach to try to find a way to close Pirlo down. It is an almost impossible task.”

Author’s note: It’s almost as if these coaches don’t have access to film of Juventus’s visit to Chelsea. Nobody saw that and wants to emulate what Roberto Di Matteo had Oscar do?

From Juventus assistant Angelo Alessio:

“I have plenty of experience and a good feeling, so I am not worried that Antonio Conte is not here for this match … Conte decides who plays depending on the tactical outlay and the opponents we face.”

UEFA preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H