Juventus v Barcelona
Champions League – Tuesday, 11th April – 19:45 GMT – Juventus Stadium
Finally the wait is almost over. A journey that we embarked upon when Conte and Agnelli arrived on the scene many moons ago, which has steadily seen us progress and stride our way back towards the elite of European football now finds us hosting one of the most powerful attacking outfits the world has ever seen.
Many were appalled by the draw, yet many more in turn were instantly excited and roaring a war cry for blood which runs blue and red.
Our last meeting with the boys from Barca was in the final of 2015 which we deservedly lost 3-1. Yet times and sides and fortunes have changed since then. For both clubs. With Juve moving from strength to strength and our opponents, perhaps deteriorating in the same period. Indeed there will be no powerful Pogba, nor tenacious Tevez nor the mercurial and majestic Pirlo, but I am of the opinion that we are clearly stronger. We have become the most balanced Juve side, from top to bottom, since the glory days pre 2006. With world class talent between the sticks, all across the back line, through the midfield and also in attack. Simply put, there are no obvious weaknesses in our side.
Rather than apply the same analysis to our foes I will stick mainly to our players and manager. As others have said, quite rightly, if we wish to be considered the very best, we must beat other established sides of that calibre.
Our defensive record in Europe this season has been staggering. Conceding just two in eight matches. An astonishing achievement. Though we have run risks on occasion. Nevertheless, Allegri must be lauded for both his game and player management, thus far. For we find ourselves not only maintaining a healthy lead in Serie A, back in the final of the Coppa Italia, but also playing our best football of the season. The timing appears as perfect as it could be. Other than perhaps the doubts surrounding the fitness of the essential Mario Mandzukic, whose hard running, superb link up play and ability to drop deep and become an extra midfielder will be pivotal to our hopes and dreams of registering a memorable victory over a side who stunned a fair few when demolishing PSG to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the previous round.
In terms of form, and again I have no interest in making a mountain of a mole hill of Barca’s defeat at the weekend to plucky Malaga, I feel our finest players are on the whole in superb shape physically and mentally. Higuain has looked nothing short of awesome, Dybala has shaken off his muscular woes and was ever so lively at the weekend and Big Sami has stepped up a gear in turn.
I also believe we have the confidence and the belief in ourselves, to add to the talent. And in terms of spirit and experience we have a wealth of seasoned professionals alongside several blossoming superstars for whom this will prove the biggest game of their lives to date. I mean players like Sandro, Dybala, Pjanic and to a lesser degree Cuadrado – who has tasted the most brilliant of limelight through his efforts for his country in the latter stages of a World Cup. This mix of huge experience and desire to stake a claim as worthy of consideration as the world’s finest, needs only the right direction and a bit of luck to prosper against any side of any level.
Alongside this confidence, there are in mind but three areas of the proposed starting XI to consider.
Alves appears a certainty to start. He has an axe to grind with a club he has openly criticised for treating him poorly after he gave them so much when part of their flock. He has returned sooner than planned from a broken leg, and other than a delightful cameo against Porto, it has been a case of generally keeping him wrapped up in cotton wool, perhaps with an eye on this fixture. He will be facing Neymar, a player in sparkling form, nimble, full of trickery, sublime turn of pace with an unerring eye for goal. This could well be the battle which decides the tie. I would prefer to see Stephan start. He is finally in top form, match sharp, fully fit and I believe the Swiss offers a noticeable addition of security at the back as well as dovetails more comfortably with Cuadrado. Still, I place my trust in Allegri, for his acumen and cunning has found us in this wonderful position of opportunity to compete for all honours available.
It strikes me as bizarre that Allegri could be seriously considering starting Asamoah in place of Sandro. For the Brazilian is stronger, equal if not better defensively and certainly offers more potency in the final third with his fine footwork and ability to both deliver great crosses and also cut in on his right foot. As much as I am a huge fan of Asamoah, the two players are miles apart in terms of quality.
Whilst the Bonucci and Chiellini tandem is on paper our most formidable duo in the middle, Leo appeared very much out of sorts when he came on at the weekend. He is a player who on his day is unquestionably a top five CB on the planet, perhaps in the galaxy, yet when his head is not right, he can prove a devastating liability. Add in Kaiser Chiellini’s recent bout of what we would say in England was ‘the touch of a rapist’ and I am less convinced of our defensive fortitude than I could be. However, both players have a habit of producing their very best when faced with the strongest challenges. And their experience together, combined with their exceptional strength in every area of the defensive side of the game, could well prove too much for the fabled triumvirate of blaugrana exceptionalism. We can but hope.
Not as a concern, more a pondering…Claudio Marchisio has shown increasing glimpses of returning to his best of late. Whilst Pjanic has been less able to make an impact when deployed. What Il Principino brings is not just a passion for the cause unrivalled by any, but also the solidity and guile to allow Khedira to bomb forward with greater confidence. The Bosnian, however, produces considerably more in the final third and will add much to our creativity. Against a team who are comfortable on the ball and embraces as much as demands possession, it is a difficult decision for Allegri to make. Perhaps as we are playing at home Pjanic gets the nod, and Marchisio will return for the second leg. Which would make sense when we are more likely to attack this evening and seek an advantage to take to the Catalan capital.
Essentially, we have a fighting chance of causing our opponents more problems than they can cause us. And it is this conclusion which fills me with calm confidence.
4-2-3-1: Buffon; Dani Alves, Bonucci, Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Khedira, Pjanic; Cuadrado, Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain.
4-3-3: Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Rakitic, Mascherano, Iniesta; Messi, Duarez, Neymar
Aleix Vidal, Rafinha, Arda Turan (Doubtful)