It has been nearly two years since Juventus and Barcelona saw one another in the 2015 Champions League final in Berlin. That first Saturday in June 2015 was a roller coaster ride of emotions, both good and bad. And a lot has changed since that night. Juventus’ starting lineup is almost completely different. The man who led Juventus in goals that season is gone. The man who scored Juventus’ only goal in the game is gone (and back in Spain). Three out of the four midfielders who started in that are gone, gone and gone.
See? Lots of things have changed.
What remains the same when these two playing is the ultimate prize — the Champions League trophy. This isn’t a one-off final like the last time around, but what it will be come Tuesday night in Turin is a meeting between two of the giants in this sport we love, this sport that consumes so much of our time, energy and daily thoughts.
Leonardo Bonucci, somebody who knows all too well what happened in Berlin two years ago, had this to say about Barcelona in an interview with Spanish paper El Pais:
“Barcelona had the same Coach for three years and that helps. Neymar has really improved, while Javier Mascherano has two more years of experience playing in defence. Ivan Rakitic has also matured.
“Having said all that, I think now Barça are not as strong as they were in 2015. In my view, Bayern Munich is the strongest side in the Champions League and I’m sure they would never have allowed a comeback like the one against Paris Saint-Germain.”
Juventus captain and pretty good goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, somebody who also knows all too well what happened in Berlin two years ago, had this to say about facing Barcelona during his pre-match press conference on Monday evening:
“I haven’t watched back the highlights from the Berlin final but it’s a night I remember vividly. The memories I have actually make me feel optimistic; last time we faced a team that were just too good for us in their determination and ruthlessness in the key moments.
“Tomorrow night we might be facing a team that is still better than us but now we have two years of growth behind us that have given us great confidence and experience in managing games like this.”
No matter how you feel about the two quotes from two incredibly important Juventus player above, it’s safe to say that the entire Juventus roster is feeling confident about their chances against Barcelona. That’s not just because they’re coming off a good showing against Chievo over the weekend or have allowed just two goals in their eight Champions League games this season. It’s the fact that this team is loaded with talent up and down the starting lineup. Even though they’re facing what could very well end up being one of the best attacking trios we ever see in the history of the game,
And like Buffon said, Leo Messi’s never scored on him.
So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.
Juventus vs. Barcelona is every bit of the heavyweight clash that it’s being built up to be. It’s a Champions League final-worth matchup happening two rounds earlier than it could have taken place. That’s just how the draw played out. And as cliché as it sounds, Juventus was going to have to face a European heavyweight sooner or later if they wanted to make a deep, deep run in the Champions League.
Tuesday night will be the biggest game of the season. And then next Wednesday night will be the latest biggest game of the season. To get to the second leg with a chance of advancing to the Champions League semifinals, Juventus will have to give themselves a chance in the first leg. What fun there could be at Juventus Stadium in just a short while. (And probably plenty of stress and biting of fingernails along the way, too.)
Juventus good. Juventus very, very good.
Barcelona good. Barcelona very, very good.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1) Juventus’ defense vs. MSN
And no, I’m not talking about the internet service provider, either, so let’s make that clear right now, people.
One of the biggest narratives entering Tuesday night’s first leg is that Barcelona has the best attack in the Champions League this season while Juventus has the competition’s best defense. Barcelona has scored a lot of goals, Juventus hasn’t allowed many at all. (Two to be exact, but who’s counting, right?) You don’t need to go far to see what kind of offensive firepower Barcelona has. And we don’t need to go into much detail about who will be leading their attacking line come Tuesday night’s opening leg.
Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are three of the best there is. One is arguably the best player of his generation while the other two are easily two elite-level strikers in the world today. You already knew that. We saw them and their capabilities two seasons ago in the Champions League final, so no need to go into much detail there.
One of the big differences in the Juventus-Barcelona meeting two years ago is that Giorgio Chiellini will be playing from the start rather than missing out due to injury. There’s no denying that Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and whomever starts at either fullback positon — more on that later — will have to have one hell of a game if they want to keep the vaunted Barcelona trio off the scoresheet. Hell, even if they create even a small handful of chances their scoring prowess could very well be seen.
