A chance to make history…that’s what FC Barcelona will be playing for tomorrow evening at the Olympiastadion in Berlin as they bid to become the first team to ever record two treble-winning seasons by beating Serie A champions, Juventus FC in the final of the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League.
The Blaugrana’s route to the final has been tough to say the least; from the Round of 16 right through to and inclusive of tomorrow’s final, Barça have faced off against and beaten the reigning champions of Europe’s four other most prestigious leagues. First up were English Premier League champions, Manchester City in what was a carbon copy of the tie that Barcelona won in their admittedly disappointing 2013-14 campaign.
The end result? A thorough, comprehensive thrashing for the best that England supposedly had to offer – wins away from home and back at the Camp Nou secured safe passage to the quarters, where French champions, Paris Saint-Germain lied in wait.
After dispatching Chelsea in the prior round, PSG were tipped by some to represent a clear challenge to Barcelona’s path into the semi-finals. Alas, the Parisians suffered a similar fate to City; Barça travelled to the Parc des Princes and overwhelmed Laurent Blanc’s side before finishing the task at hand with another victory in the return leg at the Camp Nou.
Enter stage right: Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich.
This was supposed to be it; this was supposed to be one step too far for our noble side. They had fought valiantly and displayed great promise, but Bayern? With Pep Guardiola at the helm, they represented the gold standard, the crème de la crème so to speak.
Represented – past tense.
The Bavarians rocked up at the Camp Nou full of confidence and bravado, only to leave with their tails tucked firmly between their legs after a humbling 3-0 loss. Barcelona had announced their return to the peak of the sport with a statement victory, all but securing this berth in the final where, it is assumed, that they can officially reclaim their status as the best club in the world.
Naturally, Barcelona are favourites for tomorrow’s match and with good reason. Their path to the final was amongst the toughest in recent memory, but Barça made it look like child’s play and left a trail of destruction in their wake. Their domestic form has obviously been exemplary and their performances in recent weeks have quite literally boggled the mind.
Tomorrow’s match with be the 60th of FC Barcelona’s season after a summer dominated by the FIFA World Cup, yet somehow, someway, the Blaugrana keep getting better. While other teams faltered under the pressure of expectations and progressively struggled with fitness issues, Barcelona are getting stronger and stronger with each passing week – each match and each performance is bringing us one small step closer to perfection.
Last weekend in the Copa del Rey final, Barcelona’s superior fitness played a crucial factor in their eventual victory; but more than athleticism it was the sheer quality on display that left Culés speechless. Lionel Messi routinely brings opposing defences to their knees, and brings us to our feet with his immense ability – yet last week he ramped it up another gear with a superlative performance, even by his lofty standards.
That goal was the clear highlight in a display laden with jaw-dropping moments of brilliance; from his passing to his movement to his defensive work...I could go on and on, but you get the picture: this was one of the finest Messi performances of his career. And all this at the very end of the season after an emotionally and physically gruelling FIFA World Cup in which he played through fitness problems to drag Argentina to the final.
Put simply, it shouldn’t have been possible – yet there we were, witnessing not just Messi, but each and every member of that squad reach their very best in a cup final at the end of the season.
Assuming the trend continues tomorrow, there will be no way in which anything or anyone can stop Barcelona in their quest for victory.
Wrong, or at least that’s what Max Allegri will be saying in preparation for tomorrow’s showcase final. Right from the get-go both he and Juventus have been written off and underestimated, only for them to go on and prove the critics wrong.
News of his appointment after a rather ignominious end to his reign at AC Milan was met with scepticism from some Juve fans – and outright derision from others. Antonio Conte hadn’t been able to achieve much on the European front with the Bianconeri, but he was idolised by supporters and the media alike. How could Allegri possibly hope to succeed where Conte had failed after his dismal end to life in Milan?
It was a fair and reasonable question at the time but in time, Allegri has demonstrated his credentials and more than justified his position.
If there was one word to surmise Allegri’s tenure in Turin, it would have to be vindication. Juventus’ success on the domestic front has continued unabated but of course it is on the continental front where Allegri has demonstrated his worth. An outsider at best, Juventus were never supposed to reach this stage of the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League – the script was written and the stage was set for an El Clasico showdown.
