The inevitable tactical focus of any game involving Juventus is how the opposition will stop Andrea Pirlo’s influence. After all, when left unmarked, the Italian is one of the world’s foremost registas, an excellent long-range passer that has become the fulcrum of the dominant club of Italian football. Operating at the base of a three-man midfield, Juventus structure their pressing and passing play so that everything runs through Pirlo. That much was clear when Paul Pogba, a fine player but still raw at the age of 19, failed to help break down a stubborn Lazio defence on the weekend, a match where Pirlo’s absence was sorely felt (as was Juve’s distinct lack of a world-class striker).
At Euro 2012, England and Germany both failed to close down Pirlo, and in effect, allowed him to run the game. His two superb performances exaggerated his ability somewhat, with the English media in particular quick to laud his rare talent despite it being plainly obvious in Serie A for over a decade. The perception was that Pirlo wasn’t good until he played well against England, a concept that plagued similar debate in the aftermath of Ibrahimovic’s four goal salvo in last week’s international friendly against Sweden.
Obviously, you don’t judge players on how well they play against English opposition, and besides, if last month’s Champions League match between Chelsea and Juventus suggested anything, it’s that Pirlo has very clear weaknesses. Up against a hard working midfielder man-marking him, he struggles to find space, therefore struggles to dictate the tempo, and as a result, his team struggles.
That strategy wasn’t a brainwave by Roberto Di Matteo: it’s a widely used tactic in domestic competition, and Pirlo’s influence in those games isn’t as superlative as his Euro 2012 form suggested. It’s just that Juventus’ other players are good enough to overpower weaker Serie A opposition, and sometimes opponents simply don’t have the kind of player disciplined enough to maintain the constant pressure on Pirlo for an entire game.
But Chelsea certainly has the player to perform this role in the form of young Brazilian Oscar. His first start for Chelsea actually came in that aforementioned 2-2 draw, where his two outstanding goals stole the headlines but his disciplined work in tracking Pirlo may have been more crucial to the result, with the late equaliser for the Old Lady coming after the less disciplined Juan Mata had replaced Oscar’s tired legs.
Presumably, Di Matteo will turn to Oscar again for Wednesday’s crucial tie – he’s exclusively used Oscar as a central player in Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 since that game, and that makes for a perfect match-up on the pitch, with Pirlo operating in deep zones, close to Juventus’ three-man defence, meaning Oscar can play in the attacking band of three, keeping tight to the Italian when out of possession, and looking to break past him on counter-attacks. Pirlo isn’t strong defensively, and Henrik Mkhitaryan took advantage of this in Shakhtar’s 1-1 draw by bursting past him at transitions. With Di Matteo indicating that he might employ more conservative tactics on Wednesday to fix their recent defensive vulnerability, this might become the primary source of chances in what should be a cagey encounter.
Given the balance of play in a tight Group E, the battle between Oscar and Pirlo will be pivotal.