June 1, 2017 11:14:04 pm
For a team that has lost at this stage more than anyone else, the confidence with which Juventus go into the UEFA Champions League final is unhindered by the daunting task they face ahead. While domestically they have had nearly no competition, winning the league an astounding six years in a row, Juventus have come short of claiming the title of the best team in Europe by agonising margin.
In the last six years, Juventus have seen themselves get past the round of 16 stage of the Champions League four times while managing to reach the final twice – first in 2015 and then two years later now. And as Juventus prepare to challenge for the trophy for a second time in three years, one must look at how the journey has been for this treble-chasing Juventus side.
While talking about the Juventus team, it won’t be wrong to assess its strengths from a defensive point of view. On road to the final in Cardiff, Juventus have had the tightest defence in Europe this season. Until the 69th minute in the second leg of their semi-final clash against Monaco, when French teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe scored, Juventus had not conceded a single goal in the entire knockout stage of the competition. This included the remarkable effort of keeping out the likes of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi from scoring over two legs in their quarter-final tie against Barcelona, which they won 3-0 on aggregate.
What is even more astounding is the fact that through the entire competition, including the group stage, Juventus have conceded just three goals. Major credit goes to both veteran custodian Gianluigi Buffon and the defence. Leonardo Bonucci has been a key figure in defence alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, and has gone on to become easily one of the top five centre backs across Europe today. Whereas Buffon even at the age of 39, continues to be among the best and has more importantly been a vocal leader from the back.
The wing-backs as well, the Brazilian duo of Alex Sandro and Dani Alves, have gone from strength-to-strength in Juventus’ journey to the final, with Alves giving a brilliant defensive performance against former club Barcelona in the quarter-finals and then an all-action display over two legs against Monaco in the semi-finals. Even at the age of 34, Alves proves that he is still the most versatile right-back in the world, and it would not be a surprise if the maverick Brazilian plays an influential role in Cardiff as well.
But the biggest evolution of this Juventus side has been its attacking approach. And a key element in that has been Mario Mandzukic’s role. A traditional centre forward, Mandzukic has made use of his tremendous work-rate and shifted to the left side of the field. This transformation has been the catalyst for their Champions League campaign. Mandzukic has offered a surprisingly brilliant defensive alternative on the flank and has worked tirelessly to allow the Argentine duo of Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala to run the show upfront. Though goals have dried up for the former Bayern Munich man, his role in the team has been much more than that.
The Juventus puzzle is completed by the attacking duo of Higuain and Dybala. Though many at Juventus have been skeptical over his 78 million pound club record fee, Higuain has proven to be the man to lead Juventus up front. Granted that he has not been able to replicate the same performances during his time at Napoli, the Argentine international has continued to prove his doubters wrong and has won over the Juventus faithful over the course of the year with 32 goals across all competitions. His hefty built matching an equally hefty fee has seen him bully past opponents. And come June 3, the former Real Madrid man would be one player Juventus would be expecting to win them the Champions League.
Then there is the shining hope in Dybala who has often been compared to Lionel Messi. When he scored two past the Argentine maestro’s Barcelona side in the quarter-final, many saw it as Dybala announcing himself on the biggest stage. Following his move from Palermo in 2015, Dybala settled in quickly and this year has set up a formidable strike partnership with Higuain. One that can certainly be cause for worry for the Real Madrid defence.
Whether Dybala is on course to be Messi’s successor or not, is another matter but one thing is for certain: this Juventus side possesses an equal mixture of ability and promise to bother Real Madrid. And even as they go into the final, they go as underdogs, like they did two years ago. But if Real Madrid are to learn from what they must have seen from the Italian champions, they would need something special to bring down the Old Lady.
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