Juventus weren’t buying in; they tore up the plans in dramatic fashion with a superb aggregate win over the reigning European and World champions, Real Madrid in the final four to book their place in Berlin. A chance to contest the Champions League final for the first time since the Calciopoli scandal that threatened to ruin their club…tomorrow will be an emotional day for Juve fans and after achieving the "impossible" to reach this stage, what’s to say that they won’t go one further and win the whole damn thing?
Traditionally and recently, Juventus have played with a three-man backline; Allegri arrived, tried it and ultimately disagreed. It took courage to switch to a flat back four, but in keeping with the theme of the day, Allegri’s bold choice was vindicated by the results it inspired.
Disciplined, hard-working and technically astute; the Juve backline have been at their miserly best in the Champions League knockout stages and for all the talk of Barcelona’s fabled attacking trident, consideration must be given also to that back-four, even without Giorgio Chiellini to lead the line. It’s this solid base that hands Juventus the foundation they require to challenge for glory and it’ll be interesting to see what prevails:
The unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Champions versus champion. FC Barcelona vs Juventus FC; it’s almost time – are we ready?
One could argue that the entirety of Barcelona’s season has been building up to this day – to this point and to this match. Like Allegri and Juventus, this trophy and in turn this match could represent vindication for Luis Enrique. He too has had his critics this season and like his Italian counterpart, he has risen above it, stayed true to himself and reaped the rewards.
The integration of Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez into the starting XI represented risks for two very different reasons, but Enrique has made it work. Switching between two goalkeepers has been a gamble, but again, it has worked. Less obviously, his training regimes and the selection of his coaching staff could have caused trouble when, in reality, they have proved to be the "difference-maker" in this memorable campaign.
The La Liga title was the first to fall into place with a victory over Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon and the Copa del Rey was next to follow. Barcelona were being tested each and every week, but passing in each instance with flying colours. Once they found their groove, once they truly understood the wider concepts behind Lucho’s reign, they quickly became unstoppable.
The proof is in the pudding so to speak; the titles of course paint their own picture but the supporting statistics behind them are equally revealing.
Building from the bottom up, FC Barcelona’s defence used to be something of a joke, a walking punchline if you will and Enrique’s arrival transformed them entirely and forced a complete U-turn in their perception. In La Liga, Barça conceded just 21 goals in 38 matches, keeping 23 clean sheets in the process. The Copa del Rey was similar: only 6 goals conceded in 9 matches and then we have the UEFA Champions League: 10 goals in 12 matches with six clean sheets.
Turn to the knockout stages and its five goals against in six matches – albeit with three of those coming in an irrelevant encounter with Bayern.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen has had a couple of shaky moments, but by and large, he has been great for us this season with his relatively limited gametime. For instance, that second-leg against Bayern could have ended quite differently without ter Stegen’s string of sensational saves. With Carlos Tevez, Alvaro Morata and Paul Pogba to keep out tomorrow, MAtS will likely be subjected to quite a test – and with next season’s number one spot potentially up for grabs, an impressive performance could have far-reaching consequences for the German.
In defense, and indeed in the rest of the team, there’s not going to be any surprises tomorrow. Dani Alves will be at right-back, possibly starting his final match in Blaugrana colours – and with Pedro renewing his contract earlier in the week, Culés have been hoping that an announcement for Alves might be on the horizon. However, that’s a story for another day – for now, the idea that tomorrow’s final might be his final game might serve as additional motivation for the Brazilian to put in the proverbial 110% and go out on a high.
Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba will round off the back four; Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta will start in midfield and of course, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will start in attack. There’s not much more to say really; we know how Barcelona will play tomorrow – the only question is whether it will be enough to see the night ending with Xavi lifting the trophy.
One of the main benefits of UEFA’s recent overhaul of the suspension rules is that clubs who reach the final typically can contend that final with their best players; indeed Juve do not have anyone missing through suspension, but they are missing Giorgio Chiellini to injury. It’s obvious that Chiellini is an important player for their side – heck, he’s an Italian international and would be a bona fide starter at any club in the world – but there is also a sense that maybe his absence won’t be a death sentence for Allegri and his team.
