It has been only a month since Barcelona produced one of the greatest comebacks ever but the club may find the next step beyond its capabilities. In a week’s time, the Catalan side will seek to overturn a 0-3 deficit against Juventus. A bigger margin was reversed against Paris Saint-Germain but the proposition is different this time around.
As Juventus manager Max Allegri noted in his post-match comments, Juventus are now respected in Europe. The Italian giant may not have the silverware to show for its pedigree but the club has taken immense leaps in continental football during the current manager’s tenure. The surprise run to the final in 2014-15 was followed by a performance for the ages at Bayern Munich in the round of 16 last season. Albeit, it ended in defeat but Juventus walked off the pitch with its reputation enhanced.
The dismantling of Barcelona on Tuesday night will only serve to embellish the Old Lady’s continental credentials. Allegri called it the greatest result of his tenure at the club. Juventus is now unbeaten in 18 games at home in the Champions League.
The last time these two sides met, in the 2014-15 final, Barcelona was a side that was demonstrating its best gifts. Rarely do teams get the better of Allegri’s Juventus by doing anything less than that. The Italian side is ruthless when it comes to demolishing opponents unable to keep up with its level.
In Paulo Dybala, the Turin club has a striker who has taken no time to show he belongs to the highest echelons of football. Through his teenage years, Dybala dreamt of playing “a one-two with Lionel Messi.” In his first appearance against his illustrious compatriot on Tuesday night, he scored one goal and later made it two. Both were calm finishes off his eviscerating left foot.
But Dybala’s goals and the one in second half by Georgio Chiellini confirmed another thing. Barcelona’s fragility in its own half has been a worry all season. It does not look like it’s a failing which will go away immediately. After the match, Luis Enrique lamented the manner in which his team was prepared for the encounter.
“A coach does everything to help the team and prepare them, but evidently I did not. Positioning was a shipwreck, I wasn't able to transmit it well. I take responsibility 101 percent. We had better positioning in the second half, but the rival also let us have the ball.”
Barcelona went in with a lopsided 3-4-3 formation which had Javier Mascherano sit in front of a back three. While Sergi Roberto was the designated right-wing back, Neymar was supposed to stay high up on the other flank. In fact, the defence moulded its shape to a back four when Barcelona did not have the ball. However, the message was lost somewhere and confusion wreaked havoc.
Sergi Roberto looked utterly lost, not knowing when to stretch play and when to take a narrow position. Furthermore, Javier Mascherano failed to plug the gaps between midfield and defence. Often, there was a vast expanse in Barcelona’s half. This resulted in Juventus finding ample opportunities to pull the ball back and finding a free man. The second goal was a perfect summation of this problem. Sergio Busquets was sorely missed by Barcelona.
The first goal for Juventus came on the back of a high-intensity start from the hosts. Barcelona was pressed and harried, a situation reminiscent of the 4-0 thrashing by PSG. The match, however, acquired a different complexion thereafter. Juventus was happy to let the opposition have the ball and exploit opportunities for a counter-attack. Juan Cuadrado particularly enjoyed this as he had ample space on the right to give the opposition the run around.
Barcelona, though, was unable to make the large share of possession count. As a consequence of the awkward formation, the midfield was crowded out by the Catalan side’s players. This allowed Messi relatively little space to run into and dribble past players. Juventus did not have to worry much about blocking the superstar’s path.
Yet, Messi produced two absolute gems in either half. His through-balls to Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez were the only ones Barcelona managed in the final third all evening but they were well set-up to be converted into goals. However, Gianluigi Buffon produced his ethereal touch to keep his fortress intact.
At half-time, it became clear to Luis Enrique that this encounter was different from the one against PSG. So the 3-4-3 formation was ditched in favour of the more familiar 4-3-3. Andre Gomes replaced Jeremy Mathieu and Barcelona instantly had a better shape. But, stung by the first half, it failed to produce a meaningful phase of pressure and Juventus held on fairly comfortably.
The defeat in Turin meant that it was Barcelona’s third away loss in its last four Champions League games, conceding 10 goals in this period. With its only clean sheet in the competition coming against Celtic this season, perhaps it was a near-certainty that Juventus would score on Tuesday. After all, Barcelona’s defensive issues have not been limited to Europe alone.
However, its home record should give confidence to Luis Enrique and his charges. Barcelona has won all of its four European home games this term, scoring 21 goals and conceding just once. Yet, Enrique said after the battering in Turin “it's hard to think of a comeback.” It is, indeed. Juventus is likely to take the game to Barcelona even at Camp Nou. A repeat of the miracle may just have to wait.
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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2017 11:35:18 IST