It was a night when Thomas Tuchel came to crave something, anything, in the final third. At first it was to blow this meeting of the Champions League Group H big guns open and later, as Juventus enjoyed the ascendancy given to them by the impressive Federico Chiesa straight after half-time, it was simply to salvage a point.
The Chelsea manager tried plenty. He sent on five second-half substitutes, including the lesser-spotted Ross Barkley, and he made adjustments to his system, the biggest one being when he pushed up Kai Havertz as a second striker.
But it was a night when Chelsea ran aground, when they did not do enough for long periods to outmanoeuvre a deep-sitting Juventus defence led by Leonardo Bonucci. The captain had one of those nights when you wondered whether there was a better defender in Europe. He won his high-profile duel with Romelu Lukaku hands down.
And towards the end, when Chelsea finally had a few sightings of Wojciech Szczesny’s goal, they lacked the ruthlessness to bail themselves out. Lukaku’s golden chance came on 83 minutes when Barkley played the ball up to him and he was able to spin away from Bonucci on the left hand side. At last. And yet he lashed off target, seeming to slice it slightly. It was one of those that he had to score.
Lukaku had been jeered throughout by a Juventus support who had not forgotten his lead role for Internazionale last season; the striker’s 24 Serie A goals took his former club to the title. It was not his night. And it was not Havertz’s either. He headed a half-chance high in the 88th minute and, at the very last, when the half-time substitute, Ben Chilwell, put over a corner, Havertz rose but again his sights were awry.
Tuchel’s hope had been to make a statement after the Premier League loss to Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, when he got his tactics wrong and his players were unusually off colour. Instead, this was a jaded display. The rhythm was not there and nor was the movement. Too often, the man in possession took the safe, square option. Chelsea had all of the ball but, in the final analysis, what did they do with it? Where was the penetration?
Juventus are in a strange period. For the first time since the end of the 2010-11 season, they cannot call themselves the champions of Italy and it certainly jarred on Tuesday of last week when Max Allegri, who is back in managerial charge, described the game at Spezia as a “relegation showdown”.
His team had made their worst start in 60 years and, although they won and followed it up with a victory over Sampdoria on Sunday, they are only tenth in the table. The pandemic has hit Juventus’s finances and their fans have worried that they are far away from their goal of winning the Champions League for a third time.
This was much more encouraging for them. Allegri’s formation was fluid, with Chiesa providing much of the positional flexibility, not the mention the pace and power, while the collective defensive effort was immense.
It was attritional for long spells and it felt as though any mistake could be decisive. Mateo Kovacic made two of them in the opening quarter, putting his team in trouble with loose passes which, Tuchel felt, gave Juventus belief, even if they could not capitalise. Adrien Rabiot missed a pass to Federico Bernardeschi, who could have been clean through, and then Chiesa blasted away from Andreas Christensen only to go a little too wide and drill past the far post.
Chelsea offered nothing as an attacking force in open play before the interval. Their one clear opening had come early on when Marcos Alonso pulled a corner back low for Lukaku, who had peeled into space. He had to take it on first time and the technique had to be perfect. It was not, the shot lacking power and going straight at Szczesny. It would be Chelsea’s only shot on target.
Tuchel described the concession just ten seconds into the second-half as “cheap” but, from a Juventus point of view, it followed a lovely piece of movement from Chiesa. Rabiot won a header, Bernardeschi played the pass and there was Chiesa to slam a shot into the near, top corner.
Chelsea did not move the ball quickly enough and they did not connect with Lukaku, who frequently cut a lonely figure. Tuchel introduced Trevoh Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield as he switched to a 3-1-4-2 formation, with Callum Hudson-Odoi also on at right wing-back, and yet it was Juventus who almost scored again. Juan Cuadrado volleyed Rabiot’s long diagonal across for Bernardeschi but he fluffed the finish.
So did Lukaku and Havertz with theirs in the closing stages. Tuchel has plenty to occupy him.