Ninety-nine times out of 100, winning the first leg of a European tie 3-0 at home would almost make the second leg a formality.
But Wednesday was not a normal day. On Wednesday, Juventus walked into the Camp Nou in Barcelona, and even with a 3-0 lead, the tie still seemed poised on a knife’s edge. The specter of Barca’s unprecedented second-leg comeback three weeks ago against Paris Saint-Germain, who came to Catalonia with a 4-0 first-leg lead, loomed large. With Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar up front, Andres Iniesta supplementing and Sergio Busquets leading the midfield, this team was capable of anything — especially in their fortress of a stadium, where they had won 15 consecutive Champions League games.
But Juventus isn’t PSG. The French champions do not have the discipline, skill or grinta that the Bianconeri do, and all of that was brought to bear at the Camp Nou. The result was a goalless draw that dumped Barca out of the competition and put Juve into the Champions League semifinals thanks to the 3-0 aggregate scoreline.
Luis Enrique did not, as expected, start the game in the 3-diamond-3 formation that he had been using in recent weeks and stuck to Barca’s traditional 4-3-3. Two major changes were made from last week’s match: Busquets returned after a yellow card suspension in the first leg, and Jordi Alba came in to play left back. Massimiliano Allegri sent out the exact same starting XI that had fought so hard and won so well in Turin eight days ago.
As Barca lined up to kick the game off, the imperative was clear — Juve had to keep any potential opening goal out as long as possible. Letting in an early goal, as PSG did when Suarez bundled through the opener only three minutes in, would energize Barca’s players and turn an already frenzied crowd volcanic. A goal of their own, on the other hand, would force the Blaugrana to score five in order to advance.
It was heartening, then, to see Juve react to Barca’s initial press by pressing right back. After a sterling performance in the first leg, Paulo Dybala looked to be a marked man in the early phases. He was hit hard several times early, with Ivan Rakitic lucky to avoid a booking from Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers less than five minutes in. The ensuing free kick from the Croatian’s foul found Gonzalo Higuain. The €90 million man had a decent opening for a volley, but put it meekly behind for a goal kick.
A minute later came a sequence significant not necessarily for its on-field result but as an indication of how the game would be officiated. Neymar had the ball screaming the other way. He skipped through Dani Alves and confronted Leonardo Bonucci before going to ground, with a recovering Alves contributing to the collision.
UEFA and the referees it employs are often accused of an institutional bias toward Barcelona. It’s true that a lot of calls go the way of the Blaugrana, especially at the Camp Nou. Now whether that’s because of favoritism on UEFA’s part, straight incompetence or a general tendency for a game official in any sport to favor home teams (there is a section of the excellent book Scorecasting by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim that offers an explanation on that last one) is anyone’s guess, but after the second leg against PSG was riddled with errors by German referee Deniz Aytekin and the complete failure of Viktor Kassai to control Tuesday’s second leg between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the quality of the officiating was a concern among Juventini coming into this game.
Kuipers made an impression in this early moment by swallowing his whistle. Indeed, throughout the entire night he and his crew worked a textbook match. They allowed a good deal of physical play to go on. Kuipers mostly kept his cards sheathed. There was little patience for playacting and arguments, and while there were no bookings for dissent — even when Busquets grabbed Kuipers by the arm midway through the first half — there was never any sense that the game was getting away from them. It was an excellent performance by a good official in a big game, and this moment was an early example.
For the first 15 minutes or so of the game the two giants of the European game traded blows. The MSN got into Juve’s box but were unable to escape the attention of Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, but couldn’t quite tee each other up for clear chances. At the other end Dybala again found Higuain, but the hit man struck his near-post shot over the bar — another chance wasted. Juan Cuadrado barely missed slipping a ball under Gerard Pique for Dybala, and then Messi was finally given a clear opening at the other end only to blaze wide from 14 yards.
Barca soon began to gain more control of possession. But despite their command of the ball, they really weren’t making any clear chances. Any balls into the box were intercepted with authority by Bonucci and Chiellini. Jordi Alba evaded his marker a time or two to make a run down the attacking left, but wasn’t able to meet the passes sent his way with any authority. Messi finally got a sight of goal again in the 32nd minute, but the shot was easily palmed away by Gianluigi Buffon and the Argentine’s attempt to put in his own rebound bounced off the side netting.
Juve, meanwhile, looked to grab an all-important away goal on the break. Mario Mandzukic almost managed to get Dybala through, but La Joya was offside by a fair margin and the flag stopped play. In the 38th minute they managed their best chance of the half when Miralem Pjanic found Higuain, only for the striker to tamely tap the ball into the hands of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
For those of you keeping count, that’s three missed opportunities in this game and six over the entire tie for Higuain.
As the half wore on and the opener didn’t arrive, frustration started creeping in for the Barcelona players. It didn’t help that Kuipers was not giving them the foul calls they wanted. Suarez in particular seemed to gesture angrily toward Kuipers every time he was touched by a Juventus defender. Just before the half Pjanic fouled Messi hard when he went up for a header near midfield — landing the Argentine on his face and opening a cut on his cheek — Neymar lost his head. He clattered into Pjanic after the whistle, earning a yellow card and a ban in Barcelona’s next European match — which we now know will take place in September.
Halftime came and went, and Juve very nearly found the away goal they had been looking for four minutes out from the break when Cuadrado screamed down the right side on the counter but missed just wide of the far post.
Neymar and Messi both fired off target — the latter tantalizingly close — before Cuadrado again menaced the Barca goal, only to be denied by ter Stegen. Messi, showing the signs of switching to battle mode, fired in another shot that Chiellini deflected agonizingly wide of the post. After Messi fired over from a free kick in the 58th minute, one began to wonder how long Juve could get away with Barca missing the target time and again.
