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Horncastle: Pelle takes his chance

Italy 6 days ago
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De Martinis: Five talking points for Roma

Roma Oct 6, 2014
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 By Mina Rzouki
Aug 29, 2014

Juventus face tricky challenge in Champions League Group A

Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri believes that Italian sides must do better this season in European competitions.

At first glance, one would imagine Juventus are capable of qualifying from Group A in the Champions League. However, many said the same of their group last year, yet they fell to Galatasaray and only achieved a draw against Copenhagen, failing to qualify for the next round.

This is why it's imperative the Bianconeri learn from their mistakes and start off well -- which includes collecting three points in their first game at home to Malmo on Sept. 16.

On paper, achieving a win seems realistic but the Swedes should not be underestimated in the same way Copenhagen and Nordsjaelland were before them. By all means, Malmo may not look like a terrifying prospect, but they are a side with a prestigious history.

On May 30, 1979, in the Olympiastadion in Munich, Malmo had reached the European Cup final. There was genuine belief they could realise their dreams, but it was going to be difficult. Not only were they forced to play without two of their best defenders but their captain broke his toe on the eve of the game. They knew the only chance they had was to play a defensive game and hope to steal something when offered the opportunity.

Their opportunity never came, and Nottingham Forest eventually pierced through their defence to lift the trophy, destroying Swedish hopes. Malmo have never reached the final of the competition since. In fact, since the rebranding and reformatting of the tournament, the club have never qualified for the Champions League group stage -- until now.

Trevor Francis scored the only goal as Nottingham Forest defeated Malmo in the 1979 European Cup final.

When they were drawn against Red Bull Salzburg in the qualifiers, most observers quickly acknowledged the Austrians as the favourites. Not only are they better accustomed to high-profile matches, but they also boast superior technical skills. However, with organisation, determination and robust players, the Swedes conquered their opponents for a chance to continue in the competition.

Deployed in a 4-4-2 formation, Age Hareide's side sit at the top of Allsvenskan, have only lost once so far this season in Sweden and boast an impressive defence, which has conceded less than a goal a game on average in the domestic league. Fond of youth and possessing an experienced goal scorer in the shape of ex-Ajax and West Brom striker Markus Rosenberg, they feel the lengths they have gone to in building the club will yield success, and each year they achieve a little more.

While on a technical level they may not possess enough to scare the big boys in Europe, they are terrifyingly motivated and capable of suffering under pressure to achieve the result they desire. They may not accomplish much on their travels, but at home in their recently built stadium they will not be the easiest of sides to face.

There will also be tough competition from Atletico Madrid, the Spanish champions who reached the final of the Champions League last season. They are indeed a team that inspire, proving that hard work and belief is enough to realise dreams.

Led by Diego Simeone -- a man with an insatiable appetite for success -- Atleti are a wonderfully constructed side with a clear identity and interesting players who all believe in the system. Humility and dedication were the reasons behind their unimaginable success last season and, while Antonio Conte bemoaned the lack of "champions" within his squad, the Spaniards were accomplishing all their objectives with an arguably inferior squad.

They may no longer have their best striker, Diego Costa; their best full-back, Filipe Luis; or even one of Europe's finest goalkeepers, Thibaut Courtois, anymore, but they have certainly invested, spending close to 100 million euros this summer to maintain their competitive edge. That includes bringing in the brilliant Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad and Mario Mandzukic from Bayern Munich.

The signings of Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann should ensure Atletico remain highly competitive.

Built to defeat sides that love to attack with wild abandon, Atleti are masters of organisation. Happy to sit back and absorb the pressure, they love nothing more than to wait for their opportunity to counterattack or snatch a goal from a set piece. They understand their strengths and more importantly their weaknesses.

They don't need possession of the ball to win; in fact, they are happy without it. Their work off the ball is exceptional, frustrating the opponent by forcing them to play out wide as well as congesting the central areas well to cut out the avenue to goal.

Narrow in shape, the way to defeat them is to close the space through the middle and force them wide. Then when possession is reclaimed it's about shifting flanks and moving the ball quickly in the final third to create gaps before they have time to reposition themselves defensively. Their back line knows exactly how to shift to close down the avenues to goal, but a quick attack and fast movements on the ball will provoke mistakes.

Juventus will need to rely on their wide players to manage the basics well. They will need to spread the back line, while Fernando Llorente, tall and physical, will need to pressure the centre-backs and pin them back to allow the midfielders -- the likes of Arturo Vidal and especially Paul Pogba -- to make darting runs forward.

Attacking persistence is key to winning against the Spanish champions, while it's imperative the Italians don't fall for the mind games Simeone's men like to play, maintaining a cool and level head at all times. It will be the most difficult match the Bianconeri will have to play during the group stage, but Atletico can be defeated.

The third match pits the Old Lady of Italian football against Olympiakos, the Greek champions who form the backbone of the Greek national team that went further than Italy at the World Cup. While they've lost their best defender in Kostas Manolas this summer and Konstantinos Mitroglou earlier in the year, they still represent a tough challenge.

Well experienced when it comes to European competition and led by a motivated tactician, Michel, who studies his opponents well, Olympiakos are a well-balanced team that know how to attack, and more importantly, how to cope with defensive pressure.

An away win will be difficult but, led by a coach who loves to tactically outwit his opponent, the hope is that Massimiliano Allegri can achieve something with his squad to impress the fans.

Mina Rzouki

A football writer, presenter and pundit for the Mirror, BBC 5live, BBC Sportsworld, BT Sports, CNN, ESPN and Football Espana. Focused on Italian football. You can follow her on Twitter @Minarzouki.

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