Barcelona and Juventus chasing history in Champions League final
The biggest game in world club soccer kicks off Saturday evening in Berlin as Lionel Messi’s Barcelona aim to win their fifth European Cup in the UEFA Champions League final against Juventus (live, FOX, FOX Sports Go, 2 p.m. ET). It is an unexpected matchup after Juve dispatched Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid in a thrilling semifinal, but make no mistake, the Spaniards are heavy favorites against an Italian side that has not lifted Europe’s grandest trophy in 19 years.
Barcelona are the bettors’ choice because of three players: Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Together, they comprise the most feared attacking lineup in world football, and they have powered the Catalans to a domestic double already. Messi, the consensus world best player of the age, warmed up for the match by scoring one of the individual goals of the season in the Copa del Rey final vs. Athletic Bilbao, a sinewy move through four opponents that ended up with him burying the ball near post. Suarez, the controversial striker who was sanctioned for biting an opponent at least year’s World Cup, has been a team player, scoring and setting up assists in equal measure. And Neymar, the Brazilian starlet, can dazzle in flashes after enduring a difficult start to his Barcelona tenure — just like Suarez.
Barcelona are chasing the treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League) a feat so rare only seven other teams have pulled it off, with Barcelona’s 2009 side being one. There are a handful of players in this squad that remember those days of glory; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Messi are all expected to play some part in Saturday’s game, and they bring with them the experience of winning in big games. If this 2015 Barcelona side can repeat the feat, they would surely cement their claim to being the greatest club team of this era.
"We go into the final full of confidence and charged up," clup captain Xavi told the Spanish press. "We already have a historic double and we want more. We could equal the historic treble. Saturday’s final will be my last for Barca and I hope to lift the trophy in Berlin."
On the other side of the ball is a scrappy, streetwise Juventus side that stifled an explosive Real Madrid team over two legs en route to a 3-2 aggregate win. It’s easy to forget that only nine years ago that Juve, known as the "Old Lady" of Italian soccer, were relegated to the second division in disgrace after a match-fixing scandal ripped through the sport. Stripped of two titles, Juventus were able to return swiftly to the top-flight despite a seven-point deduction, and have become a juggernaut, winning four straight Serie A titles and assembling a squad that plays with guile and grit.
"We’ve had a truly extraordinary season and it’s not every day that you reach the Champions League final," Massimiliano Allegri said to his club’s official website. "To have done so in a year when we have won the scudetto and the Coppa Italia, our 10th, is important. It has been a while since an Italian team reached the Champions League final (Inter Milan in 2010). There is a lot of enthusiasm and all Italians await this final just as we do."
Unfortunately, one of Juve’s key defenders, Giorgio Chiellini, will be unavailable because of a calf injury. Chiellini was the man who was infamously bitten by Suarez during last year’s World Cup clash between Italy and Uruguay, but their reunion will have to be put on hold for another time. Angelo Ogbonna is the man expected to replace Chiellini, who admiited he was prepared to give Suarez a hug before the game.
Other players might not be so forgiving. Juventus’ tough spine includes Patrice Evra (who Suarez racially abused while both men were playing in England), Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and the seemingly ageless Andrea Pirlo. Up top is the Argentine star Carlos Tevez, in the back the great Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon. Keep in mind also that Juventus have also won a domestic double this season. Pikers, these guys are not.
Another key is the Italian teams’ traditional stoutness on defense. While Juventus are not strict practitioners of catenaccio, the defense-first style that has been a hallmark of the great Italian side, they did show against Real Madrid that they are more than able to close out a game. With Pirlo’s uncanny ability to spread the field and play keep-away, Juventus can be a frustrating team to play against.
But Barcelona seem so irresistible because they do one thing better than any other team in world football: They keep you away from the ball. With Javier Mascherano disrupting any attempt by opponents to bring the ball forward, Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic spray the ball around, usually to Messi, but rarely conceding possession when they have it. If they can keep that grip on the game, it will remove Juventus’ most valuable player, Pirlo, from the equation and blunt the service up to Alvaro Morata and Tevez.
In the end, it will all come down to one game, and one night in Berlin. Both teams are chasing history, but only one can triumph.