The 2014/15 season reaches its climax tomorrow evening when Barça and Juventus face off in the Champions League Final at Berlin’s Olympiastadion (Saturday 8.45 pm). Both finalists arrive to the game as champions of their respective league and cup competitions, which means the winner will complete the treble. A victory for Barça would make the Blaugrana the first club ever to complete the triplete of domestic league and cup and the Champions League for the second time.
There are similarities between this season and Barça’s first triplete in the 2008/09 season. Neither side was given much hope at the start of the season as an ex-player arrived as a seemingly inexperienced coach. In both seasons the physical condition, mentality and level of sacrifice dramatically improved on the previous trophyless season. And both teams were led by the sensational Leo Messi who formed part of a lethal attacking trio that scored over 100 goals in the season.
Pep Guardiola’s 2009 team will perhaps be remembered more romantically. That side took more risks and ultimately could be more spectacular which was most memorably demonstrated in the unforgettable 2-6 demolition of Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. However, the road to the 2009 triple was more bumpy and there were more crucial moments when the team was against the ropes but survived, Pinto’s penalty save in the Copa del Rey semi-final at Mallorca and Iniesta’s famous goal at Stamford Bridge both being vital to the team’s progress.
This season’s team has ultimately been more solid. There were some doubts in the first half of the season over a lack of attacking ideas in some games (Malaga, Getafe, Almeria and Real Sociedad) and occasional defensive vulnerability in others (Paris SG and Madrid). However, Barça have been finding the net regularly since Messi moved to the right wing and the front three started really clicking, while the improvement in form, first from Piqué and Busquets and more recently from Alves, has seen the defence leaking far fewer goals. The result has been spectacular with Barça winning every single game in the Copa del Rey while in the Champions League the team performed so well in the first leg of each tie against Man City, PSG and Bayern Munich that the second leg become pretty much irrelevant. Even when the team conceded an early goal to Bayern in the second leg the response was immediate with Neymar’s two away goals to prevent any real worries.
Luis Enrique’s tactical variations have made it almost impossible for opposing coaches to find an antidote. If you play a high press and try and compete for possession then Barça will play it long and the speed and talent of Messi, Suárez and Neymar will exploit the space mercilessly. Whereas, if you sit back to defend it is almost like waiting for the inevitable.
Juventus seem likely to take a similar approach to a team like Atlético Madrid. They will play a generally defensive 4-4-2 but will look to break fast, and where Atlético relied on the pace of Griezmann and Torres, Juventus will hope to profit from the speed of Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata to unsettle Barça’s defence. The Italians’ hopes have been seriously dented by the loss of Chiellini who has been essential in leading the Juventus defence. A back four of Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Bonucci and Evra doesn’t look so tough now but Juve still have plenty of strengths. Buffon is a top-class experienced keeper while the midfield quartet of Pirlo, Marchisio, Pogba and Vidal is packed with talent. Tevez will work tirelessly to attack the space behind Barça’s advanced full-backs while Morata demonstrated in the semi-final against Madrid that he can be lethal given a half-chance. Perhaps Juve’s biggest strength is in their work-rate and this is especially important when they counter-attack. Pogba and Vidal are tireless to get forward to support the front two while Lichtsteiner is also impressive for the distance he covers on the right flank.
Barça arrived in Berlin at lunchtime today with all 23 first team players plus Munir, Sandro and Samper. Andrés Iniesta has recovered from his calf injury and seems certain to start which means we’ll see the now familiar line-up of Ter Stegen, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi, Suárez and Neymar.
There is every reason to be confident that we can finish the season with victory and glory. This is not just the usual blind optimism of many football fans. It is based on knowing that the players are very strong mentally and that the team has found a very good balance of a well-disciplined defensive system combined with variations in attack and the talent of Messi, Suárez and Neymar. Anything can happen in 90 minutes and Juventus are a very strong team but I can’t help feeling that Barça are on the verge of another historic achievement.
For more on this season’s Champions League statistics, previous meetings between the sides, the route to the final, etc, check out the cool infographic from my friends at Soccerlens.com
Juventus: Buffon, Storari, Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Ogbonna, Bonucci, De Ceglie, Evra, Pirlo, Pogba, Pepe, Marchisio, Vidal, Sturaro, Pereyra, Rubinho, Padoin, Morata, Tevez, Llorente, Matri, Coman.
Barça: Ter Stegen, Bravo, Masip, Alves, Montoya, Douglas, Piqué, Bartra, Vermaelen, Mascherano, Mathieu, Adriano, Alba, Busquets, Samper, Rakitic, Sergi Roberto, Xavi, Rafinha, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Munir, Sandro.
Juventus: Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Bonucci, Evra; Pirlo, Marchisio, Pogba, Vidal; Tevez, Morata.
Barça: Ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suárez, Neymar.
Prediction: Juventus 0 Barça 2
Date: Saturday 6 June 2015. Kick-off 8.45 pm CET (7.45 pm BST)