Champions League: Juventus' defensive masterclass at Barcelona reminiscent of vintage Italian shut-outs
There was hardly a blade of grass in that Juventus penalty area that their players didn't cover, making it very difficult for Barcelona to score.
Only twice before have teams stopped Barcelona from scoring in both legs of a Champions league knockout tie, and on both those occasions that team went on to lift the trophy. Firstly it was Manchester United in 2007/08 and later Bayern Munich in 2012/13.
Juventus became the third team to achieve that feat on Wednesday when they held Barcelona to a 0-0 draw in quarter-final second leg at the Camp Nou to seal their passage to the semi-finals, thanks to a 3-0 win in the first leg in Turin.
Judging by their display in Barcelona on Wednesday, Juventus certainly have a great chance of continuing that trend.
It's been quite a while since we have seen an Italian team suffocate the opponent to death after taking an advantage into the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie. There were times in European football when you expected an Italian team to successfully protect a lead even against some of the fiercest attacks in the world. Juventus, who produced an absolute masterclass in defence at the Camp Nou, reminded us of one of those vintage Italian shut outs.
The Old Lady had the well-earned privilege of a three-goal lead going into the second leg, but in the end it hardly came into the equation. The Max Allegri-led side showed great discipline and hardly did anything wrong. They defended as a team with numbers at the back and were always able to quickly transition into an attacking force whenever they won the ball back.
The Italians started brightly. They went on the front foot from the word go and it seemed that it was them who were trying to wipe out a deficit. What it did was immediately curbed Barcelona's enthusiasm and pegged back the possibility of a flying start that the Catalans so craved for.
PSG conceded in the first minute in their Round of 16 debacle at the Camp Nou. The early goal gave Barcelona momentum and the belief that they could pull off the impossible. With the jam-packed Camp Nou cheering the team on, the talented Barcelona team created history.
Juventus weren't ready to play second fiddle in another Barcelona fairytale, instead they wanted to be the protagonist of their own narrative that would become a cult among those influenced by the Italian school of thought.
The only thing that prevented a repeat of the happenings in Turin from a fortnight ago was the fact that Barcelona had turned up, and turned up well.
After the first 10 minutes where it was a pretty even game with both teams taking turns to attack, Luis Enrique's men spotted a possible path to the Juventus goal. Juan Cuadrado, who had until that point proved to be a handful for the Barcelona defence to deal with, was not putting in the same level of performance when it came to performing his defensive duties.
All the Catalan attacks in the opening exchanges came from their left side where Cuadrado was operating. Jordi Alba's overlapping runs from full-back positions created openings for Barcelona from where they could penetrate the camped Juventus rearguard.
In the 19th minute, a typical Barcelona move should have ended up in the back of the net, when Alba's incisive pass into the Juventus penalty area found Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan did well to control the ball despite being under pressure from the visiting defender and quite skillfully laid it off to Lionel Messi who dragged his shot wide.
It was a golden chance for Barcelona, but the miss only further strengthened Juventus' resolve of leaving Barcelona unscathed.
The Catalans had stepped up their intensity from the first leg, but were matched toe-to-toe by the two lines of defence that Juventus formed when without the ball. Barcelona were brilliant up until they reached the Juventus box, where a barrage of players waited to smother them.
It was in that third that the game was played, and perhaps won, by Juventus. Every time a Barcelona player entered that area, the Juventus players closed down the space ahead of him. This forced the Catalans to find alternate ways, but Allegri's side had all of them blocked. Barcelona almost never stopped trying, but the Italians were equally relentless in blocking Barcelona's path to their goal.
The Old Lady had their share of counter attacks, but most of which came down from the flanks. Paolo Dybala, who played through the centre, struggled to be involved in the game like the game in Turin as he was crowded out every time he tried to initiate an attack through the middle.
Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic enjoyed plenty of joy down the flanks that were vacated by the marauding Barcelona full backs, but the Italians didn't have the quality of Dybala in those areas to truly hurt Barcelona.
Enrique's men were denied in the first half and within the opening half an hour, Barcelona's patience showed signs of evaporating. Sergio Busquets left a soft hand on the referee after being displeased with a decision, before Neymar vented out his exasperation by a late tackle that led to a booking. Juventus were absorbing all the pressure, but it was Barcelona who were getting worn out trying to force a breakthrough.
At half-time, Juventus had pipped their hosts in terms of shots on target (2-1), despite having lesser of the ball and it was down to a sound gameplan, and an even better execution. Juventus managed to isolate Messi, Neymar and Suarez and hardly gave them space to run at them.
Barcelona have already attempted 17 take-ons against Juventus; they've completed just 4.
Juventus shutting them down time after time. ❌pic.twitter.com/EshcgniNMX
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 19, 2017
The second half continued in the same vein, except the fact that the home side managed to curb the Juventus' counter attacks to an extent. It was yet another massive effort from Barcelona to breach the Juventus back line, but they seemed unmoved.
Messi had another chance post the hour mark that was created by the sheer determination of the Catalans to get on the score sheet, but the Argentine, whose sight of goal was significantly blocked by the Juventus defenders camping on the six-yard line, once again failed to hit the target.
"They are an Italian team and they always defend well. We played our game, and at the start created chances, but they built a mountain," Gerard Pique said, acknowledging the visitors' efforts at the end of the game. Walls have been frequently used as a metaphor for defences but the heat map of the Italian side would tell you exactly where Pique is coming from.
The map shows there's hardly a blade of grass in that Juventus penalty area that their players didn't cover, making it very difficult for Barcelona to score, especially in the final 20 minutes when Allegri added Andrea Barzagli to further shore up things.
"When Andrea Barzagli came on, it felt like we could have played for a whole day and not conceded," said Allegri and perhaps even the Barcelona players would find it tough to disagree.
Barcelona fans were in full voice at the end of the game, appreciating the team for their efforts, fully knowing that the players had given it their all and were beaten by a team that was better in every department.
There couldn't have been a better compliment for Juventus' rearguard action than the those Barcelona fans accepting defeat with stoppage time still to play, especially knowing what their team had done in exactly the same amount of time in the previous round.
There was nobody moaning, no one complaining. The referee hardly had any big decisions to make and all the credit goes to Juventus' defensive display that was so flawless that it didn't even allow any refereeing decisions to be of any kind of significance.
The Old Lady's performance at Barcelona was a timely reminder that Italian football is a long way from being dead. In fact, it might be about to resurrect itself on the continental front once again, this time in the form of Juventus.
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