The Champions League Final features a contrast of styles and legacies as Barcelona and Juventus each attempt to win the final leg of their treble in Berlin.
In what will be the final match in Europe for both Andrea Pirlo and Xavi, two all-time great midfielders, the defense of Juventus against the attacking dominance of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will be the most anticipated matchup.
How Barcelona Was Built: Speed and directness with tradition
No team identifies more with the process of team building than Barcelona. It’s not good enough just to win. The “how” is as important as the result.
But Barcelona have found a middle ground between their youth academy and outside influence which has paid off to devastating effect this season. The observation that the top strikers in the world hail from South America was made several times this season, with their DNA of dribbling and imagination not found in the European academy system. Barcelona built their attacking foundation on the continent’s playmaking creativity with Neymar, Luis Suarez, and of course, Lionel Messi. The three can score, dribble, pass, move into space, and most importantly, can create something out of nothing in equal measure – characteristics which are becoming more difficult to find in European academies.
But the club outsourced another trait just as important to their success this season. Barcelona dipped into the transfer market to find directness to complement their possession by adding Ivan Rakitic from Sevilla last summer. While not as clever or skilled as his midfield counterparts, his physicality gives Iniesta and Busquets space and time to create. And most importantly, his positional intelligence allows Messi to attack from anywhere on the right side. It’s this selflessness that distinguishes him from Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara, the previous two midfielders he replaced.
The balance between possession and counter attacking is the most important quality that manager Luis Enrique drilled into the side. While Enrique is made from Barcelona’s DNA, he understands the danger of romanticizing the past. He’s molded this side into his own – but unlike Tata Martino, there are still hints of tiki-taka to placate the club history.
Someone remarked on Twitter that Barcelona from 2009 to 2012 was Xavi’s team, while this side belongs to Messi – a little more direct, incisive, although no less dominant. Maybe this side has not reached the artistic heights of the Pep Guardiola era, but this current team can score with more variety. And most importantly, it gets the best out of the best player in the world.
How Barcelona Reached The Champions League Final: Peaking at the right time
Barcelona finished first in Group F featuring PSG, Ajax and APOEL
Manchester City 1 – Barcelona 2
Barcelona 1 – Manchester City 0
PSG 1 – Barcelona 3
Barcelona 2 – PSG
Barcelona 3 – Bayern Munich 0
Bayern Munich 3 – Barcelona 2
After finishing first in a group with only two teams with a realistic chance at advancing, Barcelona improved as the knockout stages went on. And in retrospect, the first knockout round against Manchester City was much ado about nothing, as Pellegrini’s side lost their incisiveness and nerve as the season went on.
Barcelona showed signs of what they would become against PSG, who had come off an impressive second leg match against Chelsea. That performance gave the impression that PSG could make things difficult, especially Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi’s physicality in midfield. But Barcelona’s South American imagination was on full display with Suarez scoring goals on his own.
That led to their peak and most impressive performance in the semifinals against Bayern Munich. The first half of the first leg lead to marking tactics from Bayern Munich that befuddled Gary Neville. Messi took over for the next two halves, both with goals and through passes. Most importantly, it displayed how dangerous Barcelona could be on the counter.
How Barcelona Can Win: The South American front three, with hints of Ter Stegen
The traditional sentiment would be that Barcelona wins the possession battle and scores off an intricate passing movement. But as they showed against Bayern Munich (the side who admittedly out-Barcelona’d Barcelona), they may even be more dangerous without the ball.
Juventus may be the most aggressive midfield Barcelona has seen all season (not to mention their backline organization). This puts even more importance and responsibility on Rakitic to not only create space for Messi and Alves, but track back on Marchisio, Pogba and Arturo Vidal.
Easily overlooked but just as essential is keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, highlighted by this goal line save in the second leg against Bayern Munich. While Claudio Bravo commands domestic duties, Ter Stegen is trusted in Europe. A modern sweeper-keeper with passing and shot stopping ability, his concentration is his most important trait as he may only be tested once or twice each match.
In front of Ter Stegen, Pique and Mascherano make an intelligent defensive duo, and Alba and Alves are as good as they’ve ever been. But really, this is about the attack. Press them too high and the movement of Suarez, Neymar, and Messi can run channels behind defenses. Park the bus, and they can go back to tradition with their quick, one touch passes. This is what makes Barcelona almost impossible to defend against. And if and when Barcelona score, it will involve some combination of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar. The trio are peaking as exactly the right moment.
