Barcelona v Juventus
Saturday June 06, 19:45
Live on ITV and Sky Sports
Patience is a commodity that is in short supply in modern football. Itchy trigger-fingers abound, and as Real Madrid have recently shown with the ruthless dismissal of Carlo Ancelotti, the support of players and fans isn’t always enough to see a coach dodge a bullet.
At the start of 2015, Barcelona coach Luis Enrique was under pressure, just months into his debut season. A bust-up with the club’s talisman Leo Messi in training sparked rumours of a growing chasm between superstar and coach, and those whispers grew louder as Messi was benched for a trip to Real Sociedad. A 1-0 defeat at the Anoeta saw Barca miss the chance to nudge ahead of bitter rivals Real in the title race.
Despite Luis Enrique’s long and distinguished service as a Barca player, there would have only been one winner in a stand-off with Messi, but thankfully for the Blaugrana the enmity was soon forgotten. Since that bump in the road it’s been a smooth ride for the Catalan giants, and a run of 30 wins in 34 matches has helped them claim a domestic double.
After coming through the flames, Luis Enrique now has the chance to emulate Pep Guardiola’s magnificent debut season by securing a glittering treble. Victory over Juventus in Berlin on Saturday will cement the coach’s place in the pantheon of Barcelona gods.
As he stood crestfallen on the pitch at the Maracana, Lionel Messi knew a golden chance to become a world champion had slipped away. Messi had wasted a glorious opportunity to score during Argentina’s 1-0 defeat to Germany in the World Cup final, and that failure stopped him from underlining his claim to be the greatest player the sport has seen.
Like all sporting legends, Messi took that stomach-churning disappointment and used it to fuel a breathtaking campaign. He scored 43 goals and set up 18 more in La Liga, he has netted ten times on the Champions League road to Berlin, and his five strikes in the Copa del Rey included one of the best cup final goals you could wish to see. Twenty minutes into the 3-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao, Messi left four defenders trailing in his wake before smashing the ball into the bottom corner.
Messi has a wonderful supporting cast. The relentlessly competitive Luis Suarez has given Messi even more space to operate in, and the Uruguayan has contributed to 41 goals in all competitions. To complete Barca’s array of South American offensive weaponry, Neymar has scored 38 goals, including nine in 11 Champions League games.
It’s tempting to focus solely on that trio, but there are other virtuoso performers in the orchestra. Thrusting full-backs Jordi Alba and Dani Alves have chipped in with 15 assists between them in La Liga and the Champions League, while the quietly superb playmaker Ivan Rakitic has excelled since arriving from Sevilla. Old hands Andres Iniesta and Xavi have played their part, and victory in Berlin would see Xavi enjoy the kind of dramatic exit that Hollywood scriptwriters dream of.
Juventus striker Carlos Tevez admits his side will have to be “better than perfect” to win the final, and it is tough to find a weak spot in the Barca side. Not only are Barca able to overwhelm even the best defence, but they have tightened up their own rearguard.
Luis Enrique’s men conceded just 21 goals in 38 La Liga matches, giving them the best defensive record in Spain, and exhaustive work on the training ground has improved Barca’s ability to defend set-piece situations. If Juventus are to find any gaps in the armour, it will be when they win the ball and look to break quickly, leaving the Barca front three stranded upfield. Tevez is superb in counter-attack situations, and Juve must find him as swiftly and as often as possible when Barca attacks break down.
While Barcelona have been resolute in the Champions League at the Camp Nou, they have kept just two clean sheets on the road, and conceded three goals at PSG in the group stage and at Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. It’s also worth noting that while Barca’s young German goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen is confident and talented, this is by far the biggest game of his career, and he does have an occasional tendency towards glaring lapses in concentration.
Juventus are an excellent side with quality all the way through the spine of the team, from Gigi Buffon to Giorgio Chiellini to Paul Pogba to the irrepressible Tevez. However, I can’t see Juve containing Barca’s front three, even if they defend deep.
Barca have swept aside Manchester City, PSG and Bayern Munich, and are rightful favourites at [1.63]. If they take the lead and force Juve to come at them, it could get ugly for Max Allegri’s men. I’m backing Barca -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at [2.09], which returns your stake if Barca win by a goal in 90 minutes, and pays out in the event of a bigger victory.
Back Barcelona -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at [2.1]