When Juventus made its way to the Champions League final in 2015, Massimiliano Allegri’s project was still in its early days. The Turin-based club did not lack experience but there was an obvious gap in quality when it faced Barcelona in the summit clash. Juventus’s continental pedigree was still suspect.
Two seasons on, with Allegri’s side looking certain to make another final, one is no longer underwhelmed by its wares. Juventus now deserves its place among the continental elite. There were suggestions last season that it was very close to the highest pedestal as the Italian side produced an astonishing display to almost knock Bayern Munich out in the round of 16. But, this time around, the transition has been made. Juventus can legitimately claim to be the favourites for the tournament.
The two-time European champion had already established its credentials after a magnificent display against Barcelona in the quarters. On Wednesday, we found further evidence to back the claim.
Another clean sheet was earned, against a Monaco side which had scored in every game at Stade Louis II since November 2015. The last time Juventus conceded a goal in the Champions League, Barack Obama was still the US President.
Plus, there were two goals by Gonzalo Higuain, who had not scored in the tournament’s knockout stages for four years. With 30-plus strikes in all competitions this season, the Argentine has begun to pay back some of the €90 million Juventus spent on him last summer. He’s the first striker to achieve that goal-scoring tally for the club since David Trezeguet in the 2001-02 campaign.
Monaco, of course, has set the competition on fire this season with goal-filled displays of its own. Leonardo Jardim’s men had scored at least thrice in each of its preceding knockout games, becoming the first team to do so in Champions League history. But in the first leg of its semifinal, Monaco ran into a side that has only conceded twice in this season’s competition. None of them came from open play.
However, Monaco did threaten to breach the Juventus rearguard. In the absence of the suspended Sami Khedira, Allegri switched to a back three with Dani Alves and Alex Sandro playing as wingbacks. The return of Andrea Barzagli meant that Juventus had the same defensive trio on the pitch which had carefully marshalled the side during its run to the 2015 final. Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are Juventus’s version of the BBC - Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The three central defenders held the fort as they were repeatedly threatened by the vibrant football for which Monaco is well known. In the early exchanges, the young firebrand striker Kylian Mbappe was able to produce two efforts on goal but there stood the seemingly unbeatable Gianluigi Buffon.
Monaco did not have a lot of clear cut chances but when they arrived, Buffon ensured that Juventus’ uncharacteristically hesitant defending of crosses did not hurt his team.
Jardim later had words of appreciation for the legendary goalkeeper. "I think being clinical made the difference. From three situations, Juventus scored two goals, and we scored none from our three. There were some good saves from Gianluigi Buffon. Our lack of a cutting edge was in large part due to his work in goal: He pulled off two or three incredible saves.”
In some senses, this was the story of the match. But it must be emphasised that Juventus tightened its grip on the proceedings as they wore on. The absence of the injured Benjamin Mendy helped as Monaco lacked the directness which has troubled so many teams this season. It also forced full-back, Djibril Sidibe, to shift from the right to the opposite flank. He never really adjusted to playing on the left-wing, which consequently meant that his attacking forays were limited as well.
However, Juventus had another gear when it came to recovering from unfavourable situations. Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund came unstuck against Monaco as they failed to see out phases of intense pressure. But both of Juventus’ goals on Wednesday night broke spells of intense scrutiny by the hosts.
The first goal was a collector’s delight. Two backheels, the first by Paulo Dybala and then by Dani Alves added the gloss to a sweeping move. Higuain and Alves’ one-two was a neat display of the understanding and comfort which underpins Juventus’s football.
When the duo was signed last summer, eyebrows were raised for different reasons. While Higuain’s move was criticised for the astronomical amount spent to acquire his signature, Alves was written off due to his advancing years. But the Brazilian’s two assists and energetic display on Wednesday night were as strong an argument as Higuain’s goals. In Alves’ case, it has helped that Allegri has managed him well to ensure he is ready for the big matches.
One more game remains before Juventus can confirm its presence for the final in Cardiff next month.
A clash against the only other unbeaten side in the Champions League this season, Real Madrid, looks likely. But before that materialises, Allegri’s men will have to ensure there is no miraculous flowering of Monaco’s vigour in Turin next week.
It is interesting that Juventus met the French side in the 1997-98 semis as well before going on to lose to Real Madrid in the final. Monaco, of course, was also its opponent in the quarterfinals two seasons ago but that campaign ended in another defeat at the last hurdle.
This time, though, Juventus will be more optimistic about its chances. After all, as it showed once again on Wednesday, the Italian champion belongs to the biggest stage now.
Updated Date: May 04, 2017 16:09 PM