Can Juventus Stop Barcelona’s Big Three and Lift the Champions League Trophy?
It’s a final of contrasting cultures and styles, but one which should be a joy to watch nonetheless. On June 6, FC Barcelona take on Juventus for the right to be named the best club side in Europe.
Berlin’s Olympia Stadion will be the venue for the 23rd Champions League final, and it’s perhaps a surprise that a German side won’t be participating. But their brightest hope – Bayern Munich – were dealt with clinically by favourites Barcelona in the semi finals.
And that has set up what the bookmakers see as one of the most one-sided finales in the history of the tournament: Juventus can be backed from as generous a price as 5/1.
So why are the Italian double winners such rank outsiders?
The Holy Triumvirate
It’s not something a football club can do quietly, so it’s no surprise to anyone that Barcelona have put together the most fearsome front three in world football right now.
We know all about the jaw-dropping talents of Lionel Messi, the pace and guile of Neymar and the net-finding ability of Luis Suarez, but when you put the three of them together it is as close to an unstoppable force as football can muster.
The stats, as ever, are undeniable. In La Liga Barcelona plundered 110 goals in 38 games – with the trinity of Messi, Neymar and Suarez contributing more than half of those. Amateur mathematicians will have already calculated that this is a whopping average of 2.9 goals per game. In the Champions League, that ratio is maintained.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, the Catalan champions only conceded 21 goals in 38 league matches – an average of 0.6.
On their way to the final, Barcelona have disposed of Man City, PSG and Bayern, amongst others. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the trophy is destined for Spain already.
Juventus have cantered to their fourth consecutive Serie A title this season, and recently added the Coppa Italia to their collection too. They’ve played in that typically Italian way: a heady mix of technical ability, silky passing and some rugged defensive work when required.
Their progress through the Champions League has been less assured however, and in fact they didn’t even top their group – that honour was bestowed upon Atletico Madrid.
Even so, they found a bit of form in the knockout phase, and dispatched the likes of Real Madrid, Monaco and Borussia Dortmund along the way. And so nobody can doubt their credentials for this showpiece occasion.
Alas, Barcelona are red hot favourites for a reason. So do Juventus stand any chance?
The Bayern Blitz
The last time that Barcelona lost any game of football was in the Champions League semi final, second leg to Bayern. Of course, the job was all but done by this point after the Spanish side took a 3-0 lead to the Allianz Arena.
Even so, you’d expect Juventus to have the DVD of that 3-2 Bayern win on repeat. And if they watch it closely they might just unveil some weaknesses in the Barca armoury.
Mehdi Benatia’s seventh minute opener was a free header from a Xabi Alonso corner – about as straightforward a goal as you could imagine; it was almost Sunday League in its simplicity.
If this Barcelona side has an Achilles Heel, and it’s pushing the boat out to say that they do, it could well be their aerial prowess defensively. Javier Mascherano, a battle hardened midfielder turned centre half, stands at just 5ft 8in. Jordi Alba and Dani Alves are not known for their dominance of the high ball either.
So set pieces could be an area for Juventus to take advantage of, coupled with trademark delivery from Andrea Pirlo. Leonardo Bonucci is a good old-fashioned centre half who won’t mind putting his head where it hurts to get on the end of things.
Powerful Front Play
Robert Lewandowski’s goal in that encounter came from a stunning piece of trickery to find himself half a yard of space.
But it was the big man’s selfless running of the channels and strength to hold the ball up which enabled Bayern to retain possession and push themselves higher up the pitch.
Despite having had a mediocre season, Fernando Llorente could be a surprise starter for Juve and someone that fulfils a similar role. He doesn’t have the legs of Lewandowski, but he does have a 6ft 5in, bulky frame to shield the ball and provide another aerial threat from set pieces and crosses.
Keep the Ball
In a surprising sequence of events, Bayern enjoyed 64% possession during their win over Barcelona. This is something of an anomaly as you’d expect Luis Enrique’s side to dominate whether they were playing at home or away.
Naturally, if you have possession of the ball then your opponent can’t score (unless your name is Frank Sinclair), and so this is the blueprint for Juventus to follow.
And they have the players with the technical ability – Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba etc – who can retain possession and help to create things with it.
Get Stuck In
It’s an age old tactic, but the notion that if the opposition are more gifted than you are then you simply need to kick them a bit harder still stands the test of time to this day.
There is no empirical evidence to suggest that the likes of Lionel Messi don’t fancy it if they are getting crunched by an unforgiving centre half, but in that Bayern-Barcelona match the German side conceded 17 free kicks with ‘over-zealous’ tackling and accumulated five bookings. But, ultimately, it did the trick: German efficiency at its finest.
So have Juventus got any chance of upsetting the odds and lifting that famous trophy? They are the dark horses for a reason, but these Italian stallions might just have a chance if they stick to their gameplan.
And if they can find a way of locking messrs Messi, Suarez and Neymar in a cupboard until the final whistle has blown, then that will help too.