Chelsea vs. Juventus : 23 November 2021.
Back in February 2020, not long after Chelsea were given a masterclass in elite football by Bayern Munich, I had walked back up the North End Road with my friend Jaro. He had been in town for both the Tottenham game – good, very good – and the Bayern game – bad, very bad – and we said our goodbyes at the intersection with Lillie Road. He was heading back to his hotel before an early morning flight to whisk him back to his home just outside Washington DC. In the intervening twenty-one months, who could have predicted what would have happened to the world and to Chelsea Football Club?
It was 5.40pm, and I stepped into the Italian restaurant next to “The Goose” on a cold London evening. It was a mere ten yards from where Jaro and I went our separate ways all those months ago. This time Jaro was in town with his son Alex and they had just arrived to secure a seat for a quick bite to eat before the Champions League group phase game with Juventus. My travel companions Parky and PD came in to see the two visitors – handshakes and hugs – before they popped into “The Goose” for a drink or two.
I settled down, perused the menu, and ordered a beer and a pizza.
Time to relax a little, time to start talking football, time to think about the game. But first I thanked Jaro for his friendship over the weirdest time of our lives. He has been a good friend of mine in this period – on-line chats, occasional phone-calls – and I wanted him to know it was appreciated. Alex’ only other visit to Chelsea was for a league game with Newcastle in the early months of Frank Lampard’s short tenure as manager. To say both were excited about being back in London again would be a grave understatement.
The evening would unfold in due course, but I had a little teaser for them both before the evening got into full swing.
I poured a small Birra Moretti into a half-pint glass.
“Right. Bearing in mind tonight’s game and the two teams involved, what is the significance of this beer?”
Puzzled expressions. I added another few words.
“This beer is a thirst quencher, right? Well maybe it could be called a first quencher.”
I then realised something else.
“Ah, it’s in a half-pint glass. A half. That’s a clue too.”
Jaro and Alex were stumped. The conversation moved on a little, and I realised that they weren’t going to be able to solve my little riddle.
Out of interest, it is worth saying that a few tables down from us, a lad was wearing a long-sleeved red Bari training top. This acted as another clue for those playing along at home, if not for Jaro and Alex.
Give up? OK, here goes.
Despite the game at Stamford Bridge being the sixth game between Chelsea and Juventus in the Champions League, the very first encounter took place in the southern Italian city of Bari in August 2002 in the Birra Moretti Cup. On the same night, Chelsea played half a game against Juventus (drew 0-0, lost on penalties) before losing 0-3 to Inter in another forty-five-minute game. I remembered watching it all unfold on Chelsea TV.
In those days, Juventus of Turin, of the whole of Italy, were European royalty. I still find it hard to believe that Juventus of Turin and Chelsea of London have both won the same number of European Cups.
The pizza was damned fine. The little restaurant was full of Chelsea supporters. We chatted about pandemics, Champions League Finals, heart attacks, Chelsea and Juventus.
In the dim and distant past, when Jaro was a teenager back in Poland, Juventus must have tugged a little at his heart strings. I remember that he told me that he had got hold of, I know not how, a Juventus scarf, which must have been quite a capture in communist Poland. He had since mislaid it. However, in packing for this trip he had stumbled across an old suitcase and – lo and behold – the old Juventus scarf was unearthed after many a year. Jaro thought that this was undoubtedly a good sign ahead of his trip across the Atlantic.
Outside, yes, a cold night. I was glad that I had worn an extra top beneath my jacket. I didn’t see a single Juventus fan on the walk down to the ground with PD. Jaro had spotted little knots of them in the afternoon as he circumnavigated the stadium not once but twice.
We all made it inside Stamford Bridge earlier – much earlier – than usual.
I was inside by 7.15pm, a good forty-five minutes before kick-off. I spent a few minutes at the rear of the Matthew Harding upper tier, right above where I sit, and took a few shots of the scene. In my quest to photograph every square yard of Stamford Bridge, inside and out, for my pleasure if nobody else’s, it was a well-spent ten minutes. Over in the far corner, the travelling Juventus supporters were positioned in two tiers. The Champions League logo – a large plastic flag – was lying still over the centre circle.
As I walked down to share a few words with Frank from Oxford, who sits in the row behind me, and then to re-join PD, the players of both teams entered the pitch for their choreographed drills and pre-match routines. Very soon the entire pitch was covered in people. Not only the starting elevens, but the substitutes too. A few coaches, maybe a few of the medical staff. Around ten chaps forking the pitch. UEFA officials swarming everywhere. God knows who else. Easily a hundred people were on the pitch. It was ridiculous.
I immediately spotted Jaro and Alex in the second row of The Shed, right by the corner flag. At this time of year, I know that many US supporters travel over – making use of cheaper than usual international flights at Thanksgiving since the vast majority of Americans only travel domestically to see family members – and I knew that many were close by in Parkyville.