Ten minutes later came a moment that could’ve turned the tie on its head. On 68 minutes, Buffon came out for a corner kick but could only tip it, leaving himself WAY out of position. Suarez swung a cross toward Messi, who had only to beat Mandzukic, who was guarding the line, to put life into the crowd and wind into Barca’s sails for the last 22 minutes.
But Messi’s volleyed attempt, a shot we’ve seen him bury time and again over his brilliant career, sailed past the juncture of the post and the crossbar.
Messi fired wide again a few minutes later, before Higuain and Dybala created a couple of chances that petered out before, with 15 minutes left, Juve locked up the shop. Dybala was withdrawn for Andrea Barzagli, reuniting the BBC backline. Barca threw on Javier Mascherano and started crossing into the box as much as possible, but apart from one ball from Neymar that skipped all the way through to Buffon, who had to parry it away, nothing was getting beyond the back line.
Juve nearly put an exclamation mark on things. Sami Khedira fired a weak shot at ter Stegen when Mandzukic was standing unmarked in the box, and substitute Mario Lemina forced the German into action almost as soon as he came on for Cuadrado. By that point, Barca was a broken force. “Olé!” chants emanated from the away end as the Bianconeri put together a string of passes, and when Barca’s final effort went over the end line, it was all over.
Juventus had avenged their loss in the 2015 final and catapulted themselves into the semifinal draw — and no one will want to see their name come out of the hat.
Gianluigi Buffon - 7. Nearly caused an issue when he misplayed that corner, but otherwise had very little to do. Fantastic as the conductor of the defense. No one can marshal a back line better.
Dani Alves - 6.5. Didn’t do as good a job at containing Neymar as he did last week, but made some critical open-field tackles. Spent most of his time in the defensive third and didn’t press up too much.
Leonardo Bonucci - 9. Both center backs were titans on Wednesday. Bonucci made a few vital interventions, including preventing a Neymar tap-in in the 40th minute. His passing prowess was less important today than old-school Italian lock-down defending.
Giorgio Chiellini - 9. Speaking of old-school defenders. Nothing got past Chiellini. Did get booked, but with the semifinals looming the slate is wiped clean. A masterpiece of defending.
Alex Sandro - 7. Known more for marauding forward, Sandro stayed home for most of the day and did very well, backing up the center-backs and intervening on numerous crosses. Didn’t do much offensively but didn’t really have to.
Sami Khedira - 7. Unlike Chiellini, Khedira was already sitting on a suspension so his 64th minute booking means he’ll miss the first leg of the semifinal. Disrupted things as best he could in midfield but really should’ve done better with that late scoring chance.
Miralem Pjanic - 8. He was absolutely everywhere. Seemed like he popped up to win the ball every few minutes. Not usually noted for his defensive prowess, this might’ve been one of his best games in black and white.
Juan Cuadrado - 6.5. Missed a few chances, but the real reason his ranking is so low has to do with defense. He let Jordi Alba get into dangerous positions one too many times in the first half, although he did a better job in the second.
Paulo Dybala - 6.5. Wasn’t able to do much with the meager chances he got, but did his job when out of possession.
Mario Mandzukic - 7. Excellent job supplementing Sandro on the left. Got into his own box to defend numerous headers.
Gonzalo Higuain - 4. One of the few true negatives for Juve. Higuain missed three chances in the first half. He also failed to hold the ball up well — according to WhoScored.com, he was dispossessed twice and had four unsuccessful touches, many of which were near the halfway line and allowed Barca to keep up pressure. Juve spent three times the GDP of Tuvalu for him in order for him to be a difference maker in games like this, not a passenger.
Last week I characterized Allegri’s strategy as “defending to possess, rather than defending to break.” Juve would defend for long periods but rather than immediately hoof the ball upfield when they regained the ball they would usually take possession and start passing moves of their own. They would break on swifter counters when the situation warranted, but for the most part they settled on the ball so they could reset and put Barca under pressure.
Allegri did the same for about 15 minutes tonight, then gradually retreated into a shell. By the second half it was mostly straight counter-and-break.
The formation again morphed from a 4-2-3-1 in possession to a 4-4-2 in defense, a trait becoming more and more pronounced as this formation continues to be used. They compensated well for the wider playing surface in Barcelona and funneled Messi and Neymar into the center, where Bonucci and Chiellini could either deal with them or charge down their efforts.
FEAR THE BIANCONERI
Don’t look now, but Juventus has made it to a European semifinal in three of the last four years, the Champions League twice and the Europa League once. The final phase of their comeback, returning to the elite of Europe, looks like it has finally been realized.
Juventus enter the semifinal draw on Friday as the team that no one wants to face. Leonardo Bonucci said it best after the match when asked about potential semifinal opponents: “I think it’s not who we don’t want to face, but the fact all three of the other teams don’t want to face us. Juventus invoke fear now in others and we’ve proved ourselves.”
Indeed. Juve are ready to take on the world. While some draws will be better than others, Juventus are fully capable of beating any of their three potential opponents in the semis. This team now has a winning European mentality to go along with talent and tactics. They have as good a chance as anyone to win this thing.
Oh, and one other tidbit. Only two teams have ever held Barcelona scoreless over two legs of a tie. Those were Manchester United in the 2007-08 semifinal and Bayern Munich in the 2012-13 semifinal. Both of those teams went on to win the competition.
Whether Juve can do the same and claim the cup with the big ears for the first time in 21 years remains to be seen, but this tie certainly feels like it can be the catalyst for it.