As they prepare for the Champions League Final in Cardiff, the Italian champions still have painful memories of defeat to Barcelona two years ago
Win or lose against Real Madrid in Cardiff tomorrow night, there is one mistake that “Old Lady” Juventus will not be making. Namely, the Juve players will not be standing back, awestruck by the famous name of their illustrious rivals, in the manner that overcame them against Barcelona in that Berlin final, two years ago.
Exactly one year ago, your correspondent interviewed Swiss captain and Juventus right-back, Stephan Lichtsteiner, on the eve of the European Championships in France. When it came to analysing the Berlin Final, lost 3-1 to Barcelona, Lichtsteiner conceded immediately that Juve could, and probably should, have done better, explaining himself: “It’s normal that a team like Barcelona, which has won so much and in which you have Spanish internationals who have won a World Cup and two European Championships, it is simply normal that for the first 20 minutes, they will play better. Yet, even if they began better, after our equaliser, we had 20 minutes when we were the stronger team…we were almost there, close to winning the game.”
That “first 20 minutes” when Barcelona played better was, in retrospect, down to a mixture of inexperience and over-respect for the Barcelona name. Talking to Rome daily, La Repubblica, this week, Juventus midfielder, Simone Padoin (a reserve in Berlin, now with Udinese) agreed with Lichtsteiner: “We all felt that Barcelona were practically unbeatable and that notion inhibited us for half of the game.”
The point is that Juventus travel to Cardiff with a terrifying Champions League hunger in their guts. The club’s four most recent finals, defeats against Borussia Dortmund in 1997, against Real Madrid in 1998, against Milan in 2003 and against Barcelona two years ago all left a lingering sensation of an opportunity missed.
Nobody from the club said it out loud at the beginning of the season but the obvious reality is that the Champions League has been the club’s main target this year. That is why the Old Lady spilled out €90 odd million euro last summer for Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuain. Ten years after the infamous “Calciopoli” scandal and subsequent relegation to Serie B, victory in Cardiff would clearly re-inforce the notion that Juventus once again occupy a permanent seat at the top table of European football.
Such is the increased maturity of this Juventus team, such is its obvious mix of defensive solidity and razor sharp attack, that it has travelled on cruise control for much of the season. By Serie A Day 5, on September 21st, they had gone top of the table, remaining there without interruption for the rest of the season to pick up an historic sixth consecutive scudetto. They also added a third consecutive Italian Cup in the same week, earlier this month.
That domestic dominance was reflected, too, in Juve’s Champions League progression. Nine wins and three draws in an unbeaten run to the final in which they conceded just three goals indicated that this side had reached a new self-conviction, in the process perhaps moving themselves up a rung or two on the European ladder.
This final obviously involves some intriguing “contests within the contest”, such as Cristiano Ronaldo v Leonardo Bonucci, or Luka Modric v Paulo Dybala, or Higuain v Sergio Ramos to name but the most obvious. It also touches on a highly emotive note when we consider that this game almost certainly represents a last chance for 39-year-old Gigi Buffon to finally win a Champions League medal. With that in his pocket, Buffon might then go on to win FIFA’s World Player of the Year or France Football’s Ballon d’Or at the expense of a certain Ronaldo.
One thing is for sure and it is that the Juventus fans sense the signficance of the moment. Some 38 buses from Italy and 27 charter flights from Bergamo, Bologna, Catania, Milan, Roma, Turin and Verona (evidence of Juve’ nationwide following) will transport approximately 25,000 fans to Wales this weekend. Coach Massimiliano Allegri has even chartered a plane, not for himself obviously, but for relatives and friends.
As for the match itself, let us just say this: if you were looking for a club that would not be ill-prepared when Sergio Ramos steps into the area for a Real Madrid corner kick, it would be Juventus. Likewise, if there is a team around that might just be able to contain Cristiano Ronaldo, shut him down and limit his opportunities, it would again be Juventus. Finally, if you were looking for a striker to score the “heavy” goal this season, then it would be Gonzalo Higuain. Juventus to win.