FC Barcelona are in need of a miracle tomorrow, as they welcome Juventus FC to the Camp Nou for the second-leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final showdown. The Serie A champions dispatched the visiting Blaugrana 3-0 in the first leg in Turin, leaving Luis Enrique’s side in need of a dramatic comeback for the second time in as many knockout ties. The experience of overturning a larger, 4-0 deficit in the prior round against Paris Saint-Germain is sure to serve as inspiration for Barcelona tomorrow, although it must be mentioned that tomorrow’s match will be played under vastly different circumstances.
Not only are Juventus a superior side to Paris Saint-Germain, but Barcelona enter this game in the midst of a difficult patch of form. Rather than winning their last two matches by five goals as they did prior to the return leg against PSG, Barça have turned in two relatively dismal performances in their last two fixtures: first slumping to a 2-0 defeat against Malaga and then barely scraping past Real Sociedad 3-2 this past Saturday.
Nothing is impossible, not with this group of players – but certainly this seems far more unlikely than the comeback against PSG did prior to kick-off on that fateful night six weeks ago.
But enough with the pessimism. While the comeback against PSG appeared comparatively more likely prior to kick-off, the odds of Barcelona scoring three goals from the 86th minute onwards in that match were astronomical, far more so than the odds of a remuntada in tomorrow’s match. Sure, the circumstances surrounding tomorrow’s match are different from a month ago, but this should serve as inspiration that even up to the dying stages of the match, there is always hope for our beloved Blaugrana.
This was a theme I referenced throughout my preview to that match and those same words ring true for tomorrow:
The goals from Paulo Dybala and Giorgio Chiellini were a timely reminder that glory and success can be ever so fleeting, and that the football gods who have kindly smiled down on us in the past can be fickle and vindictive. The players we worship are human after all, and while FC Barcelona may be més que un club, sometimes they can be just another team on the field.
Just as there have been some great moments, there will also be some challenging times as well and as fans our level of commitment shouldn’t waver dependent upon results. Through thick and thin our support should be unconditional and at the end of the day, results are a pleasant by-product – our main sustenance should be the illusion of hope and the element of escapism that each match brings anew.
It’s true that Barcelona are experiencing some difficulties at the moment, but by the time kick-off rolls around tomorrow, all of that will be virtually forgotten and lost in the hope that they will come good just when it matters most.
As we well know, there will be plenty of time for analysis, debate and inquisitions after the match. However, for 90 minutes we can forget the form book, the daily newspapers, and live in the moment, all the while wondering…
What if they actually manage to pull it off, again?
From a team news perspective, Barcelona are virtually back to full strength. Despite missing the weekend’s difficult win over Real Sociedad with a calf injury, Javier Mascherano is said to be in “perfect shape” and will therefore be available for selection tomorrow. Coupled with the return of Sergio Busquets who missed the first leg through suspension, Luis Enrique knows that he has the players available who are capable of masterminding a comeback.
From a tactical standpoint, the return of Busquets and Mascherano’s recovery will enable Luis Enrique to start with a 3-4-3, just as he did against Paris Saint-Germain. While Rafinha Alcantara will be missing through injury, Sergi Roberto is capable of deputising in his absence on the right-flank and of course the Catalan utility man ended up playing a starring role in the PSG remuntada with his timely finish in the dying moments of the match.
There is no doubt that this approach is a risky one; Barcelona struggled defensively on Saturday – and that in itself is a huge understatement. The team will concede chances tomorrow and Enrique has gone as far as to predict that Juventus are likely to put one of those chances away, but his approach is that the team should therefore look to score five goals.
It might sound improbable, but scoring that first goal is all it will take to insert a semblance of doubt into the mind of the visiting Juventus players. We clearly have the firepower to score and rather than focus on the overall goal, the team will undoubtedly focus on each smaller milestone. Score first, then see what happens.
Now for the reality check. Paulo Dybala is likely to be fit to start tomorrow even after picking up a knock at the weekend against Pescara, but that is likely to be the least of Barcelona’s problems. Juventus have not lost by three clear goals since January 2011, and they haven’t lost by the four-goal margin that would send the Blaugrana through in regular time since 2004 when they visited Roma and were promptly put to the sword by the tandem of Francesco Totti and Antonio Cassano.
The time before that was in October 1995, so it would be fair to say that Juventus are rarely on the receiving end of the kind of hammerings that the Blaugrana love to dish out at the Camp Nou.
Does this mean that they are invincible? Of course not. Their away form this season has been strong, but they have often been left wanting on their travels to Italy’s toughest venues. Earlier this month, Napoli nearly turned around a first-leg deficit with a win at the Stadio San Paolo.
In January, Juventus travelled to Florence to take on a Fiorentina side unbeaten at home, and they too were defeated. At the San Siro, Juventus have lost twice this season – so can they truly be confident of their chances as they prepare to enter the largest stadium in Europe to play against a team that has scored 83 goals in 21 competitive home matches this season?
They have the talent, they have the advantage and they have the coach; but do they have the cojones to come and finish the job in Barcelona’s own backyard?
Juventus FC 3-0 FC Barcelona – 11th April 2017 – UEFA Champions League
Barcelona (3-4-3): ter Stegen; Mascherano, Pique, Umtiti; Roberto, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Juventus (4-2-3-1): Buffon; Alves, Bonucci, Chiellini, Sandro; Pjanic, Khedira; Cuadrado, Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain
5-1, because why the hell not?