The Coppa Italia and the Scudetto have been secured. It’s finally time for Juventus to start turning their eyes to Cardiff, and the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid on Saturday, June 3.
The Bianconeri are in the Champions League final for the second time in three years. Their opponents have made UEFA’s showpiece event two straight seasons and three times in the last four years. Both Juve and Real are champions of their respective leagues, and Juventus have the chance to do something special if they win the cup with the big ears for the first time in 21 years**.
(**I refuse to use the “T” word until late in the afternoon — New York time — on June 3. I firmly believe in not tempting Fate, and to speak so would be to invite the wrath of the Whatever from high atop the Thing.)
With the final closing in upon us at last, it’s time to take a look at how these teams actually stack up against each other. In order to do that, we’re going to divide each team into units and compare each of them to their opposite numbers.
To give each group the detail it deserves, the units will be divided by position. I may mention how different players fit into different tactical systems, but this article isn’t meant to predict what tactics Massimiliano Allegri and Zinedine Zidane will choose 10 days from now. We will simply look at the players in all position groups and give an edge to the stronger unit.
Another thing to note: After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided to interpret Paulo Dybala’s role less as a trequartista and more as a seconda punta, so he will be included with the striker group and not the midfield group.
With all that said, let’s take a look at how these two giants of the game stack up.
Keylor Navas is not a bad goalkeeper. In fact, he’s very good. His performances for Costa Rica in international competition, particularly the World Cup in 2014, garnered him a lot of attention, and he was eventually signed from Levante when Los blancos triggered his buyout clause.
Navas spent his first year in Madrid as backup to the legendary Iker Casillas. Casillas left the club that summer, but Navas was not the first choice to be the successor. Real president had his heart set on Manchester United star and Spain starter David De Gea and even intended to use Navas as part of the deal, both as a makeweight and to make United more secure in the fact that they would have a high-quality replacement. The deal was agreed upon, but the proper documentation wasn’t submitted to FIFA in time, and both players stayed where they were.
Navas took over the No. 1 shirt and has played in 83 games between La Liga and the Champions League in the last two seasons. He’s garnered criticism for some mistakes he’s made this year, but he’s also bailed his team out in big ways. He was immense in the semifinal against Atletico Madrid, winning a one-on-one battle in the first leg and denying both Yannick Carrasco and Kevin Gameiro on a fantastic double save in the second.
But Keylor Navas is not Gianluigi Buffon.
Quite simply the best goalkeeper the world has ever known, Buffon is still playing at the very highest level of the position at the age of 39. Anyone who thinks different should be introduced to the save he pulled on Andres Iniesta in the first leg of the quarterfinal tie against Barcelona. The one-handed parry denied the Blaugrana a crucial away goal and allowed Juve to run away with the tie. Also submitted for your consideration: the instant-reaction block to Monaco starlet Kylian Mbappe’s tight-angled volley early in the first leg of the semifinal, a stop that kept the game goalless and opened the door for the team’s eventual 2-0 win in Monte Carlo.
While he may not be the pure shot-stopper he was 11 years ago when he helped lead Italy to its fourth World Cup, he is supreme in the other, less appreciated aspects of goalkeeping. He’s a commanding presence on crosses, and his ability to marshal a defense — perhaps the least tangible but most important skill of a keeper — is still unmatched.
Navas may be an upper echelon goalkeeper, but you can only count the goalkeepers better than Buffon at this moment on one hand, even at his age. The GOAT has the clear edge for Juve.
This is a tricky group to judge, because a lot hinges on the health of one man.
That man is Dani Carvajal, who hasn’t played since suffering a hamstring injury just before halftime of the first leg of the semifinal against Atletico Madrid.
Real’s back line is already underpowered for a team at this level, but if Carvajal can’t play it will become a genuine weakness in this contest. Zidane’s options to replace him would be either to make a straight swap with the mistake-prone Danilo — who was abused by Atleti in the second leg of the semis — or to move natural center-half Nacho to the right side. Either option would make Juve’s left-sided tandem of Mario Mandzukic and Alex Sandro lick their chops. Nacho would compensate for the physical mismatch Mandzukic tends to create but would be vulnerable to the agile Sandro, while Danilo would simply be an all-around nightmare.
