Andiamo a Cardiff.
It doesn’t sound quite as magical as “Andiamo a Berlino,” but thanks to Fabio Caressa that line carries quite a bit more weight. But it’ll do. Boy, howdy it’ll do.
Last week’s 2-0 win in Monte Carlo had put Juventus one foot into the Champions League final, but there was still work to be done. Monaco is one of the most dangerous attacking teams in the world. Under most circumstances they can sneeze and score twice.
Of course, playing Juventus is not normal circumstances. The Bianconeri possess the best defense in Europe, and in spite of allowing a few more chances than normal last Wednesday night, they blanked the continent’s most potent attack on their own turf. In the battle between the unstoppable force an the immovable object, the latter was winning.
Massimiliano Allegri made only one change to his lineup from the first leg, as Sami Khedira returned from a yellow card suspension to retake his place in the starting XI. Leandro Jardim also altered his lineup, returning Benjamin Mendy to his place on the left flank after he missed the opener due to injury. That allowed Djibril Sidibe to return to the right, and the more attack-minded Joao Moutinho slotted into the midfield.
Those changes looked to be beneficial for the principality side early on. An early cross had Gianluigi Buffon uncharacteristically out of position, but it floated harmlessly over the goal. A few minutes later they nearly had their dream start when a shot by Moutinho landed at the feet of 19-year-old wunderkind Kylian Mbappe, who fired from a tight angle and clanked the base of the post.
Mbappe was offside and it looks like the assistant referee put up his flag after a bit of a delay, but it was a warning shot after only five minutes. An early goal like that could have turned the tie on its head. They had a chance for another two minutes later, but Radamel Falcao fired over the bar.
Juve finally broke shortly thereafter, but the attack proved costly. Khedira played a through ball to Mario Mandzukic that had a bit too much power, but the German international immediately grabbed at his hamstring.
An overlooked aspect of this season has been Khedira’s health. He has a long history of injuries, but he’s stayed incredibly healthy this year and has played in 43 games over all competitions. Unfortunately, his body seems to have chosen a bad time to return to its old form. Allegri was forced to burn a substitution after 10 minutes, sending on Claudio Marchisio. Interestingly enough, that move seemed to settle Juve into the game.
Juve began to hold possession and press upfield. On 15 minutes, Gonzalo Higuain headed the ball into the path of Paulo Dybala, but the 23-year-old slammed his volley miles wide. After surviving another scare thanks to a Giorgio Chiellini clearance, Juve had their first real chance.
It came from Higuain, who put on an uncharacteristic burst of speed to put himself through on goal. The €90 million man had finally broken his Champions League curse last week, but this time his attempt to chip Danijel Subasic went horribly awry. It beat the keeper, but it was strangely hit and hung in the air forever, allowing Kamil Glik to hack the ball away before it even came close to the goal line.
Oh, foreshadowing: Glik and Higuain will be important later.
That chance, wasted though it was, opened the floodgates. Two minutes later Higuain turned provider, sending Mandzukic through. One-on-one with his countryman, Mandzukic’s powerful shot was met by Subasic’s hand and turned aside. It was a superb save, but 60 seconds later another black and white shirt came barreling toward him. This time it was Miralem Pjanic, who was fed by Dybala, but his attempt was deflected away by a last-ditch Andrea Raggi challenge.
Monaco had been forced to work against the run of play. Falcao got around the defense to test Buffon on the half-hour, but the flag went up and Buffon was equal to the effort regardless. But three minutes later the tie was effectively over.
It started down the left side with Alex Sandro, who sent Dybala over the middle. A few passes later, Dani Alves found himself with the ball at the edge of the penalty area.
To this point Alves, the clear man of the match at the Stade Louis II with two assists, had been fairly quiet. But the Brazilian hooked in a perfect cross for Mandzukic at the far post. The big Croatian was again denied by his international teammate, but stayed with the play and tapped his own rebound into the roof of the net.
If the J-Stadium had a roof, it would’ve come off. Mandzukic jumped over the advertising boards and executed what can only be described as a footballing version of the NFL’s famous Lambeau Leap in Green Bay. The physical manifestation of this team’s spirit, it was fitting that Mandzu get his moment here.
When proceedings resumed, the Italian champions set out to put it beyond all doubt. Higuain had a goal disallowed for a tight — but probably correct — offside call less than three minutes after the opener. Alves started marauding down the right. Jardim’s switch to a back three, which gave Juve issues for the first 10 minutes, started having trouble coping with the movement of Higuain and Dybala.
Monaco had to get to the scraps. They nearly equalized on the night when Mendy bent in a cross for Falcao, but Chiellini made an incredible interception to put the ball back for a corner. Moments later, at the stroke of halftime, the final nail.
Subasic was busy once, turning aside Dybala on yet another 1-on-1 matchup and then punching away the ensuing corner. Unfortunately, the ball flew right to Alves, who unleashed a pile driver of a volley. Somehow Subasic actually got a hand to it, but there was no stopping this. It’s a serious candidate for goal of the year.
The second half was probably the easiest 45 minutes Juve fans have had to sit through all year. It was only notable for two things.
The first was Mbappe’s consolation goal, which ended Juve’s Champions League scoreless streak at 689 minutes. The teenager turned in a Moutinho cross that had snaked itself past Higuain, who had been back covering a corner.
