After 68 minutes on Tuesday night, Juventus lost something they had dearly held. Finally, the Italian giants conceded a goal from open play in this season’s Champions League. Kylian Mbappe beat Gianluigi Buffon to register Monaco’s only goal of the tie. “Anecdotal," the French striker called it.
The goal’s significance might have been academic but Juventus’s defence had been breached after 689 minutes in this competition. In a semi-final that was thoroughly dominated by Maximiliano Allegri’s men, that was the only small joy that Monaco could afford.
Juventus will play the Champions League final in Cardiff next month but their French opponents can be proud of what they have achieved. A journey that began last July in the third qualifying round saw Monaco outlast sides with greater pedigree. The young team occasionally challenged Juventus too — goal-scorer Mbappe was not even born when Buffon made his Champions League debut — but the Italian champions are an accomplished side with arguably no equal in Europe at the moment. Monaco, though, can be proud of putting themselves on the scoresheet — something even Barcelona failed to produce in the previous round.
Overturning the 0-2 deficit, however, was always going to be a herculean task at the Juventus Stadium. Firstly, there was the not-so-small matter of history being against Monaco. Juventus had not lost at home in 18 Champions League matches, the streak stretching back to 2013 when Bayern Munich emerged victors in Turin. Although Monaco had scored twice at Villareal and Spurs, and banged in three away goals each against Manchester City and Dortmund, this was a thoroughly different proposition for Leonardo Jardim’s side.
Eventually Juventus were not even put under the scrutiny it underwent in the first leg. At the Stade Louis II last week, Buffon was forced to make five saves — he had not been called into action that many times since the group stages of the 2015-16 Champions League. Of course, the fact that he kept his defensive record intact is a measure of the 39-year-old’s enduring brilliance. In the aftermath of the first leg at Monaco, a teammate was overheard calling Buffon “our Cristiano Ronaldo.”
But there’s another asset to this side who continues to flourish in an understated manner. This semi-final changed that to an extent as his incredible ability was put on full display. But rarely is he mentioned among Juventus’s key assets. In fact, Dani Alves was written off by many when he left Barcelona last summer but he has overcome a serious injury to once again prove that he’s among the premier full-backs of his generation.
On Tuesday, Allegri stuck to the tactical plan that had caught Jardim out in the first leg. The 3-4-2-1 saw Alves again play as a wing-back and he produced a goal and an assist. In fact, the Brazilian had a hand in every goal of this tie as he contributed assists for Gonzalo Higuain’s brace last week too. His stupendous strike may have stolen the headlines but it was his bristling energy and supreme passing which deserves more attention. Alves’s cross for Mario Mandzukic, which resulted in Juventus’s first goal, was another reminder of what he brings to this side; in numbers, he has played a part in eight goals of this run to the Champions League final.
As for Mandzukic, he has scored only nine times across all competitions this season but he remains one of the vital cogs in Allegri’s machine. The Croat continually harries opponents on the left flank to create opportunities for his teammates. His superior work rate means that his manager can find a place in the side for a striker who does not score a bucket load of goals. Mandzukic’s contribution to this team is another example of Allegri’s marvellous work. Versatility is a defining characteristic of the Old Lady now.
When the 49-year-old manager arrived at Juventus in 2014, the midfield contained the likes of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. However, he gradually transformed the side and it is a more tactically flexible team now. While Allegri’s vision may not be defined by an overarching philosophy, he firmly believes in having various tactical systems at his disposal and players who can deliver on them.
The completeness of this Juventus side was there for everyone to see over the semi-final’s two legs — ball possession was controlled; Monaco were invited to attack, then hit on the counter; a mix of short and long passes were deployed according to the situation. It has been delightful to see a team which is adept at playing different formations and strategies within one match.
Then of course, there is the famed Juventus defence which refuses to loosen the leash. There was a moment during the first half on Tuesday when Benjamin Mendy rampaged through the left flank and put in a first-rate ball across the six-yard box. However, despite the risk of putting the ball in his own net very much alive, Giorgio Chiellini pushed ahead of Radamel Falcao and diverted the ball away for a corner. The defender’s subsequent reaction was like a goal celebration; it was another illustration of the uncompromising nature of this Juventus side.
As Mandzukic said last December, in an interview to Corriere della Sera, “It’s not enough to wear the shirt and wait for others to fall at our feet. We need to be ferocious beasts. That’s how you win. And keep on winning.”
This desire to win has taken Juventus to the final, an outcome which was not predicted at the start of the campaign. Buffon admitted that, “Two years ago everyone thought it was my last final but you have to believe in your dreams and believe in what you do."
Self-belief runs through Juventus. Twice before, Buffon has finished on the losing side in a Champions League final. Not again, he says. Juventus nod in agreement.
Updated Date: May 10, 2017 12:32 PM