So much is riding on Carvajal’s play because the rest of the fullbacks are all top class. Sandro is in the running for best man in the world at left back, a title his Real counterpart Marcelo is also in the running for.
The duel between Marcelo on Real’s left and Dani Alves on Juve’s right is going to be something special. Both have been in excellent form in the latter stages of the Champions League. Alves in particular has been on fire since the end of April, scoring three goals and notching two assists in his last six games. In the semifinals against Monaco he was imperious, assisting both goals in the first leg—one on an outrageous backheel—before sealing the tie just before the half of the second leg with an incredible volleyed goal.
Carvajal is the key to this matchup. According to Marca, he passed a fitness test on Wednesday and is back in training. That would put him on track to play. The possibility of a relapse in training or the early stages of the game is there, and if he does make the XI there’s no guarantee he’ll be as effective as usual. For our purposes, we’ll assume he will be until proven otherwise. If Carvajal plays, this is a push. If he doesn’t, or if he’s forced off the field early, it’s a clear advantage to Juve.
Real Madrid’s defensive record in this tournament is curious, considering how talented their top central defenders are.
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane are, on paper, a top-level pairing. But Real have only kept a clean sheet once in Champions League play this season and have let in 17 goals overall. Both can tackle — they average 1.8 and 1.5 per match, respectively, between La Liga and the Champions League — and Ramos is also adept at reading passing lanes and coming up with interceptions.
The defensive issues aren’t isolated to Europe either. The Spanish champions gave up 41 goals in league play — more than three of the next four teams behind them.
This has to come down to a lack of chemistry. Varane has been plagued by injuries this year, necessitating the rotation of Nacho and Pepe into the side. There hasn’t been as much time to develop a rhythm this year, and it’s showed when this team has bent.
There are no such concerns for the Bianconeri. Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini have been playing together for six years, and at times they almost seem to communicate telepathically. With Buffon pulling the strings from the goal, they have formed the best defense in Europe over the last six years. In the quarterfinal they became only the third team in history to hold Barcelona scoreless over a two-legged tie, and they have only allowed three goals all season, at one point putting together a 689-minute scoreless streak.
Whether Allegri decides to play with three in the back or four, this group is one of the most tight-knit and stingy in history. Hopefully the three all stay healthy—the fourth man in the rotation, Medhi Benatia, has largely been a disaster this year. But regardless of what combination of the top three ends up on the field, they will give Juventus a clear edge in the back.
This is where Real finds some footing.
If the two teams play as expected, they will outnumber Juve in the midfield three men to two — and the quality of those three men is outstanding.
Casemiro, whose career at the Bernabeu has been revitalized since Zinedine Zidane took over the team, has developed into one of the top holding midfielders in the game. He averages 5.1 tackles per match in the Champions League and another four in La Liga, and he contributes with the ball, too, completing just over 85 percent of his passes and scoring five goals over all competitions, including a screamer against Napoli in the round of 16. He will provide an edge to the midfield that Real didn’t have in the semifinals two years ago.
Another presence who missed out on the last meeting between these clubs is Luka Modric. The Croatian was injured during that tie, and his absence left their midfield — and the team, really — sightly unbalanced. Here, he could be an X factor. Good at clogging up passing lanes defensively and at creating offensively, allowing him the space to work could mean death. The same is the case with Toni Kroos, a true box-to-box player who registered a whopping 12 assists in La Liga this year, second behind Barcelona’s Luis Suarez.
Juve certainly has the quality to compete. Former Real Madrid man Sami Khedira has been the fulcrum of Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 since its inception in January, and he’s finally stayed healthy for a full year. He scored five times in Serie A, and his presence has balanced the squad. His chemistry with Miralem Pjanic, the second man in Juve’s double-pivot midfield, has been phenomenal. The Bosnian has been able to pull the strings far more effectively beside Khedira than he had earlier in the season when Allegri attempted to use him as a box-to-box player or trequartista. He led the team with eight assists, and the danger he poses on free kicks is Pirlo-esque.
