Juventus are underdogs for the Champions League final against Barcelona, but only a fool would write off a club of their pedigree.
The pressure is on Barcelona, not us. No one was saying it out loud at the Juventus “Media Day” at the Juventus Stadium in Turin yesterday but as the Italian champions prepare to meet Barcelona in next Saturday night’s Champions League final in Berlin, you get the impression that the aristocratic “Old Lady” of Italian football is just glad to be back at the Top Table of European football.
There is a sense of huge satisfaction at having got this far in a season when few pundits last September would have named them as likely finallists. Even more intriguingly, Juventus now find themselves in a wonderful “nothing to lose” situation in a final that they were not expected to contest and in which Barcelona are the obvious favourites.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri put it simply: “For us to play our last game of the season in a Champions League final, in a year when we have won the Italian title and the Italian Cup is fantastic, it gets the adrenalin flowing so that you don’t have to worry about who you are playing. Not just us but all Italians are looking forward to the game.”
In his gritty Tuscan way, too, Allegri has a few very basic ideas about how to deal with Barcelona. “You just do it, all you have to do is play, play well and do the right things. You have to prepare well to get it right but, after that, incidents, moments in the game can decide things. They are a quality side but so are we. My team is one of great character and great technique and it is a team which has improved a lot.”
OK, that sounds good but what will he do about Messi?
“You have got to be good and be ready for him because we all know his qualities. It is basically impossible to mark him out of a game so you have to work things well around him. Remember, though, they also have Neymar, Suarez and above all Iniesta. But you have got to take your courage in your hands, knowing that you will have difficult moments, but you will also have good moments too.
“They play a football that no other side in the world plays and they have two players, Messi and Neymar, who are very different It is not that we’ve got to do extraordinary things, it is rather that we have got to keep it tight and eliminate their best qualities.”
Translated, that last comment means that Juventus are getting ready for the classic, tight-marking Italian game in which they will do their best to make sure that Messi and Neymar see as little of the ball as possible. Barcelona might do well to recall the oft-said motto of one of Juventus’ most famous sons, player and long time influential director, Giampiero Boniperti: “For Juve, winning is not important. It is the only thing that really matters.”
Sitting alongside Allegri yesterday was Juve’s experienced international midfielder, Claudio Marchisio. He too seemed to suggest something of the “nothing to lose” mentality, when asked how he would prepare for Saturday’s game, saying: “We’re very happy because we’re going to play a Champions League final against a great team, we’re happy to have got to the final and now we’re going to enjoy this week. This is a moment that all players dream of.”
Even when old fox, goalkeeper captain Gigi Buffon told the world’s media that Juventus had a “less than 35 per chance chance” of winning, you had to wonder if he was not indulging in a sustained bout of mind games. Then too, Italian international defender Giorgio Chiellini came up with the intriguing consideration that had he been playing in Serie A, even Leo Messi would not have scored all those goals, adding: “In the Spanish league, they play much better [in attack] but they are much worse in defence”
Asked about the possibility of a penalty shoot-out, given that Juventus won a Champions League final (against Ajax in 1996) and lost one (against Milan in 2003) in shoot-outs, coach Allegri again struck a practical note, saying: “A final like this can always go to a shoot-out and we will prepare ourselves for that but. I don’t think this game will go to a penalty shoot-out.”
Could it be that, having got back to the Top Table, the Juventus hunger (and the sort of good luck that they have enjoyed throughout this Champions League run) could see them go all the way, Messi notwithstanding?