A place in the last 16 of the Europa League is up for grabs as Juventus travel to the Stade de la Beaujoire to face Nantes in the second leg of their playoff tie on Thursday night.
The tie is nicely poised after the two sides played out a 1-1 draw in a closely-fought first-leg contest in Turin last week.
Competing in Europe for the first time in 22 years, Nantes can take pride in holding Italian giants Juventus to a score draw on their own patch last week, with head coach Antoine Kombouare lauding his side’s “heroic and solid” performance to keep themselves in the tie.
Despite falling behind in the 13th minute from a Dusan Vlahovic strike, a devastating Canaries counter-attack resulted in Ludovic Blas firing home a 60th-minute equaliser, netting his third goal in his last four games.
Nantes, who finished second in Group G of the Europa League earlier this season, are still in with a chance of progressing from a knockout round of a major European competition for the first time since the 2000-01 season when they beat Laussane-Sport in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup.
Kombouare and co were unable to follow up their impressive midweek draw with another positive result as they were beaten 3-1 away against Lens in Ligue 1 last weekend – a result that leaves them languishing 13th in the French top-flight table, albeit nine points clear of the relegation zone.
Nantes have shown their resilience on home soil so far this season, losing only three times in 14 matches at the Stade de la Beaujoire across all competitions. The Canaries have already secured home wins over Olympiacos and Qarabag in the Europa League group stage this term, but coming out on top against Juve would be their biggest triumph of all.
Following a disappointing Champions League group-stage campaign, in which they finished third behind Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus are now competing in the Europa League for the first time in nine years, and there is still work to be done before they begin to eye up potential last-16 opponents.
Indeed, Juve had their fair share of chances and dominated possession in the first leg with Nantes, but allowing the French side to restore parity with their only shot on target ultimately proved costly.
The Old Lady – two-time European Cup/Champions League winners and three-time UEFA Cup winners – are now at risk of being eliminated in the knockout rounds of a European competition for a fifth successive year, and the prospect of losing against one of the rank outsiders is something Massimiliano Allegri and co will be keen to avoid.
Juventus managed to bounce back form their midweek draw by securing a 2-0 away victory over Spezia in Serie A last Sunday, courtesy of goals either side of half time from Moise Kean and Angel di Maria.
Following Juve’s 15-point deduction in Serie A due to alleged financial irregularities, leaving them 12 points adrift of the top four, going all the way in this year’s Europa League appears to be their best chance of securing Champions League football for next season.
Juventus have struggled in recent European matches, winning only one of their last nine and conceding an average of two goals per game in the process. However, the Italians head to France having won six of their last eight away games in all competitions without reply, and they will hope to continue their strong form on the road by frustrating Nantes at both ends of the pitch when they lock horns on Thursday.
Nantes will still be without forward Quentin Merlin who is nursing a groin injury, while Ignatius Ganago has been granted time away from the first team following the tragic loss of his five-year-old daughter.
Defensive duo Jean-Charles Castelletto and Nicolas Pallois have both emerged as doubts after missing last weekend’s defeat to Lens with respective groin and muscle problems; Joao Victor and Charles Traore could therefore retain their places in the back three.
Pedro Chirivella is set to return to centre-midfield at the expense of Florent Mollet, while Blas – who leads every Nantes player for goals (3), assists (3), shots (22) and chances created (15) in this season’s Europa League – is expected to replace Moses Simon in attack.
As for Juventus, Paul Pogba (knee), Arkadiusz Milik (muscle), Fabio Miretti (ankle) and Kaio Jorge (knee) all remain sidelined as they continue to recover from long-term injuries.
Federico Chiesa – who has recently returned from a 10-month layoff with an ACL injury – missed Juve’s win over Spezia last weekend and is now facing a race against time to be fully fit for Thursday’s clash.
Brazilian centre-back Bremer served a one-match domestic ban last weekend, but he is available to return on Thursday and will likely start alongside compatriot Danilo at the heart of the defence, although Leonardo Bonucci will also be pushing for a start.
Wojciech Szczesny and Di Maria are both expected to be recalled to the first XI after beginning on the bench last time out, with Mattia Perin and Moise Kean set to make way as a result, while Juan Cuadrado and Mattia De Sciglio will battle for the right-back spot.
Nantes possible starting lineup:
Lafont; Victor, Girotto, Pallois; Centonze, Sissoko, Chirivella, Moutoussamy, Coco; Blas, Mohamed
Juventus possible starting lineup:
Szczesny; De Sciglio, Danilo, Bremer, Sandro; Fragioli, Locatelli, Rabiot; Di Maria, Vlahovic, Kostic