What allows Real to pull ahead here is depth. Juve can call on Claudio Marchisio to back up either of their mids, but it’s clear he’s still not all the way back from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered just over a year ago. He has looked better lately, but he’s pretty much it. Behind him is Tomas Rincon, a spare part if there ever was one, and then Mario Lemina and Stefano Sturaro, both of whom are young and capable but haven’t played enough to really develop rhythms on the field.
Zidane, on the other hand, can call on the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Isco, Marco Asensio and even James Rodriguez to fill in, all of whom can change the game if they’re on point. He simply has more options, and that depth gives Real Madrid the advantage.
The fact that Gareth Bale is struggling for fitness since leaving the Classico against Barca in late April would normally be a huge blow for a team. Fortunately for Real Madrid, Isco’s form since taking over for him has cushioned the blow.
Bale has never regained full fitness since injuring himself in a Champions League game against Sporting Lisbon in November. His performances after his premature return were lackluster, in stark contrast with Isco, who has registered two goals and three assists in the six games since Bale’s latest setback. An attacking midfielder by trade, the Spain international has taken a sort of hybrid role, part winger, part roaming attacking mid, and in doing so has greatly strengthened the connection between the midfield and forwards.
There will be debate as to whether Bale or Isco should play up until the lineups are announced. As for the other wing, that seems more settled. Some dude named Cristiano Ronaldo plays there.
Juve’s wing situation is far more complex. On the right, Allegri could either go with a standard winger in Juan Cuadrado or could push up Dani Alves and use Andrea Barzagli in the back, either as a shotgun right back or as part of the 3-4-2-1 that Juve used against Monaco in the semis.
You can’t go wrong with either. Cuadrado’s decision making can be frustrating — OK, sometimes it’s downright infuriating — but his speed could be a huge factor in counterattacking against Real’s weak back line. Alves is a better choice if Allegri chooses to try to break Real down from possession. Leaving Cuadrado on the bench would also give Allegri an option up front if he needed to change the game, something he hasn’t had much of since the Marko Pjaca tore his ACL and was shelved for the rest of the season.
On the left, the stone-cold lead-pipe lock is Mandzukic. The big Croatian’s wing play is atypical, exploiting the physical mismatches his size usually creates against full-backs rather than the blistering pace of someone like Cuadrado. Against the 5’8” Carvajal, he would be able to exploit that advantage with ease.
Juve’s wingers are good, if somewhat unconventional. But regardless of whether Bale or Isco play, an on-form Cristiano Ronaldo gives Real the edge on the wings regardless of anything.
Real play a single striker in their 4-4-3, but Karim Benzema isn’t having his best year. He’s only scored 11 times in La Liga, and while he’s augmented that record with five in the Champions League, the weakest link of the Real’s BBC has simply not fired on all cylinders this year.
His backup, on the other hand, has outscored him by four in La Liga in nearly 600 fewer minutes. You might remember his name — Alvaro Morata.
Returning to Real Madrid after his boyhood club exercised the buyback option included in his deal, Morata has scored 20 times in all competitions and a well known knack for scoring goals in huge situations — including the temporary equalizer for Juve in the final against Barcelona in 2015.
However, in two games against Italy for Spain, his former Juve teammates Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini have kept him well in their pocket. Whether that’s because they know him so well from two years of training together or simply the right games on the right days is yet to be determined.
Juve’s strike force is consisted of a pair of Argentinians, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala.
For all Higuain’s goalscoring in Italy — he’s scored 24 times in his debut season with Juve — he’s been relatively quiet in the Champions League this season. His double against Monaco in the semifinal were his first goals in Europe since November, and he’s only tallied five all year. That said, he remains one of the deadliest poachers in Europe, and he could finally approach being worthy of his astronomical fee if he helps Juve to a win here.
Behind him is Dybala. Since moving into the hole right behind his compatriot, he has had license to roam the free in the attacking third, particularly to the right, where he has dovetailed nicely with Alves. His set-piece prowess is almost the equal of Pjanic, and he can pull incredible goals nowhere.
Benzema isn’t a slouch, but he’s had an off year. Higuain and Dybala have been much better. They give Juve the edge.