As Juventus took to the field on Wednesday night, they knew they only had one thing to do to see through their progression to the Champions League semifinals. They just had to make sure they didn’t concede three goals. It would seem like a comfortable situation for a team to be in, especially at this stage in the Champions League, but when the opponent is Barcelona and the venue is the Camp Nou, normality goes out the window.
For Max Allegri, holding such a lead going into the second leg must have been as distracting as it was an advantage. Tactically, he had a lot of options, but there were almost too many. Does he sit his Juve team back, invite pressure and hope Barca tire out? Or maybe press high and not allow his opponents to pass the first line of defence so easily? There were quite a number of strategies Allegri could have employed, and we’d see a mixture of them throughout the match. A high press was instilled at first, with a more cautious approach being taken as the game went on. The late introduction of Andrea Barzagli for Paulo Dybala was evidence of the defensive tactics used for the final twenty minutes.
Just six weeks prior to this contest, Barcelona faced an insurmountable task when welcoming Paris Saint-Germain for the second leg of their Round of 16 tie. PSG had destroyed Barca in France, racing to a 4-0 win, seemingly booking their place in the quarter finals in the process. But with 98,000 home fans creating a daunting atmosphere, Barca can never be counted out at their own stadium. This rings true, even if they are down four goals. They eventually hammered Les Parisiens 6-1 and history was made. This unbelievable comeback was the talk of the football world as soon as the first leg ended in Turin last week, and whether or not Barca could do it all over again. There’s no doubt this made the Juve players extra aware of the dangers of complacency when holding such a comfortable lead.
It’s during moments like this that a club needs leaders. They need players with strong characters who will shine by example, showing the rest of the squad what is needed for triumph. Wednesday night, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci stepped up to the plate, meeting these requirements and creating even further protocol for how leaders are supposed to act. Bonucci and Chiellini have made their name on being at the forefront of Juve’s dominant defense over the last few years, with this game just another example of why they are the best centre-back pairing in Europe. Not many others could frustrate and keep the superstars of MSN at bay for over 180 minutes.
Luis Suarez, usually so dangerous and active, was shut out in the first leg and kept just as quiet last night. Anytime he got a sniff of the ball, Bonucci and Chiellini were there to close him down. The supply to the centre forward was immediately cut out; Chiellini even went as far as the halfway line to intercept an attempted pass by Sergi Roberto to Suarez during the first half. It’s no surprise then that the Uruguayan only managed 41 touches on the ball according to whoscored.com. Lionel Messi and Neymar fared better in that department with 83 and 120 touches respectively, but they both lost possession six times.
Neymar did get the best of Dani Alves from time to time, but as he skipped past his first marker Bonucci was there to clear any danger. How frustrating it must have been for Neymar to get clear of Alves only for him to run into Bonucci, who prevented him from gaining momentum throughout the contest. Barca targeted the right wing of Juventus as a weak point, with Jordi Alba getting in behind Juan Cuadrado often and Neymar being looked at as the focal point of attack. It was all in vain though as anytime he did cut in, he failed to get much joy.
Similarly, Messi was running at Juve’s defence as often as he could, dribbling past the midfield, only to see Chiellini in his way. Anytime Messi or Neymar thought they had the beating of the black and white wall in front of them, there were two bulldozers left waiting to push them back to where they started from. Frustration got the better of Barca at times, as they accepted that neither Bonucci nor Chiellini could be beaten. They reverted to crossing the ball, a tactic which is extremely rare for a side built on tiki-taka football. That’s a sign of how puzzled the La Liga Champions were in their attempt to break down their opponents. Barcelona sent in 34 crosses in a desperate search for at least a goal, never mind the three they needed to level the tie. Juve were only too happy to let them do this, knowing Bonucci and Chiellini were well equipped to deal with any high ball sent their way.
There’s a saying that “offense wins games but defense wins championships”. Last night was evidence of that. For all the riches and skills of Suarez, Messi and Neymar, Juve’s Chiellini & Bonucci-inspired backline shut them out. It wasn’t just during last night’s game either, as their side held a 3-0 lead and could afford to focus more defensively. They were just as effective in the first leg, as was the captain marvellous behind them in Gianluigi Buffon. That's now just 2 goals they have conceded in this year's competition. Fellow semi-finalists Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and AS Monaco all have their own talented offensive players, but none of them match up with what the Bianconeri came up against, and closed down in the last week. The Serie A leaders finally have a blueprint for success in the Champions League. All that’s left to do now is execute it like they have done so far, and a European cup awaits them.