UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL PREVIEW
Berlin, 2015 — I don’t envisage many cities having had to contend with quite as many geo political reconstructions that have swept through the German capital since the start of the 20th century. From being the royal capital of the Prussian king, Friedrich the 1st, to cosmopolitan city of the Weimar republic, to the Nazis and their atrocious national socialist era, to the post 1945 cold war stand offs including the greatest example of west vs. east ideology within a single city with the Berlin Wall dividing communism and democracy like no other. Next up we have the fall of the wall in 1991 and with it the death of communism in Western Europe allowing a unified Germany to go on to rightfully take its place as one of the most powerful and influential nations in almost any sphere.
Well tonight this mighty German Titan which has withstood the test of time is going to have to take a back seat to two very distinct historical connotations of their equally impressive hosts. We have the mighty Spanish Armada taking on the unstoppable progress of the Italian Renaissance. There isn’t a game in European football that can capture the imagination like the one that we will witness tonight, the definition of two distinct clubs, forget the playing style, but in the manner in which they portray themselves and their image unto their adoring fans, their subsequent success which allows these juggernauts to boast which one of them will end the season on a note of perfection with a sweep of every trophy, A TREBLE (or in Barcelona’s case a second treble in 6 seasons). Forget the two teams winning 3 champions leagues in a row in the 70’s or even the mighty Milan’s back to back wins in 89–90. What we are witnessing now is truly the super club era. Since 2008–09, Barcelona 09, Inter Milan 10, Bayern Munich 13 have each won a treble, tonight one more team joins that illustrious list of behemoths.
Note to readers: I’m an Arsenal fan since 1998; it’s alien to me how the losing team’s supporters may feel after ending a season with two trophies and yet a sour taste in their mouth.
ROAD TO THE FINALS
Drawn in the group of Champions, group A boasted 4 teams all with the previous seasons domestic title under their belt — The definition of intensity in Atletico Madrid, Greek champs Olympiakos and Swedish champs Malmo. People thought this was going to be a straightforward group with the gulf in class telling the difference. Underestimating the mind-set of teams that even qualify for the Uefa Champions League from so called lesser light countries has been a chief cause in early bag packing or worse, toiling around in the Europa League wastelands (Just ask the ever so often deluded Brendan Rodgers).
Juventus eventually finished second behind Atletico Madrid but not after suffering extreme anxiety with qualification only secured with the final whistle of the last group game at home to Atletico. This was of course due to the loss against Olympiakos on matchday 3; however, in hindsight one must look at that game as the beginning of this version of Juve, or Massimilano Allegris version to be specific. A switch from a back 3 in their tried and tested 3–5–2 formation to a more balanced one allowing greater midfield control with a 4–3–1–2, even if they suffered a bit on the wings the midfield trio of Vidal, Pogba and Pirlo/Marchisio allowed them to impose their will in the middle of the park. They are undefeated in Europe since that night in Greece on the 22nd of October.
ROUND OF 16
With second place secured next up in the round of 16, they faced a very formidable opponent in the form of Jurgen Klopp’s adrenaline junkies, Borussia Dortmund. This year however BVB couldn’t play to the same stratospheric levels of their 2013 version (how can you when the dastardly Bayern Munich go and buy Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski) and they were swatted aside comprehensibly and quite surprisingly to be fair by Juventus. The Old Lady were simply too composed, too tactically intelligent and saw off Dortmund 5–1 on aggregate even allowing for a comical Giorgio Chiellini error giving Marco Reus a free goal and false hope in the first leg that BVB could rescue their disastrous season in Europe.
After the game Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon both stated that the road to their epic 2006 World Cup win in Berlin went through the Westfallenstadion in Dortmund and we might just be seeing destiny repeat itself, needless to say everyone at that time thought these old timers were just harking back due to the sentimentality — no one really expected them to make it to the finals. However, this being football, and full of stories where things like precisely this happen, we saw the intangible sense of destiny in their performances and Buffon’s he man like celebrations after every goal en route Berlin.
Next up was Moncao in the quarter finals, Juventus won both legs 1–0 with the definition of cattenaccio football as they simply knew they could restrict the principalities limited attack after scoring their goal. I think Juventus at this stage were concerned with reaching the semis rather than playing football against Monaco as we saw probably the most boring quarter final match up in recent memory (even worse than those Jose Mourinho vs Rafa Benitez, sh*t on a stick games, as Jorge Valdano put it at the time).
The Mighty Madridistas and reigning champions looking to become the only team to ever retain the Uefa Champions League (in its latest guise) stood in Juve’s path in the semi-finals. There is no doubt Juventus were the better team over two legs and there was poetic justice in Alvaro Morata, the Castilla homegrown striker rejected in favour of Man United benchwarmer Chicharito (Florentino *sigh*), being the man to dump the champs out. However in this round Juventus did have quite a few moments of fortune that on any other night could have easily tilted this tie the other way and we’d all be lapping up the coverage of a champions league final Clasico right now. Luckily for Juve, James Rodriguez’s header with the tie 1–1 in Turin hit the bar instead of making it 2–1 away and giving them a mountain to climb.
Another factor was Juventus looking sharper and hungrier was simply because they were fresher than Real Madrid. Ancelotti’s hands were tied due to key injuries to players like Modric and Benzema and his distrust (instructions from above?) towards players like Khedira and Silva. He played Sergio Ramos against the Metronome that is Andrea Pirlo. Ramos is an excellent footballer, but to task him to help control a midfield that has Pirlo flanked by Marchisio and Vidal was asking a bit too much, especially considering poor Toni Kroos hasn’t had a proper break from football since the beginning to the 2013 season. Juve simply outlasted a tired Madrid back in the Bernabeau and with it sealed their first finals appearance since 2003.
