In Berlin’s Olympiastadion on June 6, there will be no third consecutive one-country Champions League final, and no first ever Clásico final. Instead Juventus played spoilers to Real Madrid’s insatiable hunger for yet another European Cup triumph, ousting the record 10 time champions to set a Champions League final date with Barcelona. While there won’t be an inaugural staging of the world’s most famous rivalry in the planet’s most prestigious club occasion, there will be a first ever final meeting between two of the great historic names of Europe.
Yet although Juventus are a grand institution with more Serie A titles than any other team and two European Cups already under the belt, they have reveled in an unexpected new role of plucky underdogs. And purists should take some heart from the fact that for a third successive season the Champions League has provided evidence that success is not simply down to income, wage bills and signing the best players every summer.
Where Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid went before them, Juventus now follow. All three have shown that a coherent strategy throughout the club and smart coaching can still trump bank balances and talent, even in an era increasingly dominated by Europe’s super clubs. Yet having disturbed the oligopoly at the top of the European game, Juventus’ task is to now do what Dortmund and Atletico couldn’t and walk home with the trophy.
Were they to do so, it would be quite some story for the Bianconeri and in particular their veteran captain. Soon after the final whistle blew at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, with Juventus having secured a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid to progress 3-2 on aggregate, Buffon summarized a journey that is at once very personal, but as well representative of his club and indeed country.
“Da Berlino alla B.....dalla B a Berlino!!!!! questa è la vita!!,” he wrote in a tweet. Or “From Berlin to Serie B, and from Serie B to Berlin. That’s life.”
For Buffon, as well as for teammates Andrea Pirlo and Andrea Barzagli, next month’s final at Berlin’s Olympiastadion will be a return to the scene of their greatest triumph. It was nine years ago that Italy upset the odds to lift the World Cup in a triumph that was made all the more remarkable because of the scandal engulfing the domestic game back home.
The Calciopoli affair had a huge impact on the whole of the Italian game, but more so for Juventus who bore the brunt of the punishment. The most successful club in a country whose soccer had fallen behind La Liga and the Premier League were sent down to the second division, crippling a team that had lost the Champions League final on penalties just three years before. But while many stars left, Buffon remained at Juventus, helping guide the team back to prominence.
Returning to the top flight at the first time of asking, it wasn’t until one of Buffon’s former teammates in Turin, Antonio Conte, arrived in 2011 that Juventus once again became top dogs in Italy. Indeed the one-time tireless midfielder led the club to three straight Serie A titles before suddenly departing ahead of pre-season last summer. When the club then quickly appointed Massimiliano Allegri, a man who had been sacked by struggling Milan just six months earlier, there was outrage a plenty and low expectations heading into this season.
Yet, while maintaining Juventus’ domestic dominance, Allegri has done something Conte could not: overcome the financial gap to take the club back to Europe’s elite. Facing Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16 and Monaco in the quarterfinals, Allegri got his tactics just right. Against Real Madrid it was another personal triumph, but also one for the value of a true team over a collection of individuals. As Real Madrid failed to get the best out of global stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez, Juventus progressed thanks to two goals from a striker who had been discarded by the Spanish giants last summer.
Now the task for Juventus is to overcome the combined individual brilliance and near-telepathic understanding of possibly the greatest forward trio of all time. Barcelona may have a squad full of quality, still including many of those who won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011, but the current incarnation under Luis Enrique is less about the club’s famed possession and pressing philosophy and more to do with the brilliance up front.
Never more so was this evident than in their semifinal victory over Bayern Munich. There were goals for Lionel Messi and Neymar in a 3-0 first leg win at the Camp Nou before the combination of Messi to Luis Suarez to Neymar provided both goals to secure Barcelona’s progress in the Munich return. They were quite simply the difference in a tie that was goalless after 76 minutes of the first leg before some unstoppable Messi brilliance swung it decisively the way of the Catalans.
The stage now appears set for Messi to further enhance his credentials for the crown of the best player of all time and for Barcelona to join Bayern and Liverpool as five-time European champions. But Juventus and Buffon are on a powerful course with destiny in Berlin.
Early prediction: Juventus have the defensive organization to make things difficult for Barcelona as well as cause problems on the break through the front duo of Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata. Yet there just seems no stopping Barcelona’s sensational forward trio at this moment. If Messi, Neymar and Suarez are fit and on form they have to be favored to deliver Barcelona the silverware.
Predicted score: Barcelona 2-1 Juventus
Match date and time: Saturday, June 6, 2:45 p.m. EDT