When Max Allegri decided to put Andrea Barzagli on the pitch, I thought it was too early.
Fifteen minutes left. One goal every five minutes.
Not out of the question. And so as I watched little Paulito amble off the pitch as slowly as he could, I was afraid. I do admit it. As stupendous as Juventus had looked for the first 75 minutes in Wednesday night’s game, as much as the Bianconeri had rebounded in the second half from a first half that was filled with 2-3 golden opportunities for Barcelona, I worried. As we’ve seen again and again, Paulo Dybala is often the main or only connection between Juve’s pivot midfielders and and the attackers at the front of the 4-2-3-1. Even at this point of the contest, I was hoping Allegri’s squad would capitalize on one of the 337 counterattacks.
Corner after corner, cross after cross, attacking movement after attacking movement, an almost-callable Sandro handball — none of it mattered; the defense stood firm, and it reminded me of Helm’s Deep when the rain started and all the orcs are standing outside the wall in rank and file — the orcs, I guess, would be Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar — and Aragorn starts chirping in Elvish to the Elves who were last-minute reinforcements (i.e., Barzagli), and the defensive posture was fully committed to (i.e., the fortress in Helm’s deep), and probably Dani Alves is Gimli because Gimli does so many things where you’re just like. What the hell is happening (like when the game started and Alves was literally joking around with the Barcelona bench; you can’t make this up), and the orcs start charging with their torches and the moonlight glinting off their shields and swords and they’ve got trolls and battering rams and those big ladders they latch to the walls and those trebuchet-type things and all the good guys could do was sit back in their defensive posture and be like, So it begins.
That’s how I felt in the 75th minute when Barzagli was subbed for Dybala.
And then Juventus won, and there is a 99% chance we draw Atletico or Real tomorrow.
A tantalizing collection of titillating tidbits.
- When the game was 100 pervent in hand — with like 27 seconds left in stoppage time, basically — all the Barcelona supporters were cheering and waving their flags, and I had two reactions. One: That’s really impressive, and gives me sort of a different view of their organization known stereotypically for its entitlement. Two: I wonder if that’s borrowed footage, Trump style.
- My body was literally shaking for much of this game. I assume I was not alone.
- Cuadrado’s volley attempt in the 16th minute: LOL Cuadrado.
- I really dislike Neymar, but you’ve got to recognize how skilled he is with the ball. Juve have Paulito who amazes us again and again with his skill, and Paulito and Neymar aren’t the same player by any means, but goodness gracious the dude is unbelievable with the ball at his feet. He doesn’t have the vision or passing mechanics of Messi, but multiple times he decided it was prudent to take on 4-6 Juventus defenders, and somehow he was right, and dribbled past them all.
- Of course, he also dives and whines like no other, and I hope he stepped in dog poop and messed up his sneakers before getting on the bus yesterday.
- The game really got salty toward the end of the first half. Miralem Pjanic faceplanted Messi into the grass, and Neymar did the extremely Neymar thing of not thinking very much, and when Barcelona couldn’t score I think the idea that they might in fact lose (to a better team) started entering their adorable Barcelona brains.
- My notes include many profanities directed toward MSN, and a handful of LOL/WTF toward Cuadrado and Alves — both of whom played great, I thought. But still. That’s the sort of players they are, you know?
- Onto the semifinals. Hoorah!
Onto the awards:
Sidewalk of Turin Award
For a weak(ish) performance masked by other factors.
If I were doing ratings, I don’t think I’d give anyone below a 6 or 6.5. Juventus have just shut Barcelona out for 180 minutes, and that’s a magical feat made possible only with 11 players defending constantly, and understanding their roles, etc.
That said, there were a few players yesterday who I thought were below their capable form: Pipita, Cuadrado, and Alex Sandro.
Don’t hurt me; remember what this award is: basically saying they played absolutely fine, but there was a chink or two in their game.
For Pipita, it was finishing and first touch. Besides those two things, he did exactly what he needed to do. Yes, he could’ve sealed the deal and put us up 1-0 on a couple occasions, but I was proud of his performance yesterday and thought he earned his paycheck.
For Cuadrado, it was the final pass or connection on the counterattack. The botched cross to Dybala, a wrong decision here or there. But he pressured their defense extremely well. He worked hard. He pressed. He did exactly what a Cuadrado ought to do, which is weigh the other team with his pace and tenacity and relentlessness. It was a joy to watch.