So when you look at Barcelona and what will probably make a lot of us nervous, there’s a pretty good idea of what three players are atop the list.
2) Gonzalo Higuain on the big stage.
A brace against Napoli in the Coppa Italia. A brace against Chievo in Serie A. That’s the kind of back-to-back showings that you want your world-class €90 million striker to have going into such an incredibly important game like this one against Barcelona.
Fact is, these are the kinds of games that Juventus brought Higuain in for. They signed him for a club-record fee to be a difference maker against the best clubs in the world on the European stage. Team Higuain with a fellow difference maker like Paulo Dybala and good things are bound to happen. (Hint: Good things have been happening in the past couple of games, so I would like that to continue.)
And, as we know, when Higuain gets hot with his goal-scoring form, he can carry a team for weeks on end. With what he’s done in his last two appearances, one can only hope — well, those of us who will be rooting for the home team Tuesday night — that the sudden flurry of goals on continues to see the tally go up and up and up.
3) Wait, wait wait. Could Kwadwo Asamoah really start over Alex Sandro?
Normally, this isn’t any kind of debate. But Mr. Allegri said this at Monday’s pre-match press conference and now the predicted lineups in the Italian press are throwing everybody’s mind for a loop:
Nah, nah, nah. I’m not going to believe that Alex Sandro could start from the bench in what is now officially the biggest game of the season. I don’t care that Asamoah has been playing well or that Alex Sandro just played against Chievo over the weekend. None of that should matter. No, seriously, it shouldn’t matter at all.
But this is a thing because Allegri has made it one. He’s opened a potential can of worms with the fact that he’s stated that either Asamoah or Sandro could start when everybody was thinking that Juve’s best left back will be playing from the opening whistle when they face Barcelona.
Maybe this is something that Allegri is just trying to toy with Barca and make Luis Enrique think that there’s a chance that Juve won’t start one of the best left backs in the world in the biggest game of the season to date. Maybe this turns out to be nothing and we’ve just spent a couple hundred words worrying about Asamoah starting over Sandro and the lineup will be what we expected it to be before Allegri’s pre-match press conference. But now that Allegri has mentioned this, there’s Sandro-related doubt about the powerful Brazilian left back playing against one of the best teams in the world.
4) Mario Mandzukic’s effectiveness out wide.
Juventus has been without some Croatian influence for the past couple of games with Marko Pjaca out for the season and Mandzukic shaking off his own minor knocks from international duty and the first meeting with Napoli at the beginning of the month. But with Allegri saying that all four of his forwards will play against Barcelona, it’s hard to think that Mandzukic won’t be in the starting lineup come Tuesday night.
The question is this: How is Mandzukic feeling? And what exactly will he be tasked with doing?
Obviously those are two different kinds of questions with answers that we won’t know until the opening kickoff and the ensuing game action. But while we don’t know how Mandzukic will play, it’s pretty easy to guess what Allegri will be asking of Mr. No Good when he returns to his place on the left wing. He will be expected to defend. He will be expected to be somewhat of a target man who links Higuain and Paulo Dybala. He will basically be asked to do everything that he has been doing more often than not since he became a regular starter in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
I just hope that Mandzukic’s impact ends up being the opposite of his nickname. That sure would be nice — and not just because I want it to be.
MY STARTING XI
Juventus XI (4-2-3-1): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini; Alex Sandro; Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio; Juan Cuadrado, Miralem Pjanic, Paulo Dybala; Gonzalo Higuain
Location: Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy
Kick-off time: 8:45 p.m. local time in Italy; 7:45 p.m. in the United Kingdom; 2:45 p.m. on the East Coast; 11:45 a.m. on the West Coast
TV: Fox Sports 1 USA, FOX Deportes (United States); TSN1, TSN4 (Canada); BT Sport 2 (United Kingdom); PremiumSport HD, Canale 5, RSI La 2 (Italy)
Online: WatchESPN/ESPN3, fuboTV, Fox Soccer 2GO USA, Fox Sports GO (United States); TSN Go (Canada); BT Sport Live Streaming (United Kingdom); Premium Play (Italy)
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