For Gerard Piqué, it had been a long day, one that had begun rather too early for his liking. He had woken up early in the confines of his luxury suite at the five star Grand Hyatt hotel in Berlin. Perhaps it was because of the unfamiliar surroundings, maybe because he was feeling a few pre-match nerves. Understandable, of course. Today wasn’t just any old day; it was the most important day of the year so far: UEFA Champions League final day to be exact.
Throughout his illustrious career, Piqué could count himself fortunate enough to play in two previous European Cup finals, a European Championship final and a FIFA World Cup final, amongst others. He knew how to handle the pressure, to manage his nerves and channel any slight anxiety he felt into a positive performance for his team. But still, there was something about today that felt different…although up until now, he hadn’t quite been able to put his finger on it.
Then, as he sat down on the bench, deep in the bowels of the Olympiastadion in the Barça dressing room, Gerard leaned back and it was then, with a cigar in his mouth as he posed for a photo with his friend Gabri, the long-serving kitman that it hit him. Suddenly, he understood perfectly just what was so different about today, about this game that had been bothering him earlier…
Tonight wasn’t just about winning a singular, isolated match; no, this had been about something more. A greater cause, a higher purpose: the chance to truly rewrite history and achieve perfection.
By beating the Serie A champions, Juventus FC in Berlin, FC Barcelona would become the first club to ever record two separate treble-winning campaigns, and as such, there was an accompanying level of pressure following the Blaugrana in their trip to the German capital. After closing out the La Liga season in style and emphatically defeating Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final, Barça were heavy favourites to lift the trophy tonight and while there were wobbles along the way, they lived up to that status and perhaps even exceeded their billing.
Recovering from a shaky opening couple of minutes, Barcelona wasted no time in demonstrating their offensive prowess and putting the Bianconeri to the sword. Lionel Messi was integral in the game’s opening goal, but in truth, it was a real team effort. Messi’s cross-field pass was expertly cushioned back to Neymar by the overlapping Catalan full-back, Jordi Alba and even if the Brazilian’s first touch was uncharacteristically lacking, he kept his composure to maintain the pressure and save the attack.
With a shimmy of the hips and a swerve of his slender frame, Neymar juked past one Juventus defender with relative ease to create enough space for another pass: this time to find the ghosting run of Barcelona’s pale-faced midfield assassin, Andres Iniesta.
Andres himself is no stranger to the spotlight, nor is he a newcomer to this grand stage; yet even so, the subtle genius and sheer ruthlessness in his play was staggering. Rather than chance his arm with a shot of his own, Iniesta was selfless, shirking the responsibility on to his Croatian midfield partner, Ivan Rakitic. Simplistic and ruinous, Iniesta’s simple pass across handed Rakitic a simple tap-in; after just four minutes, FC Barcelona were ahead.
And it was from there that they threatened to run riot on their seemingly helpless opposition. For a period it appeared as though every attack, every pass in the final third could lead to a goal – and that just about anyone on the Barcelona side was capable of doing the damage. Nominal right-back, Dani Alves came closest to doubling the advantage but his powerful and well-placed effort was matched by a spectacular, game-saving piece of heroics from Gianluigi Buffon.
Wave after wave of attack was keeping the Juve midfield penned into their own defensive third and while the Italians survived that onslaught to launch a retaliatory spell of pressure, the first-half ended on a similar note: with a barrage of Barça attacks. Suarez was next to be denied by Buffon’s stupendous performance and at the interval, the world was in awe of the Barcelona juggernaut.
However, with just a single goal to their name, Barcelona’s lead was fragile and their position precarious. Try as they might to grab that all-important second goal, they faced spirited resistance, again from Buffon but also from his defence – Suarez was denied once more, but Messi also missed the target with a chance of his own.
And all it took was one mistake, one defensive breakdown and Juventus were level.
Dani Alves’ clearance was rushed and Neymar’s attempt to salvage the situation and retrieve the ball was futile; Juventus had won it back, in space with time to assess their options and attack the Barcelona backline. Even so, it took a moment of magic from Claudio Marchisio, arguably their best midfield performer on the night, to unlock the Barça defence. A cute back-heel unleashed Stephan Lichtsteiner and his subsequent cutback found Carlos Tevez in space for a shot on goal.
Under pressure from Piqué, Tevez’ effort was well-saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen but the rebound was kind to Max Allegri’s side, as the ball ricocheted to the left – into the grateful path of Alvaro Morata who applied the finish.
A former product of La Fabrica with a dagger to the heart of Barcelona’s Champions League dream. It could have been poetic; alas, the Blaugrana were not to be denied…
For Luis Enrique, you can forget about today. For him, it had been a long season – albeit one that had threatened to end quite prematurely. In January, he had taken the decision to leave Lionel Messi and Neymar out of the starting line-up against Real Sociedad following their extended periods of absence over the winter break. At the time, he was certain that it was the right decision; by the time that night was over, he feared for his job.