Leonardo Bonucci has had an incredible season and is capable of leading the backline in Chiellini’s absence, while as far as deputies go, Andrea Barzagli is one hell of a replacement. All Juventus really lose is the natural balance that the left-footed Chiellini would have provided, and the option to switch to a three-man backline although it seems unlikely that Allegri would have ever opted for that anyway.
While we know an awful lot about Barcelona and there isn’t much need for me to go through our team in the usual "one by one" fashion, there is perhaps a little less knowledge of Juventus amongst our fanbase. Ergo, let’s talk about them today – from the ground up, they will have Gianluigi Buffon in goal.
The most expensive goalkeeper in the history of the game, Buffon made the switch to Juventus from Parma for €51 million amidst interest from the Blaugrana and has thrived ever since, establishing himself as one of the club’s biggest icons. Through thick and thin, Buffon has stuck with Juve and will be hoping that his patience will pay off tomorrow in the form of that elusive UEFA Champions League winners’ medal.
In defense, Stephan Lichtsteiner will start at right-back – another name that was previously linked with a move to Barcelona to replace Dani Alves – and while the Swiss defender might not be the most glamorous player, he is effective nonetheless. His stamina and work ethic is legendary – although even he might have his work cut out for him against Neymar and Jordi Alba tomorrow.
In the heart of the backline, we’ve already mentioned Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, so let’s move swiftly on to Patrice Evra at left-back. The former Manchester United and AS Monaco full-back will be playing in his fifth Champions League final, and as far his record doesn’t make for great reading. One winners’ medal is impressive no matter how you look at it, but losing on the other three occasions, and twice to FC Barcelona, means that Evra might not be the best omen for the Italian champs.
In midfield, Andrea Pirlo will likely line-up behind an industrious midfield of Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal – a midfield constructed partly to cover for Pirlo’s shortcomings. Slight digs aside, this is where the match will be won and lost for Juventus. If they can impose their will on the midfield battle, they actually stand a decent chance – because for all the talk of "disciplined defending" and channelling the spirit of catenaccio, there’s no way that Juve can hope to contain the Messi, Suarez, Neymar trident. The only way to stop them is to restrict them getting the ball in the first place – hence the whole midfield focus.
But hey, I don’t want to give away any weaknesses…moving onto the final two pieces of the puzzle, expect to see Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata partnered together in attack with Allegri hoping for a similar result to the Real tie in which they thrived. Tevez is obviously a quality player, and Manchester United’s decision not to start him in 2009 arguably gave us a boost in that final in Rome – but Morata is the interesting one.
A former Real Madrid youth team product, Morata didn’t celebrate either of his two goals against his former club in the last round and received a lot of praise for his performance in the tie. Rightly so, although it does mean that his record is a curious one. Goals in each match against Dortmund and then against Real, but none in the rest of the competition; which Morata will turn up in Berlin tomorrow?
Oh, and let’s keep an eye on Alessandro Matri as well, who isn’t always used off the bench, but was used to great effect last month in the Italian Cup final as an impact substitute against SS Lazio. His goal in extra-time won them the match and he could have easily won it in normal time if not for an incorrect decision from the assistant referee on that night.
FC Barcelona 1-2 Juventus FC – 22nd April 2003 – UEFA Champions League
Juventus’ eventual march to the final started with a quarter-final clash against FC Barcelona, and the Italians emerged victorious in extra-time courtesy of a late winner from Uruguayan forward, Marcelo Zayaleta. Xavi and Pavel Nedved got the other goals on the night, for anyone interested.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Juventus (4-1-3-2): Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Barzagli, Evra; Pirlo; Pogba, Vidal, Marchisio; Tevez, Morata
3-1 Barça – an early(ish) goal from Neymar, a second after the break from Messi before Juventus halve the deficit around the 70 minute mark – only for Neymar to wrap things up with the coup de grace in the final five minutes.
Because if you’re gonna be wrong, you might as well go all out.