By Liam Twomey
For 38 minutes, it seemed that the luck of Munich might endure. Had Chelsea made it to half-time, Juventus might have started to believe it too. But then, with one flick of Fabio Quagliarella's boot, Roberto Di Matteo's men were finally made to feel the harsh edge of life as hostages to fortune.
The Serie A champions pinned the Blues back from the start, pressing with suffocating ferocity and discipline. Their visitors survived, largely due to the resilience and reflexes of goalkeeper and captain Petr Cech, and even created a glorious chance of their own when Oscar's slaloming run and pass found Eden Hazard, who was only denied by one of Gianluigi Buffon's less intentional blocks.
But for the most part, the legendary Italian stopper was a glorified spectator, watching with steadily increasing excitement as wave upon wave of Juventus pressure battered a fragile and panicky Chelsea defence. The goal was coming and both teams knew it.
When Quagliarella cleverly redirected Andrea Pirlo's tame shot past a helpless Cech, Di Matteo and his men realised that the luck which helped them miraculously overcome Barcelona and Bayern Munich last season will guide them no more. The floodgates may not have opened but the game was as good as over.
Chelsea carried no attacking threat after the interval. Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata, three players who have thrilled Blues fans and neutrals alike in tandem this season, were utterly starved of service. Subjected to a renewed Juve onslaught, the defence resorted to steadily more hopeful and less accurate punts upfield.
Such desperate situations are made for £50 million strikers. But Chelsea possess one in name only. Fernando Torres' omission from Di Matteo's starting lineup in favour of a previously untested 'false nine' formation was startling but a proportionate consequence of a string of listless performances. Quite simply, this was too important a match for the Blues to start with 10 men.
Hazard, leading the line in place of the Spaniard, did as well as could be expected in the circumstances but could not relieve the pressure on his team in the manner that Didier Drogba did so sensationally and so often last season. As the night wore on, the muscular trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci bullied him out of it.
The result was never in doubt and Juventus were unlucky to be forced to wait until the hour mark to make it safe. Kwadwo Asamoah, having single-handedly tormented Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta all evening, smartly picked out Arturo Vidal, who had time to be astonished at the acres of space he had found on the edge of the box before stroking the ball under Cech.
From then on, the hosts toyed with Chelsea and Sebastian Giovinco added a third thanks to some comical defending in injury time. It was a surreal ending but an adequate reflection of the alarming dominance of Juventus. The European champions found themselves out-thought, out-fought and out-manoeuvred by a team superior in every department – proof, if more were needed after a run of one win in seven matches, that their new identity remains far from solidified.
Of course, the inevitable talk about Di Matteo's future will only intensify, with the shadow of Pep Guardiola looming ever larger in the background. Such concerns, however, will be relegated to afterthoughts in the Italian's mind while he ponders how to solve the serious vulnerabilities evident throughout this campaign.
The warning signs were there in the draw with the Bianconeri at Stamford Bridge back in September. Oscar's two goals came from a deflection and a moment of genius but Chelsea were second best for long periods, passive in midfield and disorganised in defence, and could have lost had Quagliarella not struck the crossbar late on.
Against Shakhtar earlier in November, the Blues benefited from some bizarre goalkeeping from Andriy Pyatov and still needed rescuing with Victor Moses' last-gasp header. Had the Nigerian not found the top corner, their European defence would already be over.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Chelsea are the third-best team in this group and that the Europa League is a fitting destination. Such a fate is not sealed, of course, and Di Matteo will expect to beat Nordsjaelland at home but, with Shakhtar required to beat Juventus in Donetsk, their destiny is now inescapably out of their own hands.
One could argue that the Blues succeeded despite often finding themselves in a similar situation last season. This time, however, Lady Luck appears to have abandoned them.
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