Against all the odds, an under-performing Real Sociedad outfit coached by David Moyes had defeated his Barcelona by a solitary goal and the pressure was starting to tell. There were disagreements in the dressing room, on the training ground and stories began to surface in the media. All those changes he had enforced, all the hard work he had put in since his appointment in May…it seemed as though they would count for nothing. Luis thought for sure that he was on the way out of the Camp Nou.
But the board, preoccupied with their own internal strife, handed him the vote of confidence – a stay of execution. His long-term future was not certain by any means, but for now, Enrique remained in his role as Barcelona head coach.
In some respects, he was thankful for the opportunity. In others, he was tired of the pressure and tired of the criticism; in his eyes at least, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Rather, it was the players who couldn’t see the bigger picture.
The solution was simple; desperate to succeed on his terms, he merely changed the delivery. The underlying principles remained the same, but he adapted his style to suit the dressing room, to soothe the egos and manage the squad as a whole. Rotation remained pivotal to all this but he knew how to package it, and crucially, he learnt from the players when it was required.
At the time, the Sociedad defeat seemed like a curse, destined to tarnish his reign in charge of his former club, but it was now as he felt a sense of pure jubilation, having been thrown in the air by the very players he had won over that Luis Enrique realised the truth…
He had been right all along.
With Juventus back on level terms, the match was now on a completely different path. While it had previously seemed as though the Blaugrana were coasting to victory and their second treble in six years, now it was Juve who were in the ascendency and taking the game by the throat. Morata, again, Tevez and Paul Pogba went close; though never did Barcelona waver.
They sat back, took the punches and responded in kind with a flurry of their own. It was about Round 8 of 12 in this heavyweight slugfest and the Blaugrana, weary though they might have been, turned the tables through sheer willpower alone.
The scorecards had been even up until this point, but the Barcelona frontline remembered the wise words of wisdom that their trainer had imparted on them in preparation for this bout; Lionel Messi took the ball, drove at the Juventus defence and went for goal. His effort wasn’t good enough to beat Buffon outright, but it was enough to force a rebound and Luis Suarez, sharp of mind and quick on his feet was first to react.
Reaching the ball before Patrice Evra was the hard part, but courtesy of Enrique’s teachings and trainings he was well prepared and went on to apply the finish with consummate ease. Never say die, FC Barcelona were back ahead and back on track in their quest for the treble.
For Neymar, today had been a good day. For him, it had been about the realisation of a lifelong dream. Ever since he was a child, he had wondered what it might be like to play for biggest clubs in the world, to line up with the best players and to score in a major final. And now here he was, the little kid from Mogi das Cruzes was in Berlin, phone in hand, wandering over to the FC Barcelona support to take a selfie with the travelling Culés having scored the goal that secured the club’s fifth UEFA Champions League title.
Even now, some six years into his career as a professional footballer, Neymar struggles to comprehend just how he has scaled these heights and how he now features alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Clearly, he has a lot to be thankful for, to God, and the band tied around his head is symbolic of his deep Christian faith.
With a smile on his face, he’s patient, waits for the camera to focus and presses the button. Not once, not twice, but a few times – you know, just to be sure. He wanted to capture this moment, this elation, this euphoria, and treasure it forever. It’s only after the fact as he’s scrolling through the photos to see which one to upload and share with his fans that Neymar realises something…
This is just the beginning.
The minutes were ticking by, but all too slowly for the Barcelona players, management and fans alike. Everyone had seen what Juventus were capable of given the chance; every moment that the score remained at 2-1, the nerves, the anxiety levels in the stadium increased.
Pogba, Marchisio and Tevez all tried in vain to help their side find an equaliser, but Barcelona were equal to their efforts, fending off their desperate attempts at goal. Maybe they were taking a few more punches than they would have liked, but the Blaugrana remained calm and deep into the 12th and final round, they delivered a hay-maker, the knockout blow in this title fight courtesy of the left boot of Neymar Jr.
Gerard Piqué was involved, so too was Luis Enrique’s final substitute, Pedro Rodriguez but the star of the show had to be the Brazilian. Having previously seen a goal chalked off for handball, Neymar wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass and after yet more selfless work from Pedro, he drilled the ball past the despairing dive of Buffon to seal the tie and secure the title.
It was a goal, and a performance that served to epitomise FC Barcelona under Luis Enrique: that all for one and one for all altruistic spirit, as the individual talents seamlessly come together to form a greater collective and a team that seems virtually unstoppable.
50 wins in 60 matches. Three trophies out of three – FC Barcelona once again achieved perfection in 2014/15 – and while for now, Enrique’s future might be uncertain there is a great sense of optimism around the camp and a pervasive feeling that current success considered: the best might yet be to come.