These Autumnal group phase matches – part and parcel of our game now – can be viewed as an unnecessary burden by some. Are they an integral part of the calendar and a key part in the selection of the fittest and finest teams to head into the latter stages in the new year? Or are they simply money-spinning stocking fillers before Christmas, ostensibly nothing more than extra games, the source of extra revenues with the accompanying extra chatter, extra debate, extra noise?
I think we know the answer.
The saving grace, of course, is that this format allows match-going fans of a certain disposition – step forward, you know who you are – the chance to watch their idols play in three, hopefully, interesting and exotic cities each time qualification is gained. For that reason alone, I am glad that the bloated Champions League format exists though, deep down, the simpler knock-out style of European competition pre-1992 has many admirers too.
The minutes ticked by. PD and I were joined by Rich from Edinburgh and Alan from South London in The Sleepy Hollow.
A text from Tullio in Turin : “let’s go to work.”
Despite my soft-spot for Juventus, I fended off the need to buy a half-and-half scarf. Out in Turin, the nearest I got to it was a “I was there” jacquard scarf depicting the date of the game and the venue.
This would be my thirteenth Juventus game. I hoped it would be unlucky for them and not for me.
The first dozen :
1987 : Juventus 3 Panathinaikos 2.
1988 : Juventus 1 Internazionale 0.
1988 : Juventus 3 Napoli 5.
1989 : Juventus 1 Fiorentina 1.
1992 : Juventus 0 Sampdoria 0.
1995 : Rangers 0 Juventus 4.
1999 : Juventus 2 Fiorentina 1.
2009 : Chelsea 1 Juventus 0.
2009 : Juventus 2 Chelsea 2.
2012 : Chelsea 2 Juventus 2.
2012 : Juventus 3 Chelsea 0.
2021 : Juventus 1 Chelsea 0.
In the last few minutes, the place suddenly filled. There were around one thousand away fans opposite me.
The Chelsea team was almost the same one that ended the game against Leicester City.
Mendy – Rudiger, Silva, Chalobah – Chilwell, Kante, Jorginho, James – Hudson-Odoi, Pulisic, Ziyech
The stadium packed to capacity, save for a few late arrivals, the teams appeared.
First Chelsea, with blue tracksuit tops, then Juventus also in blue tracksuit tops.
I remember hating the sight of Juve, back in 2009, showing up at Chelsea in a bronze away shirt. Thankfully on this occasion they opted for the Notts County “hand-me-downs” of black and white stripes, but there was something about their uniforms that didn’t strike me as being particularly “Juve”. Were the stripes too narrow? Were the shorts not baggy enough? Did I miss seeing “Ariston” and the “Robe di Kape” labels? No. Of course it was the black socks. Ugh.
I clapped the former two Chelsea players Juan Cuadrado and Alvaro Morata.
Neither looked happy to be back.
“We hardly knew you.”
The game began. Nobody was expecting Juventus to come at us like their life depended upon it, but our dominance in the first five minutes was astounding. It took them until the sixth minute, I think, for them to get the ball out of their own half.
With both Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku on the bench, it was left for Christian Pulisic to take over from Kai Havertz as the central false-nine, and Alan commented early on how high King Kante was playing on the right.
A “sighter” from the currently impressive Ben Chilwell was fired over the bar. We enjoyed a lot of early possession, and it settled the whole stadium.
“Champions of Europe, we know what we are.”
Juve attacks were rare, and efforts from Chalobah and Hudson-Odoi caused panic in The Old Lady’s defence. Our youngsters were raiding at will, and the watching bianconeri in The Shed must have been impressed with our fluidity. The ex-Arsenal ‘keeper Wojciech Szvsazvxsaeneszxeyezcsy was involved early and involved often. He ably stopped a fine free-kick from our man of the moment Reece James.
When we were awarded a corner, Alan commented that he wanted Morata to find himself inside the six-yard box and to awkwardly jump and head a ball past his ‘keeper.
“Knowing our luck, the fucker would be offside, Al.”
As Hakim Ziyech trotted over to take a corner in front of the away support on twenty-five minutes, I noticed more than a usual number of Italian flags being waved. It struck me as a little odd. It’s something that club teams tend not to do on travels around the continent. I have certainly not seen this from Juventus before, nor other Italian teams, where local identity and allied tribal imagery is usually much more important. Maybe somebody had them on sale in a local Italian restaurant.
The ball was floated in, Antonio Rudiger rose, the ball ended up at the feet of Trevoh Chalobah.
The Bridge erupted.
I captured the slide down in front of the away fans.
Unlike “Song 2” by Blur – of all bands – being used by the Juventus PA out in Turin in September when Chiesa scored, there is no song used by Chelsea when we score and long may this continue. It would be just another nail in the coffin.
