Juventus made the semi-finals of the Champions League with bare minimum fuss as Barcelona were unceremoniously dumped out following a no frills defensive display from the Italian champions at the Camp Nou on Wednesday evening.
The Italians shut up shop and threw away the lock as the Catalans failed to score in 180 minutes against a team which has now kept eight clean sheets in their last 10 games. Juve invoked the spirit of the Inter Milan team in 2010 which progressed to the finals on the back of a resilient rearguard display despite having Thiago Motta sent off.
On this evening, they demonstrated the dying art of dogged defence as Gigi Buffon and Co might have passed for Swiss bankers, given the high level of security on show. There were no goalmouth clearances or last-ditch tackles as every ball was dealt with adroitly and swiftly. Great defending may not make the news but it is an art as Juve painted a less-than-pretty but perfect picture against formidable rivals.
A wall of black and white
Juve’s game plan was the best they could adopt: hope to score an early goal and then shut shop because there was no way Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were turning into Marquinhos and Thiago Silva and let in five.
Luis Enrique’s high line aided that Italian desire as the Bianconeri had the better of the opening exchanges, using Juan Cuadrado and Paulo Dybala’s pace on the counter to run free of the home defence.
Barcelona’s attack yielded absolutely nothing as they faced a wall of black and white every time they got their heads up to attack as barring a couple of occasions, Buffon was relatively untroubled.
It is very rarely that the home team at Camp Nou show any signs of pressure or frustration but the ugly side of the Blaugrana was on full display as Neymar, the embodiment of Barca’s European campaign this season was the embodiment of their vexation on the night.
Lionel Messi, who had the best chance of the half, got taken out by Miralem Pjanic and the Brazilian came clattering into the latter and was lucky to receive a yellow card. Dybala came in for particularly rough treatment as Enrique’s men were clearly harried at the sight of the ever-improving Argentine.
Barca’s attacking malaise
Yet the second half was a different affair as Buffon was made to flop a lot more with signs of the birdcage creaking a bit. Messi’s shots weren’t being closed down but going wide or high. Chiellini, ever the mob boss to Bonucci’s attack killer routine, earned himself a yellow card as the ensuing free-kick by Barcelona’s Argentine talisman just flew over the bar.
Yet, Dani Alves, Mario Mandzukic, Sami Khedira were all to blame for Barca’s attacking malaise as the Old Lady of Turin stood there like a bad joke in front of the Catalan attackers, never once really conceding space in the final third.
The more incisive and wider the home attacks, the away defence retreated that much deeper and narrower till Buffon almost had to complain of claustrophobia. In a nerveless defensive display, it was the veteran goalkeeper who was the perhaps the most troubled.
A wayward pass to Alex Sandro followed a swipe at a corner after which Messi had a chance to score with Buffon stranded but could only blaze the ball high. Yet, no one from Juventus really deserved any censure barring one ex-Real Madrid player.
Gonzalo Higuain was absolutely woeful, whether in possession or shielding the ball as Pipita seemed to be sleepwalking throughout the game so much so that it almost seemed criminal when Max Allegri took Dybala off for Andrea Barzagli.
The lost art of defending
Barcelona threw on Paco Alcacer and strangely, Javier Mascherano in the pursuit of an opening but Juventus proved unshakeable as every last-ditch tackle and crucial interception went their way. Allegri and Juve were schooling Arsenal, PSG and the rest of Europe in the lost art of defending.
At the end of the match, Neymar’s tears were uncontrollable as he along with Messi and Luis Suarez were unable to breach an iron-clad defence. Former teammate and opposition right-back on the night Alves consoled his fellow Brazilian but had the most smug of faces after getting one over his former employers; his replacement Sergi Roberto would have done well to watch the 33-year old on the night.
A summer of change awaits Barcelona with Luis Enrique already having announced his departure this summer. The likes of Jeremy Mathieu, Andre Gomes, Rafinha and even Andres Iniesta may be moved on as even a win in the El Classico this Sunday may not be enough to save their disappointing season.
For Juve, if their run to the finals in 2015 was considered an anomaly, the squad appears to fear no one this time around and the rest will be out to avoid them. The futures of Allegri, Dybala and Bonucci in Turin are in doubt as the vultures swoop for a prospective Champions League-winning manger and his best resources.
This may be their best chance to end a 21-year long wait for the title and it all comes down to a simple fact: “If you can’t score against em’, you can’t beat em”. Leo Messi, who rather symbolically exchanged shirts with Bonucci after the final whistle, will tell you so.