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Page last updated at 07:54 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Mellberg back on familiar ground

Uefa Champions League, First knock-out round, first leg
Venue: Stamford Bridge Date: Wednesday, 25 February Kick-off: 1945 GMT
Coverage: Score updates on BBC Radio 5 Live with live text commentary on the BBC Sport website

Olof Mellberg

By Aimee Lewis

Olof Mellberg will walk out on to the Stamford Bridge turf on Wednesday and will relish the claustrophobic conditions that come with being within almost touching distance of 40,000 raucous Chelsea fans.

The imposing Swedish defender moved to Juventus last summer after seven seasons at Aston Villa "to try something different", but will savour experiencing, maybe for the last time, what he describes as the unique atmosphere of English football.

"The Premier League has fantastic stadiums," the 31-year-old told BBC Sport.

"They're almost always full and compact and, in that sense, the Premier League is the top league in the world.

"I don't think I can compare any other league to it and that's something I miss. At Villa Park, and at away games, the atmosphere was always great."

The straight-talking Scandinavian stresses that Juventus enjoy vociferous support at the Stadio Olimpico, despite its temporary 25,442 capacity, although, as Italy's most well-supported club, Juventus often receive greater backing away from Turin.

"When Juventus play away from home there's always a lot of people who come to see us. Juve have a lot of fans all over Italy," says Mellberg, but you sense that playing in sometimes sparse stadiums does not compare with a bouncing Villa Park.

Playing in the Champions League is more like being at a World Cup or the European Championships

Olof Mellberg

Not that Mellberg regrets moving his partner, Carolina Kihl, and their two children, Saga, aged six, and two-year-old John, from the family home in Sutton Coldfield to northern Italy.

While the versatile central defender has played at Stamford Bridge on six previous occasions wearing claret and blue, this will be his first outing to west London on Champions League duty.

And it was the chance to play in Europe's premier competition for the first time in his career that made the three-year contract which Juventus offered so attractive, and left Martin O'Neill fighting a losing battle despite the Villa manager's best efforts to keep hold of a player he described as a "top professional".

"Playing in the Champions League is different to playing in league games. You're playing two games, home and away, and you've got to be on top of your game," says Mellberg.

"It's more like being at a World Cup or the European Championships, and it certainly makes you a better player."

Mellberg, who has won 89 caps for Sweden, admits he feels "more pressure" playing for the Old Lady than Villa, where the Midlanders' league form was "up and down" during his time there.

Interview - Claudio Ranieri

"Juventus is a massive club in Italy, it is one of the biggest clubs in the world and I can feel that when we are playing, both on and off the pitch," says Mellberg.

"We've had two games every week and we've been busy with Champions League games and we're expected to win every game and that's something new to me.

"That's the reason I moved here, to get the feel of playing in a big league, being up there battling for the Scudetto, being in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia and in the Champions League.

"In the years I was at Aston Villa we did well a couple of seasons but we were sort of mid-table during most of my time there so it's totally different here."

Juve boss Claudio Ranieri can certainly testify that the expectations which surround the most successful team in Italian football can sometimes make a manager feel like running for the hills - or for the Alps which surrounds the picturesque city.

The jovial Italian guided the Bianconeri to a third-place finish in last season's Serie A following the club's return to the Italian top flight after two seasons in Serie B.

Ranieri's Juve are currently second in the league, but as their challenge on leaders Inter has faltered over the last fortnight (they trail Jose Mourinho's men by nine points) so supporter dissent over the tactician's substitutions and formations has increased.

It is a tale some Chelsea fans will be all too familiar with.

Claudio Ranieri
Ranieri has strong views about the tactical side of the game and how he wants us to play

Olof Mellberg

Ranieri, the man formerly known as 'the tinkerman', spent four seasons with the Blues from 2000 to 2004 and has admitted the last-16 first-round leg will be "one of the most emotional games of my career".

The tear-jerking ovation Ranieri received at the Bridge as he walked off the pitch after his final game in charge means the Blues will always occupy a special place in his heart, even if he once described himself as a "dead man walking" during the end of his Chelsea reign.

Mellberg however has not detected an extra glint in Ranieri's eyes during the build-up to the match.

"Ranieri makes us work hard on tactics. He has strong views about the tactical side of the game and how he wants us to play and works really hard in training to achieve that," says Mellberg.

"When we travel to away games, he'll be very clear on how he wants the defence to work. I wouldn't call it homework but we'll work on the opposition. We work more on tactics than we did at Aston Villa."

Juventus' talisman is undoubtedly the evergreen 34-year-old Alessandro Del Piero who is enjoying an Indian summer.

The Italy striker finished last season as Serie A's top scorer and back in November received a standing ovation from spectators, including a certain Diego Maradona, at the Bernabeu after his two goals earned Juve a second Champions League win in the space of a month over Real Madrid.

He has scored six goals from free-kicks alone so far this season and is expected to pose problems to a Chelsea defence that has been suspect from set-pieces.

Olof Mellberg
Mellberg says he has only had two days off since Christmas

"It's difficult for him. He's obviously this massive star and personality, not only in Turin but all over Italy," says Mellberg.

"I can walk around Turin no problem. I'm not one of the biggest players at the club. It's easier for me than Del Piero - I don't get as many autograph requests as him!"

Socialising with the likes of Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Gianluigi Buffon has been difficult because of the club's hectic schedule since the winter break.

"I think I've had two days off since Christmas so I just tend to relax with my family when I have spare time," he says.

"We train a lot here. We have a lot more sessions than I did at Villa. I can only compare with Aston Villa, but I got more days off in the Premier League.

"I speak to Villa captain Martin Laursen almost every week, he's my best friend, and it's good to compare with him the days we're in and the days we are off.

"I guess it's part of being at a big club and I knew that before I came here. If we're not playing a game then we're preparing for the next one.

"We don't necessarily train harder than I did at Villa but we're at the club more often. We come in and recover. I didn't have as many games at Villa so I had more time off."

The workload of his former team-mates, however, has increased this season as Villa's scintillating form has taken them to fourth in the Premier League and the latter stages of the Uefa Cup.

"Laursen keeps me updated on what's happening and I follow as many games as I can," says Mellberg, who could find himself facing his old club in next season's Champions League.

606: DEBATE
newTrueBlue4life

The former Racing Santander player achieved iconic status with Villa fans for his open dislike of city rivals Birmingham and his big-hearted gesture at his final Villa game.

At Upton Park back in May, Mellberg gave every away fan a Villa shirt with his name and number and the message Thanks 4 Your Support written on the back.

"I wouldn't be here, making the money I have from football if it was not for those supporters," said the Swede at the time.

"Playing for Villa was a fantastic period in my career. We did well last season and everyone is really positive about the future so it was nice to leave on a high, knowing that the club's future is bright."

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see also
Premier League v Serie A
21 Feb 09 |  Europe
Aston Villa 0-1 Chelsea
21 Feb 09 |  Premier League
Hiddink wants more from strikers
21 Feb 09 |  Premier League
Hiddink sees no Chelsea discord
20 Feb 09 |  Chelsea
No hiding for Hiddink
20 Feb 09 |  Chelsea
Chelsea 2-1 CFR Cluj
09 Dec 08 |  Europe
Mellberg to leave Villa for Juve
28 Jan 08 |  Aston Villa


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