We are Chelsea and we make our own noise.
While we were waiting for the game to restart, there was a rumour of a VAR check, but nothing was really made clear.
“Whatevs” as the kids say.
A text from Tullio : “volleyball.”
The defensive highlight of our game then thrilled us all. Locatelli unlocked our defence with a fine chipped lob to Morata, and with Mendy flummoxed and on his arse, the Spaniard was denied a certain goal when the back-peddling Thiago Silva hooked the ball away.
The applause rang out from all four stands.
The old man had thwarted the Old Lady.
However, I equally enjoyed the Rolls Royce-like burst from Silva down our left flank when a Juventus attacker threatened him. His effortless glide past the hapless striker was an absolute joy to watch.
Efforts from James and Rudiger towards the end of the half made sure that the Juve ‘keeper was kept busy. I can’t remember Mendy, the Morata cock-up aside, ever being in danger.
Sadly, there was an injury to Kante, and he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
At the break, much positivity.
“Pulisic is quiet though, Al.”
The second-half began with Chelsea attacking us in the Matthew Harding. We continued our domination.
I loved it when I spotted Thomas Tuchel fist-pumping and demanding some noise from the adjacent fans in the East Lower; it’s the family section, someone should tell him.
On fifty-five minutes, a cross from Ben Chilwell down below us was headed on its way. It fell to the feet of the lurking James on the angle. A chested touch to control and take out the defender was followed by a low pile driver that flew into the net.
I captured that bastard on film.
What a strike.
Despite bubbling over, I managed to snap the subsequent shrug from Reece and then the triumphant pose in front of the MHL.
Two-up on the night, we were now top of our group.
A couple of minutes later, a cracking move involving Rudiger, James, Ziyech and some lovely close-in dribbling from Loftus-Cheek set up Our Callum. Once this final ball was played in, there was that glorious feeling knowing that a certain goal was just about to be scored.
I reached for my camera and tried my best to capture Callum’s wild euphoria. He was mobbed by all. Great scenes.
The atmosphere was good, but not at a stratospheric level. The Juve fans kept singing throughout. It’s what they do. I gulped when I spotted a “+39” banner in their section.
Sadly, Ben Chilwell was injured and had to be assisted off. He was replaced by Captain Dave, a rare sight these days. Other late substitutions followed. Timo Werner for Pulicic, then Mason Mount for Hudson-Odoi.
The Chelsea choir to the luckless ‘keeper : “You’re just a shit Fabianski.”
Juventus enjoyed their best spell of the game, and the otherwise out-of-work Mendy did ever so well to save from the American Weston McKennie. However, as the game drew to a conclusion, I always fancied us to score a very late goal. Ziyech grew as the game continued and drew another fine save from “triple points score in Scrabble” as Chelsea continued to pile on the pressure.
On the ninety-five-minute mark, we were rewarded.
We watched in awe as James sent over an absolutely perfect ball – with just the right amount of spin, dip and fade – towards Ziyech. We were a little lucky in that a Juve defender mistimed his interception, but the Moroccan’s cross was so good that not even Werner missed it.
On a splendid night in deepest SW6 when so many Americans were present, there was only one phrase needed.
It was a night when three academy players scored three goals against a tough Italian defence. It was a night when our youngsters – aided and abetted by one masterly old’un – totally dominated against La Vecchia Signora. It was a night when our new guard drew praise from everyone.
How ironic that Juventus means “youth.”
Move over, Juve, there are new kids on the piazza.
We headed out into the cold London night.
A text from Tullio : “no words.”
In the style of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, and its incredibly tough way of ranking players – I have never seen a ten, even nines are ridiculously rare – here are my player rankings.
Mendy : 7 – a night-off, but one fine save when called-upon.
Rudiger : 8 – solid as ever, and an occasional threat in the opposing box.
Silva : 9 – calm, cultured, a masterclass in defensive nous.
Chalobah : 8 – a fine game, took his goal well, never embarrassed.
James : 9 – a thunderously fine performance, solid defensively, always a threat going forward, man of the match, man of the moment.
Kante : 7 – a little bit of everything until an injury took him out of the game.
Jorginho : 7 – understated but so efficient, he kept the team focussed.
Chilwell : 7 – a good overlapping threat, sadly his night ended with a bad injury.
Hudson-Odoi : 8 – at last he is fulfilling his great potential, always a handful.
Pulisic : 5 – a quiet game, not involved in many key moments.
Ziyech : 8 – arguably his match thus far, he grew in confidence and stature as the game continued.
Subs : Loftus-Cheek 7, Azpilicueta 6, Mount 6, Werner 7
Chelsea : top of the Premier League.
Chelsea : top of the Champions League.
Frome Town : top of the Southern League Division One South.
Next up : Manchester United at home.
Life : good.