Don’t worry; this will be quick, because except for one hiccup against P.S.G in September, Barcelona have quite literally decimated their opposition to get to their 4th finals in 9 years.
Barcelona were drawn in quite a straightforward group F alongside French Champions Paris St. Germain, Dutch Champions Ajax and Cypriots APOEL Nicosia. Barcelona began this season’s competition unconvincingly winning the first game vs APOEL 1–0 at home and then losing 3–2 away in Paris. However this was a side under a new manager without one formidable weapon in the form of a banned gnawing enthusiast in Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic not only replacing Cesc Fabregas in the team but also supplanting the living legend that is Xavi in the starting line-up. Therefore they can be forgiven for those performances in September. Since then they’ve been an entirely different beast winning every single game up till the second leg of the semi-finals where they were already 5–1 up on aggregate before allowing Bayern to come back and beat them 3–2 on the night.
ROUND OF 16
After topping the group in predictable fashion Barcelona faced money bags Manchester city in the round of 16 for the second season in a row. City haven’t learned their lesson, they obviously got the memo from Cataluña as they simply just folded and faded in the tie. Messi even missed a penalty in the dying embers of the first leg giving the English extremely deluded ambitions of overcoming a 2–1 home deficit that was brought upon them by none other than people biter Luis Suarez, back in England for the first time since his 2014 summer departure. Barca eased to a 1–0 in the Nou Camp and that was that.
A rematch against group stage foes PSG was what awaited Barca in the quarter finals, however this match, was the perfect barometer for Luis Enrique et al to see how far their squad had come under his guidance since the last defeat in the tournament to PSG. The Frenchmen were pulverised 5–1 on aggregate with Luis Suarez helping himself to a brace of nutmegs followed by goals against the hapless David Luiz and Neymar killing the game off with a third as well as the first and second back home in the Nou Camp. It was literally that simple and easy for them.
The football world hotly anticipated the match of the decade (since media just loving hyping games) in the semi-final, a rematch against the Bayern side that crushed Barcelona 7–0 on aggregate 2 seasons ago en route to the trophy now being coached by Barca deity, Pep Guardiola himself. To be fair to Bayern, they had a horrific injury list that blunted their attacking firepower but Pep said so himself before the game that if Messi decides to change the game, that’s exactly what is going to happen. Lo and behold Messi fresh from not scoring in the previous round (how’d that happen??) tore apart a well drilled Bayern defence that lasted until the 77th minute of a fascinating game until that point. Messi scored one against the best goalkeeper in the world, on his near post no less — then proceeded to make Jerome Boateng look like he had the balance of someone like Peter Crouch figure skating (imagine that) before chipping the ball against Manuel Neuer with his weaker foot.
At that point you’d be forgiven for thinking the tie was already over but Neymar put the icing on the cake slotting under the keeper after sublime through ball by, you guessed it, Leo Messi. The second leg was over after 29 minutes by which time Neymar had Barcelona up 2–1 on away goals on the night against the Bavarians and 5–1 on aggregate. Bayern clawed 2 back to restore some pride and dignity by winning the home game 3–2.
Key Area Matchups:
Buffon vs Messi : I still cannot believe this is the first time 37 year old, been there done that, Juve and Italy all time Champ Buffon is coming up against Messi. However his calm and authority over tough situations will be required ten-fold in this mammoth personal battle. Messi on the other hand has gone about trying to ruin every keeper’s reputation with his sublime finishing skill. I can’t see Buffon keeping a clean sheet because unfortunately he could have the game of his life and still concede a couple of goals seeing as how Barcelona’s front 3 have scored 120 goals between them, that’s 14 more than the WHOLE Juventus team just by the way.
Midfield (Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic) vs Midfield (Pirlo, Vidal, Pogba/Marchisio): this is going to be a key battle, as perverse as this may sound Barcelona can get away without dominating the midfield as long as their front 3 can handle the business however for Juventus to have any chance to winning they need to close down ball recycler and cry baby Busquets and win it back quick to launch attacks to catch Barca in transition. I can see Rakitic being a handful for whomever marks him with his powerful running and Andres Iniesta, well god-like on his days but this is Juventus’ best department on the pitch and one where if they can tactically pull off a surprise and close down space while keeping things organised and tight we may see them pulling off a miracle tonight.
Tevez vs Mascherano: the battle of these Argentinian friends promises to be one for the ages as both have not only played together on two club sides and the national team together they both possess that distinct argentine quality of overcoming whatever is thrown in in front of them by whatever means necessary legal or illegal. These two are the everyman footballers of their postions for Argentinians and this head to head promise to be epic since both do much more than just their roles dictate. Mascherano, the converted defensive midfilder exudes calm when required yet charges ahead and aides the midfield with support by accurate passing and ball retention — tevez is the pitbull, he will harass you when he doesn’t have the ball and is decisive and intelligent on it as displayed by season after season of team ethic of scoring as well as assisting.
There are many other fascinating head to heads such as Suarez vs Evra, Neymar vs Leichsteiner & Bonucci, Morata vs Pique that promise to make this one of the most absorbing Champions League Finals in the last decade.
Juventus 1 Barcelona 3
This game isn’t simply an unstoppable force (Barca top scorers in Europe) meeting an immovable object (Juventus second best League defense in Europe), this game is best of Italy vs the best of Spain and is every bit dripping in European tradition and is a much more a heavyweight final as opposed to the last 3 seasons where we had one clear team with history on their side and one aiming to get to the promised land. This is Juventus’ 7th finals appearance and Barcelonas 8th. I think that says it all. However if I have to put my money where my mouth is im going with a 3–1 to the Catalans as they simply have too much firepower for the Chiellini less defence of Juve.