A rare photo of Giorgio Chiellini losing aerial duel against Kamil Glik.
So it will be Juventus against Real Madrid, after all. The two big favorites of Champions League semifinals have both convincingly won their first matches. They are not going to throw it away now: not in these circumstances. Aside from the form and confidence – even the historical records are on their side. Real Madrid, though not-so-flawless at Vicente Calderón, have only suffered one massive defeat there in the last forty years. It was just two years ago, true; yet, that was in their darkest era of The Madrid Derby, when Atlético earned four wins and two draws from their six competitive encounters with Los Merengues. At the same time, Bianconeri, in order to spoil everything, would have to lose at home by at least two goals – a thing that did not happen once since April 2013, when goals from Claudio Pizarro and… Mario Mandžukić have sunk them in a Champions League against Bayern.
Yesterday’s game at Stade Louis II went exactly the way Massimiliano Allegri wanted it to be. Juve, lined up on paper with four defenders and Dani Alves in Juan Cuadrado’s role, have in fact managed to put five-men wall in front of Gianluigi Buffon and completely shut down both the wing threats and the dreaded, through balls to Mbappé. The new Henry had only one, lone moment of brilliance, when his agility and footwork brought him past two opponents before his cross got intercepted. Pushed out wide and unable to toy with the offside trap as he usually does, the youngster’s impact has turned out to be negligible. Probably partly due to the big chance, he’s managed to spectacularly waste just thirteen minutes in, when his free header has been calmly collected by Buffon. A superstar wasn’t born yesterday. A teenager won’t score in a Champions League final this time.
What can and very is actually quite likely to happen is a Cardiff goal for an overweight forward. Even though Gonzalo Higuaín did not manage to return to his perfectly fit shape we knew him from at Napoli, even though his few extra pounds dragged him down in the first minutes, when he fell instead of picking up the pass from Dybala – he’s scored two goals anyway, doubling his career tally for strikes in Champions League’s knockout stages. Totally isolated upfront (only 29 touches in 77 minutes; even Buffon managed to get more), he wasn’t even fazed when his first attempt sailed far, far away, towards the corner flag. Just four minutes later, despite following the run of play at rather average speed, he’s managed to chase Dani Alves’ fantastic backheel and did not hesitate to place it in the bottom corner of Subašić’s goal. Whoever called him a big-game choker, has to swallow these words now.
Alas; El Gordo wasn’t even close to stealing the spotlight. In a game where many neutral fans secretly hoped for Monaco youth to prevail, it was 33-years old Dani Alves who’s been head and shoulders above everyone else. A year ago, Barcelona have decided to ditch the ageing Brazilian and spend £7 million worth of his wages elsewhere. Since then, the man who once provided 102 assists for the Catalan side has managed to smoothly eliminate his former club from the Champions League, raced toe-to-toe with Madrid’s Dani Carvajal for the title of the best assisting UCL defender and completely tamed the dangerous left foot of Thomas Lemar. Regardless of the outcome of this season, his backheel assist and a masterful, second-half cross to Higuaín will be remembered for a very long time. Unlike Aleix Vidal and Sergi Roberto – the two, somewhat inadequate heirs to FCB’s right wing-back throne.
Alves wasn’t the only veteran to shine; in fact, the older Zebrette player you’d look at yesterday, the more goods he’d be providing to the team. Claudio Marchisio in the middle of the park looked far more convincing than his 4 years younger partner, Miralem Pjanić; hard-working Mandžukić made far better impression than flair-driven Paulo Dybala. Even the three, 30+ Juve defenders somehow managed to impress in a descending order of their birthday: 35-years old Andrea Barzagli, recently only being used by Allegri in every other game, has been providing extra cover down the right wing, winning 3 interceptions, 3 headers and 2 tackles in the process. Chiellini, 27 months younger, mostly played his usual, no-nonsense style, performing as many as fifteen clearances in the process. This time, ‘the youngster’ among them, Bonucci (turned 30 three days ago) impressed the least.
And then, there was Gigi Buffon. In December, the living Juve legend has registered his 200th clean sheet for Bianconeri; yesterday, he took that number to 212. The man, who admitted having a bet for his retirement should a perfect defensive record be kept against Barcelona, has managed to pull that off and more. By the end of the night, his personal clock stopped at 621 minutes without conceding in the Champions League. In human terms: that’s five months and eleven days in the most prestigious football cup there is without a single ball in the back of one’s net. But are we talking about a human if he, right after the break, when humans tend to be the least focused, saved Falcao’s huge chance by diving to the ground even before the shot left the Colombian’s foot? I sincerely doubt it. No – Buffon-the-monster is on a quest to finally lift the UCL trophy. He’s already beat Messi to it; Ronaldo’s waiting ahead.
Another rare photo: an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
The Portuguese forward has a few things to settle with the notorious Italian champs. So far, he scored in each and every out of his four meetings with Zebrette, totaling five goals. On the other hand: three of those five goals were from penalties. Also, Real have only won one of those four games, boasting a rather unimpressive, 6-6 goal difference. Last but not least, Cristiano surely recalls a pretty fresh memory of 2015 semifinals, when the road paved towards the El Clásico finale has been blocked by the tenacity of Buffon, Chiellini, Vidal and Tévez. Those were the days that hurt Los Blancos the most, as the final blow to their La Undécima ambitions was delivered by Bernabeu’s (former) reject, Álvaro Morata. In fact, apart from Iker Casillas and James Rodríguez, all starters from that troublesome 1-1 failure in the Madrid rematch remain the present day starters as well.
Looking at the calendar, it’s plain to see that Juventus’ chances in Cardiff will be formidable. Already this weekend, The Old Lady can secure her sixth consecutive Scudetto, leaving the club with only three matches to take care of. The Coppa Italia final against Lazio, planned for July 2nd will be rescheduled for May 17th should Juve qualify for the Real Madrid showdown. At the same time, Zizou’s lads will be forced to keep their composure right until the end of La Liga campaign, as Barcelona are currently on even points with them. The final three fixtures are far from comfortable: Sevilla (home), Celta (away) and Malaga (away) could all pose few problems. Fortunately for Zinedine Zidane, the league race in Spain concludes a week earlier than the one in Italy – but with a title in Massimiliano Allegri’s pocket, the Bianconeri boss will not hesitate to field reserve players against Crotone or Bologna.
So whose title is it, anyway? In one corner: accomplished, two-time recent UCL champions, carried into the semifinal by Viktor Kassai’s scandalous decisions against Bayern and Marcelo’s herculean, all-season effort. In the other corner: a hardened pack of veterans with barely any European glory – some of them with a painful awareness that this year could truly be their last professional hurrah. In white shorts: a goalscoring galore by one actor; in stripped shorts: over ten hours of perfect, team-based defending and precise, ultra-fast, counterattacking football. Questionable Bayern beaters versus uncontested Barcelona conquerors. The choice for any neutral fan seems as simple as Paulo Dybala’s words: “Buffon, Bonucci and Chiellini deserve the Champions League gold”. As of heartless bookmakers’ words: Madrid are now 1.83 favourites, with Juve standing at 2.10…