A Fitting End

Fifth time. Still a lot to do to catch up with Real Madrid…

Barcelona 3, Juventus 1. The fifth Champions Cup for Catalonia. The treble for yet another ex-FCB player, Luis Enrique. Those are the major facts of the Saturday night. However, above all that, all we have to know, all we have to remember – is that it’s been a great final of a great season – and it surely brought many memories as well as thoughts about the future.

The past came back from the dead just 55 seconds into the game, when Mascherano, more nervous than a seasoned veteran should be, cleared loose ball on Barcelona’s half straight into Marchisio’s path. Juventus’ number 8 served Morata with a dangerous pass, but it was Tevez who jumped in and swept the ball instead, shooting awkwardly over the bar. Seconds later, Mascherano conceded a corner in similarly poor fashion, making us all wonder whether the old, Guardiola-born weaknesses will come to haunt La Liga champions again. Too many times in the past, the tiki-takish principle of patiently escaping the opponents’ pressure, has led Blaugrana to lose possession in their own defensive zones. Chelsea, Atletico and Bayern occasionally took advantage of that, but in general, those big mistakes ended up mostly unpunished. And so they did last Saturday. The luck was with them again.

It didn’t take long, however, to ressurect the brighter features of Blaugrana’s recent history. The attack that started with Messi’s long ball to Neymar, continued with Iniesta’s wild forward run and finished with Rakitić’s shot past Buffon. The Croatian playmaker was tenth Barca player to make a touch in this particular buildup, bringing back the memories of Pep’s ideas that underlined the need of teamplay – sometimes to absurd proportions. Current boss of Bayern considers the ball to be a tool that gradually brings his player into the attacking positions before a tap-in is eventually scored. Under Pep, every member of the first 11 had to participate in a goalscoring move – and so they did, only under Luis Enrique. The only difference is that one ex-Barcelona midfielder demanded safe, short passes above anything else – while the other one allowed much more variety in this department.

Upon opening the scoreline, a sudden morale boost in Catalans immediately started to show. Suarez and Neymar had no problems creating one good chance for each of them and it was Buffon again, who had to save Juventus from a total washout. The big, unsolved problem in the Italian midfield was obvious. Few days ago, Arturo Vidal seemed to be the man who could pour sand onto Blaugrana’s gearbox; however, on Saturday, he’s been more of a kamikaze than a football player. Unable to win a single tackle in the first half, the Chilean rightfully earned an early yellow for a nasty clip on Busquets’ ankle – and then did a lot to get sent off, including a reckless tackle on Rakitić and a brief brawl with Dani Alves. Without Vidal’s contribution, neither passes, nor counterattacks could’ve been arranged correctly and Juve’s main creator, Andrea Pirlo, remained the most useless player on the pitch.

Allegri had the toughest decisions to make during the break. The coach, whose team has been pushed around for 45 minutes had to somehow address Vidal’s underwhelming performance as well as bring something out of Carlos Tevez, who’s been literally invisible after taking the first shot of the game. Unfortunately, three minutes after the restart, Juventus problems only kept surfacing. Before the game, pundits speculated that bianco-neri will get chances if they can win free kicks or corners and use superior height combined with Pirlo’s set-piece skills to score that way. However, upon winning their first free-kick chance on Barcelona’s half, it turned out that Pirlo’s deliveries hardly work against the awareness of Gerard Pique. Worse: Barcelona not only collects the crosses with ease but also launches killer counterattack, as they immediately found a four-on-four opportunity. Another glimmer of hope to cling to was taken from the Italians.

And then, all of a sudden, the equalizer happened. Football coaches and journalists all around he world should probably investigate the matter, as it was another example of conceding a goal immediately after taking an innocuous throw-in. After throwing and receiving the ball back from Luis Suarez, Dani Alves passed it pointlessly into the middle of the pitch. Only on this one occasion, the area around the central circle has been completely abandoned and Messi had to chase the loose pass against Lichtsteiner. Leo lost this duel, after which the Juventus right-back teamed up with Claudio Marchisio to use the acres of space down the right wing before Barcelona could revert back to their defensive shape. From then on, Juve’s move was textbook-perfect: a clever backheel, a great run forward, a cross aimed behind it’s recipient to create space for him, a shot and the rebound being put in the back of the net by Morata.

Neither Enrique nor Allegri showed too much of an emotion following this turnaround, but it was clear that the Catalans went through a serious crisis immediately following that goal. After an hour-long slump, Pirlo finally started to place his passes accurately while Bonucci and Pogba both took the responsibility for winning duels and bringing the play forward. After getting constantly threatened down their right flank in the first half, Juventus players have discovered that whenever they attack down the same wing Blaugrana did, they’re getting similarly positive results as their opponents. One of those right-hand-side exploitations led to Carlos Tevez’s long-range shot. The opportunity wasn’t crystal-clear, but for a player of this caliber, it should’ve been enough to at least force ter Stegen to make a save. Instead, he missed horribly. Could it be, that his thoughts were already thousands of miles from Europe – in Buenos Aires?

