In one of the most highly-billed Champions League matches this season, Weston McKennie’s Juventus and Christian Pulisic’s Chelsea will battle in Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, with first place in Group H on the line in this weeks YA Game of the (mid-)Week.
Here at YA, we occasionally find a few minutes between writing articles to watch a game or two, so we’ve decided to highlight the occasional YA-relevant game that we are excited about seeing; whether it’s some steamy Yank-on-Yank action, a top-billed battle between two powerhouses, a heated derby, or a David vs. Goliath battle that catches our fancy.
Welcome to YA’s Game of the Week. Or in this case, Game of the Midweek.
These pre-game highlights will range from a concise analysis of likely team tactics with an eye on specific matchups, to rambling bits of irrelevant history about the players and teams involved, and even some highly-biased, one-sided commentary about our favorite (or most despised) teams, so proceed with caution and without expectations.
Tuesday’s battle between Chelsea and Juventus is more than just the first chance to see the two goalscorers of the recent dos-a-cero against Mexico square off since Borussia Dortmund beat Schalke by a 2-1 margin on December 8, 2018 (they narrowly missed each other on the field by a few seconds in Gelsenkirchen a few months later when Schalke returned the favor).
In that game, Pulisic and McKennie joined each other on the field for a whopping total of two minutes (plus injury time), actually making the two Revierderby contests in the 2017-18 season, in which Schalke had the better overall results, the last real instances they have been on opposing sides of the ball.
It’s been awhile, old friend.
For long-time Wes-watchers, that cold game in the Veltins-Arena in late-2018 is memorable for being one of those remarkable times where Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco, in the midst of ferrying the team along in the early stage of their freefall to an eventual landing place in the 2. Bundesliga, experimented with deploying the American as a forward alongside Guido Burgstaller.
Coincidentally, McKennie has become a far more dangerous goalscorer now than he was in his striker days, after two seasons under far more capable Italian managers in Turin than the ironically-named Tedesco.
Skip forward nearly three years, and these two USMNT stars are favored to meet again on the field on Tuesday night, however this time as central figures in two European powerhouses battling for first place in their Champions League group.
Group H has gone about as one would expect it to go, with Juventus and Chelsea both all-but-mathematically qualified ahead of Zenit and Malmö, and only separated by Juve’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea in Turin in the second group game.
In terms of the final standings, a Chelsea win will likely throw first place of the group down to a battle of goal differential in the sixth and final game, whereas a draw or Juventus victory will all but assure top spot to the Italians.
For McKennie and Pulisic, Tuesday’s contest sees the two of them at what might represent the pinnacle – so far – of their seasons.
Pulisic, who essentially missed the entire Chelsea season from mid-August until his heralded return days before the international break, is on-fire, having netted the winner against Mexico in his return to national team action, and then scored for Chelsea over the weekend as they dispatched with Leichester City.
McKennie has also been on a sustained tear for club and country, becoming the preferred starter in Juve’s midfield alongside Manuel Locatelli over the last month, scoring two goals in the process, and striking the “dos” of the dos-a-cero for USMNT mere minutes after Pulisic’s opener against Mexico.
Barring last-second injury or missed rides to the stadium, both players will certainly see the field, however the question is whether it’s in a starting or substitute capacity.
Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri has the freedom to be a bit more flexible and rest overworked starters, as his team’s qualification is mathematically guaranteed no matter what happens in the final two games, and even a loss wouldn’t leave them in a horrible position to win the group (if that’s even a priority with teams like Barcelona, Manchester United and PSG currently occupying second-place spots in their respective groups).
McKennie wouldn’t count as overworked as he missed the second US game in Jamaica due to suspension, and has only played a single game in the week and a half prior to Tuesday’s contest. However, Juventus has a tough contest against high-flying Atalanta four days later, where the American’s two-way abilities be key to hold, and add bite from the middle.
On the other side, Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel will also be keeping one eye on their league campaign, which sees the Blues leading the Premiership by three points, but also facing a potentially trap game in their followup on Sunday against a Manchester United side that could be in the midst of a new-manager-boost under interim boss Michael Carrick.
Tuchel certainly has the intention to play Pulisic, the only question is whether he sees the American as deadlier from the bench – where he has had success lately – or will try to push him into the starting eleven for the first time since August.
In terms of injury and availability news, both teams are about as close to full-strength as one could expect these sorts of mega-squads to be at any point during the meat of the season.
Chelsea only reported midfielders Mateo Kovacic and Kai Havertz missing from pre-game practice on Monday, with the Belgian bull Romelu Lukaku, who never scored for Inter Milan in the three instances last season where he and McKennie were on the field together, likely to return after a monthlong absence.
Likewise, Timo Werner should be available for action, and will likely see the field, after having suited up against Leicester without being called upon. Jorginho also is expected to be available after leaving early against Leicester with a cramp.
For Juve, midfielder Federico Bernardeschi and aged captain Giorgio Chiellini are both expected to be held out of the game as a last precaution as they recover from adductor injuries, while right backs Danilo and Mattia De Sciglio are also both out.
Striker Paolo Dybala, who has had on-and-off injury problems this season, will make the trip for the visitors.
The game kicks off at 3pm, Eastern time (9pm CET for the YA staff watching in Germany and Belgium) in London.
With both teams all but certain to advance to the knockout round and having the ability to decouple their European form from whatever troubles they might be having domestically (which has only been a factor for Juve this season), Tuesday’s game could very well be a preview of further, more high-stakes McKennie vs. Pulisic battles in the later knockout stages of this competition yet to come.