Spanish champions a class apart
Barcelona’s star-studded team ultimately proved too strong for Juventus in an enthralling Champions League Final.
Both teams were looking to complete the treble, but given that Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar had scored 120 goals between them in all competitions prior to Saturday’s encounter, they were heavy favourites with many pundits and punters.
Despite Juventus mounting the first attack of the game, the match followed the script early on as Barça grabbed an early lead with a possession play that was reminiscent of Guardiola’s heyday. After a succession of passes, Neymar picked out Andres Iniesta’s darting run into the box. The diminutive midfielder then kept his cool and slid the ball across to the unmarked Ivan Rakitic, and the Croatian slotted the ball past Gianluigi Buffon’s despairing dive. It was a sucker punch for The Old Lady, and it seemed as though the floodgates might open. Arturo Vidal grew frustrated at Barcelona’s dominance and picked up a yellow card after a succession of petulant challenges, and was perhaps lucky not to have received his marching orders. Despite having a few chances of their own, Juve were lucky not to fall further behind as Neymar blazed over, before Dani Alves forced Buffon into a superb one-handed save, after he had initially been the wy. Luis Enrique’s men were controlling possession in a similar way to the last Barcelona teams that dominated Europe under Pep Guardiola.
However, the Italians gained a foothold in the match and shaded the rest of the first half in terms of chances, with the likes of Alvaro Morata, Claudio Marchisio and Carlos Tevez causing problems, and it was the latter of these three that almost had the chance to level the scores, but the ball intended for him by Paul Pogba was cut out by Javier Mascherano. Morata had a chance of his own, but he curled his effort wide, while Marchisio lacked composure a few minutes later, blazing his shot over the bar from around 25 yards out. Despite encroaching more into enemy territory, they could not translate this play into goals.
Barcelona then came back into it just before the break, with Suarez once again at the heart of it, as his shot was tipped over by the evergreen Buffon. Messi then almost reproduced his goal against Atletico Bilbao, as he slalomed into the box, before running out of space. The last chance of the first half fell to Marchisio, whose rasper was dealt with Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Despite the chances that the Italian outfit had carved out, Barcelona had still enjoyed 66% possession in the first period, and, like on so many other occasions, it was expected that their opponents would wilt. This did happen eventually, but not before Juventus had given the newly-crowned Copa del Rey winners an almighty scare.
The Messi-Neymar-Suarez triumvirate continued to find joy on the counter-attack, but a five-on-three breakaway failed to produce a goal, before Messi danced his way between the lines, only to fire over. They were to rue their profligacy just over five minutes later. Marchisio, under pressure from two Barcelona players, produced an impudent backheel to release Stephan Lichtsteiner. The full-back played a clever cross that forced the Barcelona rearguard to turn, and, by the time they had done that, Tevez had fired in a shot. Ter Stegen did well to get down and parry the shot, but in the process diverted into the path of Morata, who gleefully tucked home the rebound. After his two goals against boyhood club Real Madrid in the semi-finals, the young striker proved that he could deliver on the biggest stage of all.
The favourites responded in emphatic fashion. Iniesta menacingly jinked passed a few challenges before delivering a mesmerising pass which just eluded Suarez. However, the ex-Liverpool man had a decisive impact a few minutes later. One of the intriguing sub-plots to this final was whether Suarez would gain the upper hand over Patrice Evra, the man he was accused of racially abusing back in October 2011. The France left-back assured the press that he would keep close tabs on Suarez, but the Uruguayan proved too alert at the crucial moment. Messi had another chance to run at the Juve defence, gliding across the pitch before firing a fierce drive which Buffon could not hold onto, allowing Suarez to nip in front of his nemesis and put Barcelona back in front.
The game could have been put to bed soon after, when Neymar’s header found the back of the net, only to be chalked off, as the ball had hit the Brazilian’s hand on its way in.
Then it was time for arguably one of the game’s best-ever players to enter the fray for the final time. Xavi has, in his 17-year career, shattered Barcelona’s appearance record, and, in the process, picked up eight La Liga crowns and three Copa del Reys, as well as winning three major international honours with Spain and turning in a host of man-of-the-match displays. However, there was still work to be done if he was to claim his fourth Champions League crown, and Pogba again put Catalonian hearts in mouths, but his headed looped onto the roof of the net.
Gerard Pique almost became Barcelona’s unlikely hero with around ten minutes of normal time remaining, but he could not quite get over the ball, and his volley flew over the bar.
The introduction of Fernando Llorente for Morata almost paid dividends late on with Juventus chasing the game. Pogba’s neat flick found Llorente in the area, but his shimmy and pass was miscontrolled in front of goal by Roberto Pereyra. Marchisio’s bobbled strike then had ter Stegen scrambling as the Italian giants continued to hold onto the hope that they could force extra-time.
However, with the last kick of the match, they were made to pay. Juventus threw all their players up for a free-kick, and when it was cleared, Neymar embarked on a lightning-fast counter-attack, exchanging passes with Pedro before firing home to send the Barcelona fans, players and coaching staff inside the Olympiastadion into raptures. On balance, they were worthy winners, and provided a fitting send-off for one of their greatest players.
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