Juventus Stadium must be getting used to these glorious European nights.
Tuesday night’s quarterfinal clash with Barcelona saw the home side produce a brilliant performance, arguably making it even more special than the semifinal triumph over Real Madrid two years ago. That was a night which will always be remembered fondly by the Juve faithful, but there was something extra magical about Tuesday’s match. Almost as if the ghosts from the 2015 Champions League final were finally starting to be banished.
Stuffing Barca 3-0 doesn’t make up for or replace the despondent feelings that final brought about. It’s not until Juventus go the full distance and win the competition that those memories will be laid to rest. But it does make the win last night even more satisfying. In fact, it felt like more than a win. It felt as if this was the night that the club and those associated with it — players, fans, the board, etc. — realised just how possible the ultimate European triumph is.
A lot of credit has to go to Max Allegri, who created the perfect blueprint for containing Barca. Juve only had just over 30 percent of possession, but they didn’t need much more. Their defiant defending and efficient finishing was what pushed them over the line Tuesday night. Their dominance wasn’t based on how many passes they completed or how many opportunities they created. It came through the ability to shut out their opponents. That’s impressive to do in any European contest but when it’s against the likes of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi, it’s quite the achievement. The back five didn’t just keep them scoreless, they made the famed ‘MSN’ look ordinary. They may be three of the most talented attackers in the world but last night, they came up against their match as they were unable to breakdown the stout Bianconeri defense.
Per WhoScored.com, Suarez had the least touches of any of his teammates with just 38, with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini putting in an admirable defensive performance against the centre-forward. Messi may have had more with 68 touches as well as 10 dribbles, but he lost possession 8 times, which shows how ineffective he was. Neymar fared better than his fellow attackers but was hassled and harried all night by the veteran Dani Alves.
Barcelona had 804 touches, almost double that of Juventus’ 463, but the home team were only too happy to let them have the ball. Good marking and solid organisation made it hard for Barca to switch play effectively and break away from their opponents. Gonzalo Higuain was poor in front of goal, but defensively he put in a good shift. Looking at his heat map he was in his own half as often as he was in Barca’s half. Mario Mandzukic, ever the hard worker, had a similar showing while Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado were also all over the pitch, ensuring that the technical players of Barcelona had little time or space to pick out a pass to the front three.
Another important aspect of Allegri’s game plan was how Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira were able to handle multiple responsibilities without leaving the back four vulnerable to a counter. Once again, the heat maps show just how varied their jobs were. Though they were primarily expected to operate from their own half in terms of turning defense into attack, whenever the game moved further up the pitch, neither midfielder was shy to follow play. Khedira even had three attempts on goal,and even if none of them were legit goal scoring opportunities, it showed how Juve were constantly trying to add on to their lead while ensuring they kept a clean sheet as well.
It's no secret just how much of a shambles Barca's defence can be, and Allegri was keen for Juve to take full advantage of their defensive mishaps. Keeping a clean sheet was the priority but when your opponent has that obvious a flaw, it would be a mistake to not push for more goals. A good example of this is Javier Mascherano picking up Chiellini on set-pieces. How Luis Enrique can justify that is beyond me. It shows just how weak their defending ability is and how unbalanced the La Liga champions as a team are. The absence of Sergio Busquets played a part, of course, but overall the 3 centre-backs seemed to be far too stretched by Juve's attackers.
You can ask PSG how a comfortable and dominant first leg victory over Barcelona can prove to be so futile once the return fixture rolls about. Though their unbelievable comeback in the previous round made coming up against the Catalan side even more daunting, it’s a good thing it happened. Max Allegri and his coaching staff will study that game over and over again until next Wednesday night, aiming to prevent any repeat of Barca rising up from an inevitable Champions League exit. The players will be aware of how an early goal at the Nou Camp can change things and will be determined to avoid offering any momentum to their opponents. It may just be “half-time” in the tie, but last night's win has put Juventus in pole position to progress.