One of the many subplots of Saturday's Champions League final is that the last game of the season will also be Xavi Hernández's last in Blaugrana. It may be Andrea Pirlo's last in Bianconero, possibly others as well, but none of the players on either side represent a style in the same way Xavi does.
Xavi represents midfield possession and positional play of the highest level, seeking to control the match first and create goalscoring chances through that, prioritizing safety and preventing counters through careful management of turnovers. But Xavi is all but gone.
This is Ivan Rakitić's Barcelona, tailored to the directness of Luis Suárez and Neymar. Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta, for their dribbling brilliance, seem to fit well in any style of play. Luis Enrique deserves credit for embracing a shift towards a more direct, punch-and-counterpunch Barcelona that wants to get the ball to its forwards quickly and in space, no matter what that means for potential loss of possession and positional balance. But most of the merit must go to the players, who made it work and got the results to keep the pressure off. At least since the turn of the year.
So yes, Barcelona is very good. But, and this is maybe a forgotten point in much of the media, so is Juventus. With that in mind, here are five keys that may determine which side lifts the European Cup.
1. Lionel Messi
The Argentine magician has been in some of the best form of his career in recent months, at times making world-class stars like Neymar and Suárez look like third-rate chancers by comparison. Returning to the wing but retaining his complete centrality to Barcelona's attacking play, Messi has taken on a greater importance to the team's buildup, occasionally dropping to collect the ball from defense. He is of course most dangerous when he starts dribbling past you -- Juventus will have to be very disciplined, keeping the Argentine in front of them and presenting him safe options, preventing the number 10 from accelerating play, because when he does nobody else can keep up.
Giorgio Chiellini would have been a vital piece of the Messi plan, and without him there is some uncertainty as to who will be Messi's most direct opponent. Whoever is tasked to stop him, Messi's performance (or, more accurately, how many goals Messi creates) will be vital in determining the champion.
2. Andrea Pirlo
The bearded maestro has had ups and downs this season, with this match possibly representing his last in Italy. But the talent that marks him out as perhaps the best ever in his role remains, the ability to put a teammate in on goal with a perfect ball at any moment, or to effortlessly curl a free kick past wall and goalkeeper.
Having Pirlo in your team of course also means a certain level of defensive vulnerability. He has never been the best at tracking runs, and age hasn't helped in that respect. Barcelona will certainly try and test the defense by running across Pirlo. The success they have attacking Pirlo's zone, and Pirlo's ability to create chances at the other end, could have a big impact on the scoreline.
3. Paul Pogba or Ivan Rakitić?
Whichever midfielder can put his stamp on the game will put his team in pole position. While neither is a Xavi- or Pirlo-style dictator of a game's tempo, both are versatile and can hurt you in several ways -- getting wide to put in a cross, running into the box to support the forwards, playing the delicate through ball, or crashing in shots from distance. If Massimiliano Allegri and Luis Enrique each choose the players in their most frequent starting positions they will be put face-to-face, and whoever gets the better of their battle will create real problems for the opposing defense and goalkeeper.
4. High Pressing
Barcelona's game is not as reliant on suffocating possession and positional rigor, ties closely to a very aggressive press, as they once where, however the old Pep Guardiola method still shows up now and then when the opposing defense sits back. Ivan Rakitić has brought a new energy to the press when it is employed, eliminating one of the weaknesses that cost Barcelona under Tata Martino and during the too-short tenure of Tito Vilanova.
Juventus, for their part, are also occasionally very aggressive with their pressure, with Arturo Vidal especially among the best in the world when asked to get aggressive further up the pitch. Both teams have had some difficulty playing out from the back this season (another element of the Rakitić-for-Xavi swap in central midfield), so whichever team is more effective with its press, and more able to generate the good opportunities that come with winning the ball high up the field, will have a great chance to win.
5. Set-Pieces and Aerial Play
Barcelona have mightily improved their set-piece defense this season, one of the keys to their league success, but they still fundamentally only have about three guys who you would trust to win their defensive headers-- Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, and Suárez. Javier Mascherano is as tough a customer as you're ever likely to see, but he, like fullbacks Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, can be regularly beaten in the air, which is something Juventus must look to exploit.
At the other end, a major part of Barcelona's success in transition has been the forwards' ability to win the high ball and start the quick counter. Suárez and Messi are fantastic at reading the flight of the ball, even against bigger opponents, and if they are allowed to make good first contact on high balls out from defense it will be a very long night. Just ask Bayern Munich.
It's a final, after all, and these things tend to come down to small margins. By competing in these key areas, and maybe getting the better of a couple of individual matchups, Juventus can overcome the odds and lift a historic third European Cup.