Expected Barcelona Starting XI (4-3-3): Marc-Andre Ter Stegen; Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic; Neymar, Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi
How Juventus Was Built: The rich return with a cost-effective attack
Beppe Marotta and Fabio Paratici took over Juventus in 2010 and guided them back to the top of Serie A in Year 2 and that streak is now four years running. The astonishing part of Juventus’ success is how they reclaimed their station among the world’s genuine elite clubs without the type of get good quick schemes that have been utilized by the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
Juventus’ midfield has been so remarkably good, yet came about so cheaply. Arturo Vidal cost just €10.5 million in 2011 from Bayer Leverkusen, while Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo were incomprehensibly free transfers, and Claudio Marchisio came up through Juve’s youth system.
In Pogba and Vidal, Juventus has the two greatest all-around midfielders in the world, while Marchisio is one of the world’s most underrated all-around midfielders in his own right.
While the domestic success in Italy coming out of their scandal was fairly immediate, it took the acquisitions of Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata for the club to again become contenders against the best of Europe shifting from the defensive 3-5-2 of Antonio Conte to their diamond formation that maximizes the strength of the midfield.
Tevez cost just £10 million from Manchester City in 2013 after having a volatile relationship with Roberto Mancini, which followed up a similarly rocky time with Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Morata was bought from Real Madrid’s spare part facility last summer for €20 million to become the Fernando Morientes of his generation.
With all of the improvement and star quality in midfield and up front, it is easy to overlook how Gianluigi Buffon has been an institution with the Old Lady since 2001 and Giorgio Chiellini joined Juve in 2005 and stuck around for the Serie B season. Leonardo Bonucci joined Chiellini at center-back in 2010 from Bari for €15.5 million.
How Juventus Reached The Champions League Final: Finally proving their European mettle
Juventus finished second in Group A featuring Atletico Madrid, Olympiacos and Malmo.
Juventus 2-1 Dortmund
Dortmund 0-3 Juventus
Juventus 1-0 Monaco
Monaco 0-0 Juventus
Juventus 2-1 Real Madrid
Real Madrid 1-1 Juventus
The gap in quality between Juve and the rest of Italy is so expansive that it has been difficult to evaluate how they compare in Europe. Conte only got Juventus to the quarterfinals in 2013 in which they were soundly eliminated by eventual champion Bayern and they went out in the group stage in 13-14 with their 1-0 loss at Galatasary.
The 14-15 Champions League campaign also started slowly with 10 points in Group A and just a +3 goal differential. Juve doesn’t even reach the knockout stage without an unlikely 2-0 win by Malmo over Olympiacos.
From there, Juve grew more confident dispatching Dortmund 5-1 on aggregate in the Round of 16 and then winning two narrow, defensive ties against Monaco and Real Madrid.
Real Madrid was playing far from full strength without Karim Benzema for the first leg and Luka Modric for both legs, but there is hardly a better test for the type of explosive attack of Barcelona than the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Juve certainly doesn’t match Barça and Real Madrid man for man on star power, but they proved to have the organization, work rate and midfield talent to bewilder and maximize their attack.
How Juventus Can Win: Organization and Tevez
The case for Juventus has been underplayed, particularly in this single match situation, and with all of those Italian stereotypes of playing defensive football.
In order to successfully attack the compact Juventus defense, you need to win wide. If Juve stays organized and is able to prevent MSN from getting into space, Barcelona will be especially reliant on Dani Alves and Jordi Alba. Their runs in attack will allow Juve to systematically tear them apart on the flanks going the other way. There is no reason to believe Juventus will become impatient since they’re so comfortable letting teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid have possession. Juventus won’t plunge into beating themselves.
Tevez and Morata fuse so well with the midfield and their speed and finishing ability will allow Juve to create excellent scoring opportunities if Barcelona lacks discipline for even an instant. Juve will surely be generally defensive and are far more likely to score on the counter as they did for the second goal in the first leg against Real Madrid (penalty kick), but they can also create chances in the build-up as they did for the first one and on set pieces in which they can exploit the lack of aerial deficiencies of Barcelona.
With the midfield trio of Pogba, Vidal and Marchisio ahead of that strong back line, Juve are well-positioned to suffocate the Barcelona attack as much as that’s possible, but it is difficult to envision a 1-0 result in their favor. Messi, Suarez or Neymar are just too good and their form has been extraordinary; Juve can only withstand the siege for so long.
The Messi vs. Cristiano debate has been exhausted globally, but the Messi vs. Tevez rivalry rages on in Argentina. This is his best chance to get the better of Messi and display his own abilities as one of the world’s best Nine and a half’s.
Expected Juventus Starting XI (4-3-1-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Giorgio Chiellini (ruled out for Final), Leonardo Bonucci, Patrice Evra; Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba; Arturo Vidal; Carlos Tevez, Alvaro Morata