That’s really all that you can say about that.
Juventus went into the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona with all sorts of storylines flying. Chief amongst them was the revenge angle. After the heartbreaking 3-1 loss to the Catalans in the final of this competition two seasons ago, revenge was the easiest story to take on. Leonardo Bonucci put the flame to the fuse on that storyline before the draw last month, telling the club’s website (h/t Goal.com) that he wanted the chance to avenge the finals loss.
Other questions flew around. Could Barca keep up their play after their incredible comeback from a 4-0 first-leg loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16, or had their efforts against PSG left them emotionally spent? Would selection issues leave Barca’s Luis Enrique at a disadvantage? Would Lionel Messi again stamp his dominance on European competition, or would Paulo Dybala, who is seen more and more as his successor at the international level for Argentina, announce himself to the world as truly world class? Would Massimiliano Allegri’s tactics skew more towards the cautious, defensive attitude of last Sunday’s Serie A clash with Napoli, or the more positive approach he took against the partenopei later that week in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal?
Really, though, all of those questions were offshoots of the same central query: Would Juve assert themselves as contenders in Europe again, or were they still missing that one last thing to make them viable candidates to finally lift the trophy with the big ears after 21 years?
Allegri answered one of those questions within about 30 seconds. Barca took the opening kickoff, and immediately had members of Juve’s front four in their face. Forcing turnovers high up the pitch, they put Sami Khedira in position to test Marc-Andre ter Stegen from distance. The shot missed high, but not by all that much. It seemed small at the time, but it would turn into a massive statement of what was to come.
Juve’s continued pressing saw more possession in the attacking third, and within two-and-a-half minutes Andres Iniesta had hacked down Dybala for a foul. Miralem Pjanic’s delivery found Gonzalo Higuain totally unmarked, but his powerful downward header was put right at ter Stegen, and the German got down to block it.
The pressure continued. Mario Mandzukic nearly ran down ter Stegen in possession in his own six-yard box, as Barca struggled to set up the passing rhythm that has made them so successful over the last decade.
Then, seven minutes in, lightning struck.
It started with a good diagonal pass from Higuain. Taking the pass on the right wing, Juan Cuadrado danced into the box. Very often the Colombian’s penchant for some extra flair hurts his decision making, but this time he made the perfect choice. His square pass for Dybala was inch-perfect, and the 23-year-old controlled the ball with a single touch on his right before spinning and firing a trademark left-footed curler past ter Stegen and into the far end of the net. Juventus 1, Barcelona 0.
Cue ecstasy at the Juventus Stadium.
A goal so early could have been a blessing and a curse. Allegri has shown a marked tendency to pull back and defend early leads, especially against teams like the blaugrana. And at first it looked like it might play out that way. In the next 10 minutes they began to look a bit more like Barca, controlling possession. Juve’s defense managed to shepherd the ball into non-threatening areas, but still had to sweat through a speculative free kick from an angle by Messi.
When Barca starts taking that kind of possession, eventually the feeling settles in that a goal is sure to arrive.
It nearly did in the 21st minute, when Dani Alves fell asleep and let Iniesta through to latch on to a perfect Messi pass. In a 1-on-1 between one of the best midfielders in history and the greatest goalkeeper of all time, it was Gianluigi Buffon who won out, palming the ball beyond the far post with his left hand and depriving the opposing captain of an equalizer that could have changed the complexion of the game.
Instead it was still 1-0 — and Paulo Dybala wasn’t satisfied with that.
Less than 60 seconds after Buffon’s save, Mandzukic finished a run down the left wing by doinking a layoff pass off Sergi Roberto’s heel. Dybala ran onto it and lanced it first time to the near post. ter Stegen managed to put a hand on the shot, but it powered past and into the net. Juventus 2, Barcelona 0.
Cue delirium at the Juventus Stadium.
From that point on, managing the game became a much more viable option, and manage it Juve did. For almost the next 20 minutes Barca dominated possession, but where most teams run like rabbits to try to recover the ball, Juve kept their discipline and shape. Opponents were allowed to make lateral and backwards passes, but hardly ever able to do something incisive. Messi, despite putting in some good work, was often met by two and even three black-and-white shirts before having to dump the ball off. Messi did put the ball into the net, but was called back by the offside flag, and the margin remained two.
Just before the half, Juve finally relieved some of the pressure. A first extended spell of possession saw Alex Sandro slip a ball in to Higuain, who controlled well and unleashed a strike from distance that ter Stegen could only parry. The rebound nearly dropped straight into Dybala’s lap, but Jeremy Mathieu managed to clear the ball for a corner. A quarter-chance for Leonardo Bonucci was the result, and as the half-time whistle blew there was disbelief in the air: Juve had the 2-0 lead, and despite having surrendered the lion’s share of possession looked in control of the game.
Barca started the second half determined to at least get an all-important away goal, and it suddenly looked like it might be an end-to-end period of play. Messi bent a shot just wide only three minutes in, and Khedira missed by the width of the ball going the other way less than 60 seconds later. uarez’s cross barely missed Roberto, and Iniesta lifted the follow-up just over. Barca was threatening and threatening badly.
Then Juve sprang forward again. A quick break saw Higuain put straight through, but rather than pass to a wide-open Mandzukic he took an angled shot that ter Stegan blocked for a corner.
As Pjanic lined up the set piece, there was a noticeable mismatch in the box — Giorgio Chiellini was being marked by Javier Mascherano. When the delivery came in, the newly-minted Dottore Chiellini showed everyone that he does indeed know how to use his head. His header was powerful enough to root ter Stegen to the spot but at the perfect angle to bounce the ball off the inside of the post and into the net. Fifty-five minutes in, Juventus 3, Barcelona 0.
Cue bedlam at the Juventus Stadium.