For Sandro, who has set his bar of play impossibly high, it was a couple instances of careless possession, one of which forced Sami Khedira into a yellow-card-worthy tackle. But Sandro was fantastic in the air, and solid defensively.
Piazza San Carlo Award
For a potentially overlooked yet stellar showing.
I don’t think this is really possible for the Bianconeri fans on this site, but insofar as it is I would give the San Carlo to Chiellini, if only because his partner was clearly and evidently — in the author’s humble opinion — one of the two best players on the pitch.
Old man warrior/business mogul Chiellini was wonderful. Again. Positioning, in the air, with his tackles. Thank goodness that he’s recovered from his injury-prone first half the season, because as fantastic as Barzagli is I’m not sure he could last a full 90 minutes in these types of games, which would mean more Benatia, because Rugani is just a toddler in Allegri’s mindset (okay, not the place to pick this fight, whatever).
Take home some hardware, Giorgio.
For a notable demonstration in both grit and flair.
Here’s my only surprise for the awards: Allegri takes this one home.
Allegri takes this one home because Allegri did not, as he did in the league game against Napoli in Naples, elect to sit back and take the punches one after the other. I think we all had nightmares of that happening. I had nightmares of that happening, even after his comments yesterday about playing to win, I feared we’d come out fielding a 7-2-1 and just put in every center back on our roster.
But we pressed. Allegri made sure we pressed.
We pressed to open the game, and when Barcelona pressed back — I’d say from the 15-minute mark to the 25-minute mark is when Barcelona looked the scariest — Allegri didn’t let his team settle for staying back the rest of the game. And this is where Higuain, Cuadrado, Dybala, and even Mr. No Good deserve credit. They pressed and they moved the ball forward and held it in the few opportunities they had. Allegri played this match perfectly. Barcelona had their chances, but so did Juventus. It was really after that first third of the game where I thought, tactically speaking, the danger could be lurking, but Juventus withstood the onslaught at the end of the first half, clearly frustrating Barcelona, and played the entire second half, up to the last moments of the game, with frequent bursts into the final third. Goodness gracious, that was pretty.
Parco Valentino Award
For an urbane demeanor distributed amongst the squad.
For the second game in a row, the 39-year-old golden Zeus between the posts wins this award. He really should text me to say thank you, I think.
It’s not only for the saves he made, one of which was extremely difficult to contend with—the cross/shot with a Barca attacker flying in front of him, and very little time to react to the non-touch—but it’s the fact that for 90 minutes he was controlling and shaping our defense. Having Buffon in between the posts is like having a really freaking good, defensive-minded manager on the pitch; it really is. And when you add the experience and ability of Bonucci and Chiellini, it makes for a hell of a defense, which is what we’ve got: Juventus have conceded two (!) goals in ten (!!) Champions League games, and have tallied three (!!!) clean sheets.
Go home, Barcelona. Enjoy your Neymar-less date with Real.
Giuseppe Garibaldi Award
For the man of the match.
This is obvious, but I’ll call a push between Miralem Pjanic and Leo Bonucci.
Pjanic was given the dubious task of blanketing Messi for this game and also pressing forward and also being the pivot between back and front lines, and he did it well; for all 90 minutes he was everywhere. By a fair margin he had the most touches for Juventus, and he was as accurate as humanly possible under the kind of pressure exerted yesterday. Pjanic obviously isn’t the most pacey player, but he’s got a sneaky agility when the ball gets at his feet, especially, it seems, when he’s holding with his back toward the goal, and he changes directions. He wields an uncanny ability to know where our players are, and who exactly he should pass to.
If the 4-2-3-1 is here to stay, Pjanic is becoming essentially the perfect defensive midfielder: a distributor, a blanket, and to top it off a free-kick ace. If he’s able to do these things well, his pace won’t matter that much; he’ll be able to broaden his passing skills—Allegri alluded to this a couple months ago—and will be essentially the Bonucci of midfield. A staunch defender who instigates attacks. Darn, that’s exciting.
And then there’s Leo.
Both Leo and Miralem played pretty much perfect games, right? And I don’t mean mistake-free games—I’d wedge Chiellini into that category; even his yellow was a pretty smart foul, I think, despite the free kick it gave away—but Leo was everywhere: stopping crosses, winning headers, directing the formation. Maybe he heard Verratti’s comments and got a little salty. Any time he walks onto the pitch, he’s one of the best. Against Barcelona, he stood alone.
Fino alla fine.