Regardless of what stopped Carlitos from becoming Zebrette’s hero, his miss was a singal of another swing in the momentum. So far, Juve players were stepping up to the task of closing their opponents and used to win the majority of toe-to-toe clashes with their Spanish rivals. However, when Ter Stegen allowed Tevez’s shot to go wide and then yelled few words regarding the marking, FCB’s players finally realize that they might lose this match if something doesn’t change quickly. Eventually, it did. Messi, far from having the best game of his career, finally had his word on a counterattack that started with Rakitić’s critical tackle on Pogba. With lots of space to run into and two opponents in front of him, the Argentinian unleashed his trademark dribble and a vicious shot afterwards. It was the night of goalkeepers spilling the strikes they were supposed to hold and Suarez promptly took the advantage of that fact.

If everything that happened so far in this final pointed back to Blaugrana’s past, then everything that happened afterwards pointed to the future. Seconds after Suarez jumped over the banners to celebrate in front of an ecstatic Barcelona stand, Neymar found himself on the end of Alba’s cross and scored again, settling the game once for all – or so it seemed. The lad who’s widely expected to carry this team to many victories in the future, the lad who scored in every single game of 2014-15 Champions League knockout stage – he’s been stopped this time. Amusingly enough, it wasn’t an offside, a foul or a referee’s mistake that put his happiness on hold – it was… his own hand, he hit with the ball before pushing the header past Buffon. The goal was correctly chalked off by Cüneyt Çakir. Just as the Brazilian was ready to join Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as a top goalscorer of this CL edition…

Neymar needed a lot of patience before his efforts were rewarded.

It was the time for Allegri to react. Unlike in Madrid, where his players banked their hopes on a defensive cruise-control and Bale’s inability to finish the goalscoring chances, in Berlin, Juventus were facing the do-or-die situation. Various things could’ve been done. One was the safest course of bringing target-man Llorente for Tevez and playing long balls to him. Another was the all-in strategy of fielding Ogbonna and switching to 3-5-2 by pushing Evra – Lichsteiner duo forward. Andrea Pirlo could’ve been swapped for either Sturaro or Pereyra. Instead of that, Allegri got rid of Vidal – in 79th minute, half-way between Suarez’s goal and the final whistle. This was all he could come up with; he later let Llorente and Coman in, but it was already too late for the radical changes. From the point of view of a fan who saw Alex Ferguson’s subs winning him the lost CL final – this was a massive let-down from the Italian boss.

Instead of a radical change in course of the events, the game has lost lot of it’s previous charm and the final minutes turned out to be fairly scrappy. Barcelona were comfortable with ball again, getting fouled in the final third to wind down the clock a bit. Once Xavi replaced his ‘twin’ Iniesta to play his final 12 minutes in Barca’s shirt, bianco-neri were already back to being the second-best side out there. Evra, reluctant to become the first player ever to lose four Champions League final, created one half-chance for Morata that was blocked; later, Marchisio’s long shot has been stopped by ter Stegen. Two minutes into stoppage time, Tevez tried yet another shot and it has pretty much sumed up his lackluster performance, as the the only German on a German pitch didn’t even need to move to claim it. It’s all been a desperation that had to be punished eventually – until it finally was.

Lifting the most important club trophy in the world, Barcelona keep only one eye on it; the other eye is looking into the future. Xavi, the one to put his hands on the Cup first, is now gone. Dani Alves, the long-lasting servant – is gone. Slowly but surely, Mascherano and Iniesta will be following their paths in the next two or three years. As for today, the club has already secured the signature of 26-years old Aleix Vidal – yet another Sevilla right-back in the line to put on Blaugrana’s shirt. The quest for replacing Xavi will likely never be completed this summer: there’s simply no player in the world of this quality Barca could sign and whoever may be picked to do that – he’ll surely bring a major shift into the teams’ style of footballing through the middle of the park. Will it be Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan? The Turkish-German playmaker, who lost at least half of the season to the injuries, has reportedly snubbed Manchester United just because he knew the Catalans are going to come after him. And now, he’s ready – to move clubs once the FFP punishment is lifted off from Barca in January.

For Juventus, things don’t look so crystal clear. Whenever you check your mailbox – Pogba. Whenever you look under your bed – Pogba. Whenever you open the fridge – Pogba. The Frenchman has been already repeatedly being sold by media to Arsenal, Manchester United, Real Madrid and… Barcelona – yet, he still lives in Turin. He and Vidal will be essential for the clubs prosperity in the nearest future – especially if Andrea Pirlo finally chooses a comfortable retirement plan in MLS. Zebrette have already enrolled Paulo Dybala from Palermo and close to signing Sami Khedira, who’s been pretty much frozen out of Santiago Bernabeu. The fate of Tevez (wants to return to Argentina despite having one more year on his contract) and Morata (Real are considering whether to spent 30 million just to bring him back) remains in question, while Allegri currently considers the players like Robin van Persie (Man Utd), Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham) and Oscar (Chelsea). The giant money prize his club just cashed in for reaching the CL final could really come in handy this summer.

Until the next time…

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