With just under a month between the sem-finals and final, every angle of this afternoon's UEFA Champions League Final has been covered. Juventus and Barcelona, two giants of the sport, will meet in Berlin for the chance to be crowned kings of European club football. If by some way you have skimmed over, or missed all together, the endless coverage surrounding club football's biggest stage, we at BYC are here to give you one last primer before the proceedings. Whatever side your loyalties may lie, or even if you're a neutral, it should be one hell of a final.
Teams across Europe have struggled all season to reel in Barcelona's attacking hydra of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar. Very few have had success. Juventus is known for their defensive prowess, but it is still a daunting task to neutralize all three of these world class forwards. The bad thing is the Old Lady will be trying to do so without their heart and soul in defense, Giorgio Chiellini. Even with their backbone out, Juve can take solace that neutralizing this triumvirate of terror is not an unattainable goal. You need look no further than two of Barca's lesser heralded La Liga foes: Malaga and Celta Vigo.
Malaga was the only team to avoid defeat in 2015. They did this in both games without necessarily forcing Barcelona to change the way they played football. Barca maintained the lion's share of possession in both affairs, a 0-0 draw in September and a 1-0 defeat in February. The thing that Malaga did so well was they forced that possession to go where they wanted it to go. Instead of working it through the center of the pitch with Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi; Malaga were content to make the passing of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves from the back beat them. In a 4-4-2, the simplest yet usually most neglected formation in today's game, Malaga was able to blanket the internal attacking options while forcing Barca to fire in hopeful cross after hopeful cross from the sideline. It is a risky proposition as even being small in stature, all three Barca goal getters are supreme headers of the ball. Malaga showed though that it can be done.
Celta Vigo went about it a different way. The took more of a Detroit Pistons Bad Boys approach to beating Barca once out of two games and keeping the big three off the score sheet twice. Celta registered a ridiculous 51 fouls between the two games. They weren't just bullying Barca when the Blaugrana were on the ball though. Celta Vigo made Claudio Bravo work often and tortured their back line. Joaquin Larrivey scored the goal in the first game and was denied the opener in the second by a massive effort from Bravo. Celta showed that shying away from Barca's attack is just playing into their hands. They made everyone in a Barca shirt have to track back and not stay comfortably on their half of the field. And when it looked like Barca was getting too comfortable with the ball, a la Michael Jordan against the Bad Boys, they clubbed them.
Even with Chiellini sidelined, Juventus has the talent and composure to enact either of these strategies. They also have something that neither Malaga or Celta Vigo could boast: a world class strike force of their own. They not have been as prolific as Barca's Hydra, but Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata have been just as effective and more importantly--clutch. Morata was the hero in the second leg of the semi-final against his former team Real Madrid. Both him and Tevez scored in the home match. Much praise, and warranted at that, has been heaped on the next soon-to-be 100 million Euro man Paul Pogba and soon-to-be MLS'er Andrea Pirlo. But, when Juventus needed a lifeline the most, the duo up front for the Bianconeri provided it. If they can get an early goal and force Barca to play into their defensive vortex, this final will be turned up on its head. Speaking of heads, with the amount of attacking firepower both sides possess, it should be assumed that both team's keepers will be proverbially standing on theirs for the majority of the ninety minutes.
There will be goals this afternoon. Not since Juve's last appearance in the final (2003) has there been a scoreless regular and extra time. In fact, it has only happened four times ever. It is the charge of the two keepers, Barcelona's Claudio Bravo and Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon, to make sure their team is the one that stays on the better side of the impending onslaught. Bravo is getting his first crack in the spotlight following a career-altering showing at the World Cup for Chile. Buffon is trying to add the final elusive feather to a cap that already includes six (yes I'm counting the revoked ones) Scudetti, a UEFA cup (w/ Parma), and the 2006 World Cup. It will be nervy for both men but the pressure is definitely greater for Gigi. Bravo is playing with house money as he is just beginning his run as Barca keeper. Buffon may not get another chance at a Champions League Final and it is unclear as of now if he'll get a chance to avenge his only other football failure at the 2016 Euros. This should make for some great theater.
With all this being said, though my heart wants Juventus to pull the upset and disrupt the status quo at the pinnacle of Europe, my head says its going to be Barcelona taking home their fifth UCL crown. A 3-1 victory for Luis Enrique's men will put them in a three-way tie all time with Liverpool and Bayern Munich on the all-time winner's list. Enjoy the game everybody and check out myself on Twitter @TREVORutley and/or Bleeding Your Colors @B3WHYC3 as I will probably be live tweeting the contest from one of those two accounts this afternoon.
Image Credits: UCL Trophy (bleacherreport.com), Barca Hydra (espnfc.com), Morata & Tevez (forzaitalianfootball.com), Bravo & Buffon (regdol.cl)