In a vacuum 3-0 would be almost insurmountable, but in a two-legged tie a single away goal could change the face of the matchup. With that in mind Barca tried desperately to break Juve down. Buffon had to top a Suarez effort around the post after 67 minutes, and Cheillini looked for a moment to have gotten away with a blatant hand-ball in the box before replays showed the ball hitting his face and chest before contacting his arm. It was a remarkable no-call by referee Szymon Marciniak, who had some odd moments. Khedira was booked for diving after clearly being taken down, and Mandzukic received the same after tangling with Roberto that saw the Barca man scissor his opposite number to the ground.
The clock ticked down. Tomas Rincon and Andrea Barzagli arrived to bring in defensive steel and guile, respectively. When Marciniak blew his whistle after four minutes of stoppage time, it was all over. Juve had schooled Barca despite ceding 68.1 percent of the possession in the gam, according to WhoScored.com. Despite all the power of the attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, they could not find a way through. Juventus would bring a massive 3-0 lead to Barcelona next week to look for their second semifinal berth in three years.
Gianluigi Buffon - 9. He would get at least a 7.5 for his save on Iniesta alone. The extra points come from his impressive command of his defense, which is probably the one trait that no keeper before or since has mastered to his degree.
Dani Alves - 6.5. Committed more fouls than he should have and got booked for it. Fell asleep when Iniesta managed to menace Buffon.
Giorgio Chiellini - 8. Imperious. Dealt with balls in the box, intervened when passes came his way, and scored the game’s final goal with a textbook corner kick header.
Leonardo Bonucci - 7. Didn’t get the chance to rev up his passing game and nearly made a disaster of an attempted dribble in his own third.
Alex Sandro - 7. Excellent down the left. Overlapped well with Mandzukic when in possession and tracked back well to stop the attack.
Sami Khedira - 7. Did very well in this game to dictate the pace when Juve was in possession. On defense made a couple of crucial interventions.
Miralem Pjanic - 6.5. Did most of his damage on set piece deliveries. Didn’t do his best when Juve was in possession, but harassed Barca’s midfield in defense as well.
Juan Cuadrado - 7. I’m often very hard on Cuadrado, but despite the fact that he took a little too much time on his dance moves once in a while he had one of his better games. Faded a little in the second half when he didn’t have Mathieu to abuse down Barca’s left flank.
Paulo Dybala - 10. Yes. I gave him a 10. Are there problems with this?
Mario Mandzukic - 6.5. Another excellent shift defensively, also made a few good runs forward. Deserved an assist for Dybala’s second goal, but apparently it’s being looked at as a deflection by Roberto rather than a pass.
Gonzalo Higuiain - 6.5. This rating should have been so much higher. Higuain should’ve buried at least three chances. His rating is bumped up by an excellent shift tracking back and defending. Juve may have won big, but the supposed inability to score in big games is still going to dog Higuain until he proves otherwise...
Mario Lemina - 6. Did what he had to do as Cuadrado left the game to nurse a minor knock. Didn’t take risks and didn’t let Barca’s left side blast off.
Tomas Rincon - NR. On for some extra grit in midfield, entered too late for a rating.
Andrea Barzagli - NR. On far too late to make an impression.
Manager: 8. Allegri pushed all the right buttons here. This was the best performance by an Allegri-coached side I’ve seen since...well, since he beat Barca 2-0 in the first leg of the Round of 16 in 2013 while coaching AC Milan. Now he has to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself again in a week’s time.
Allegri loves formations that morph based on the situation. Last season, when faced with a selection crunch following an injury to Martin Caceres and the loss of Stephan Lichtsteiner due to a heart condition, he employed a hybrid 3-5-2/4-3-3, which transformed based on who was in possession. When Juve was in possession, Cuadrado would push up to the wing and Barzagli would play as a right wing. On defense, the BBC formed the impenetrable 3-5-2 wall.
Tuesday night’s formation was no exception. Much like at Napoli, Juve set up in a 4-2-3-1 in possession, but transitioned into a 4-3-3 when they did get the ball. That flexibility was key in meeting Barca’s attack. It shut down potential holes in the line and made it harder for Messi & Co. to find room to pass the ball forward.
The fact that he actually pressed and attacked was equally momentous. Allegri’s default against teams like this is to defend and play on the break. Not only did he push his players, forwards particularly, hard in the press, but while he did defend for extended periods he wasn’t looking to counter. Rather, when Juve did get possession they tended to build up slowly, allowing the defense to blow off a little steam before the next train came through. They defended to possess, rather defended to break. It’s an intriguing method, and one that can help the team compete with Europe’s ultimate elites.
There were a few things one could question (why did Lichtsteiner not play for a booked Alves? Why didn’t Barzagli come in earlier?), but all in all this was easily his best performance from the Juve bench.
JOB HALF DONE
There are still 90 minutes of football left to play. And if the J-Stadium is an intimidating place to play, the Camp Nou is downright terrifying.
PSG learned that the hard way, but this is not PSG. Scoring four would be a feat for Barca, especially if Juve plays the way they did tonight. Any goal scoring on Juve’s part would make it nearly impossible to get back into the game.
It’s a blessing that the game sandwiched between these two legs is against Pescara. The game against the delfini will allow for wholesale rotation to make sure everyone is rested for Wednesday. But a clear head is still required in the league.
During the march to the final in 2015 Juve had the luxury of a double-digit points lead in Serie A. Right now the margin is six, and Roma are on form. Any slip-up could a grand-stand finish for the scudetto, something Juve would desperately want to avoid — especially if they reach the semifinal.
But for the moment, savor this. A Juve win wasn’t preposterous, but no one expected this. It’s a signature win, and one that could leave the Champions League wide open for the taking.