The UEFA Champions League returned with several games played across Europe with lots of goals scored and plenty of talking points for pundits to ponder on.
The Champions League final isn’t just the Barcelona coronation.
It might not even feature that at all. There might be a new champion of Europe from outside the current cabal of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, named Juventus.
In the olden days Juventus were one of Europe’s champion teams, usually featuring a who’s who of Italian football, but they unbelievably choked in four Champions League finals to inferior opposition: to Hamburg in 1983, Borussia Dortmund in 1997, Real Madrid in 1998 and Milan in 2003.
The new Juventus era effectively began in 2006 – perhaps for the worse, though maybe they are relieved to have been forced to modernise. At the same time Juve stalwarts Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta were hitting the greatest heights and winning the 2006 World Cup with Italy, Juventus were found guilty of match-fixing and relegated to Serie B for the first ever time.
Juve had always represented old money and power in Italy, and much resentment had arisen towards them over the decades in Italy. Juve have traditionally been ‘favoured’ by referees there, winning a disconcerting number of Italian titles after controversial matches. Ironically Fabio Cannavaro himself complained about this as a green Parma player in 2000, a few years before crossing over to eventually become Juve captain.
Calciopoli put a temporary end to all of that. Juventus played second fiddle in Italy until 2012. That was the season Milan decided that midfielder Andrea Pirlo’s best days were done and released him.
It changed the entire dynamic of Italian football. Juventus have since won four consecutive Italian League titles and Pirlo, one of Italy’s historically greatest midfielders, has played on and on, laconically but iconically jogging around, receiving passes from his defenders and dishing them off to the wings.
It has been a battling Champions League campaign for Juve, squeezing home wins and sweating away draws with all hands on deck. Given this, perhaps the key performers for Juve are the endurance-runner midfield of Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal.
Pogba is a striking case. He is a tall, black Frenchman with a blond mohawk playing in centre midfield, a position that favours players with low centres of gravity. Watching him against Real Madrid, I marvelled at how well he keeps the ball under pressure, how he pivots, his long running strides. He is 22 years old and gives the impression that he will be the dominant midfielder of world football once Iniesta, Robben and the like are ‘dead’.
The main man up front is a reborn Carlos Tevez. His natural gifts are plenty but harnessing them has had its ups and downs over the years. He’s short and squat and can be either skilful or bullocking. His career had hit such a snag that he did not make it into Argentina’s 2014 World Cup squad. These two recent seasons with Juventus, however, have been the best of his career. In the final against Barcelona one of his direct opponents in the defence will be his best mate Javier Mascherano.
These players up front for Juve might end up being mere bonuses. Juventus fancy a solid possession game, but against Real Madrid in Spain there was much grunt work to be done, and I fancy they will also have to put in some solid elbow grease shutting down Barcelona’s attacking options. The most famous names of Juve’s defensive structure are Giorgio Chiellini, Patrice Evra on the left and long-time goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, now 37-years-old.
But the midfield diamond of Pirlo, Marchisio, Vidal and Pogba will probably also have to funnel back for stretches of the final. Once they win the ball, Pogba and Marchisio will try to work out Juve’s passing build-up. They will also try long passes to Tevez and hope he can work something out with fellow forward Alvaro Morata, often in isolation. Chilean Vidal will have to sprint forward from midfield to help with attacks before they break down, and will spend his day running back and forth.
Another set of opponents with a history will be Chiellini versus Barca centre forward Luis Suarez. When Chiellini’s Italy played Suarez’s Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup, Chiellini spent the match trying to wind Suarez up emotionally (often a tactic against temperamental players) and succeeded when Suarez jumped at a corner kick and bit him on his shoulder. Barcelona will counsel Suarez to be careful with his emotions.
Likely line-ups: Juve will feature Buffon in goal and a back four of Liechsteiner, Bonucci, Chiellini and Evra. If they go for five defenders they’ll add Andrea Barzagli. Liechsteiner and Evra often overlap on attack but given their direct opponents are Neymar and Messi will be circumspect on this point.
Juve’s midfield will be Pirlo behind the midfield, Pogba and Marchisio in the centre and Vidal at the front tip. Juve’s diamond will have to flatten out on defence to check the likes of wing-backs Dani Alves and Jordi Alba advancing for Barca, who would otherwise have no direct opponent. Vidal will have to check that Barca’s Busquets is not free to pass the ball around and set a tempo.
Tevez will drop into attacking centre midfield and Morata will stay up. Tevez is the key to Juve’s attack.
Marty Gleason has reviewed each season from 1998 to 2014 at martygleason.wordpress.com