Speaking of Higuain, the second notable thing brings us back to him and Glik. Higuain was brought down in a double team in the 74th minute, and as he tumbled the Polish center-back stomped directly onto his knee.
It was a deplorable act. Glik hit him straight in the middle of the knee. It could have ripped the joint apart. As it was, Higuain was down for a very long time receiving treatment. It’s amazing that Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers and his crew, who were so excellent while controlling the second leg of the quarterfinal against Barcelona, missed it. Glik shouldn’t have just been sent off the field — he should’ve been escorted out of the building.
In the end it really shouldn’t be a surprise. This was only the latest proof that Glik is a player completely without class. Formerly of Torino, he’s the only man to have been sent off from both legs of the Derby della Mole — a feat he accomplished in 2012-13 and that remains unique.
A lot depends on the match report, but if Kuipers didn’t see the stomp, UEFA could take action. Frankly, if I were running the confederation, I’d suspend him for the entire group stage next year.
The rest of the game threatened to spin out of control. Glik went at it again a few minutes later when Higuain was holding the ball near the sideline, practically punching him in the back. It was an incredible display of will power for Higuain to not elbow him in the face. Mandzukic had his own issues with Glik as stoppage time approached as the Pole completely melted down in the face of his team’s elimination.
The clock ticked down, and after three minutes of stoppage time, Kuipers brought his whistle to his lips for the final time. For the second time in three years, Juventus were going to play for Europe’s biggest prize.
Gianluigi Buffon - 7. Didn’t have all that much to do today, and when he did his opponent tended to be offside — a testament to both the talent of his defense and his ability to marshal it effectively.
Andrea Barzagli - 6.5. A better performance than he put in in Monaco, but he still struggled at times with Monaco’s pace at times. Father time is starting to catch him.
Leonardo Bonucci - 7. His usual reliable self in the back. According to WhoScored.com, he connected on 10 of 15 long balls and made eight clearances.
Giorgio Chiellini - 8. An immense presence in the box. Beat Falcao to two balls in the first half, one that would have put Monaco ahead and one that would’ve tied the score at 1-1 on the night. Had either of those goals gone in it could have given Monaco real hope going into the second half.
Sami Khedira - NR. Left injured after 10 minutes.
Miralem Pjanic - 7. Understated, but metronomic in his passing. He’s finally starting to do what was expected when he was bought from Roma.
Dani Alves - 10. No other rating is possible. He didn’t get an official assist on Mandzukic’s goal, but should have. His own goal might be Juve’s goal of the season. What a bolt.
Paulo Dybala - 7. Connected the forwards and midfielders beautifully. Could have done a little better with his shot attempts, especially the 1-v-1 before the half, but he was everywhere in the attack, often making the first in a series of passes that led to opportunities.
Mario Mandzukic - 7. Showed great persistence on the goal and was dangerous down the left all night.
Gonzalo Higuain - 6. Really should have scored on that Subasic chip. The real positive here is the fact that he didn’t give in to the temptation to rip Glik’s face off.
Claudio Marchisio - 7. His introduction, forced as it was, seemed to settle Juve down. Completed 85 percent of his passes and maintained possession well.
Juan Cuadrado - 6. Got after Monaco’s tired defense, but was too slow in his decision making. Needs to improve that aspect of his game if he’s to ever be as elite as some of his die-hards make him out to be.
Medhi Benatia - NR. On in the last five minutes for a cramping Barzagli.
Max Allegri - 8. Everyone expected Allegri to use the Five Star lineup against Monaco, but the Tuscan through a curve at everyone by reverting to Juve’s tried and true three-man defense — with a twist.
Rather than a 3-5-2, Allegri employed a 3-4-2-1, which, as all of Allegri’s systems do, morphed into different forms when in attack and defense. That sent Cuadrado to the bench, but Allegri felt Barzagli provided more solidity against Monaco’s high-powered attack. It remains to be seen whether he reverts to a four-man line in the final, but Juve is as versatile as ever.
THE FINAL AGAIN
This will be the ninth European Cup/Champions League final Juventus has taken part in. They have only won two, with the last coming in 1996.
This team is much different from the one Barcelona beat 3-1 two years ago. As Leonardo Bonucci said in his post-match press conference, “Juventus are now a certainty, not a surprise.”
Two years ago, Juve rode to the final on some excellent play but also a favorable draw. This Juve had to go through Barcelona and Monaco, two of the most potent offensive teams in the world, to get to this point.
Another looms in Cardiff. Unless something really strange happens at the Estadio Vicente Calderon, Juve will be facing Real Madrid in the final. This Real is going to be different from the one Juve eliminated at the semifinal stage two years ago, but this Juve has evolved into a much higher form since that time as well.
Juve no longer has their scoreless streak, but that may end up being a good thing. If the streak had been intact, it would have been a major storyline coming into the final. The added pressure of maintaining it could have been detrimental.
As it is they can meet Real (presumably) on equal terms. Los blancos have a potent attack with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the front line, but they are deficient in the back, but their defense can be breached. If Juve are clinical, there’s no reason for them to lose.
A little more than three weeks. It’s time to finally end the wait — for the team and for Buffon, who is searching for the last club trophy to add to his collection. Just like Miroslav Klose was the most deserving player who had never won a World Cup in 2014, Buffon is the most deserving player who has never won the Champions League.
It’s time to get Gigi his trophy.