Unusually, we approach a major game with a degree of certainty over who will play. The only doubt at Barcelona appears to be over Andres Iniesta, who has been struggling with a calf strain, but all the indications are that he will be fit to take his place alongside Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in the familiar three-man midfield. Juventus have flipped between a back three and a back four this season, but in recent Champions League games have tended to start with a back four, bringing Andrea Barzagli on late in matches to protect a lead. Giorgio Chiellini’s absence with a calf injury effectively removes any thought that Max Allegri might have decided to deploy a back three to combat Barca’s vaunted front line. The concern for Juve is whether Andrea Barzagli, who has only just returned to training, will be fully fit to come in alongside Leonardo Bonnucci at centre-back.
Whichever side wins will compete a treble – a sign of how power in European football is increasingly coalescing in the hands of a small elite. Barca were pushed rather harder, but after a run of 18 league wins in 20 games, they were able to ease off against Deportivo la Coruna on the final weekend, before Lionel Messi’s genius won the Copa del Rey final. Juve won Serie A by 17 points, drawing two of their final four games as they relaxed. Remarkably for two of the giants of the game, the two sides have only met in four ties, with two wins each. The most recent of those encounters came in 2003, when Juve beat Barca in the quarter-final on their way to the final.
The obvious issue is how to stop Lionel Messi, to which the truest answer may be that offered by Pep Guardiola before the semi-final when he admitted that it’s impossible. His solution was to try to push high and press a Barca midfield that he reasoned may be unused to such treatment, looking to cut off the supply to the front three. That, though, resulted merely in Rakitic and Iniesta sliding pass after pass into space for Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi to run onto. The best way is probably the traditional way: pack men behind the ball, try to reduce the space and hope. That worked for Internazionale and Chelsea in the semi-finals of 2010 and 2012, but this is a slightly different Barca.
Rather than trying to pass their way into space as they did then – often being forced by weight of number to play horizontally across the pitch - they dribble far more often (the front three has completed an average of 12 dribbles per game in the Champions league this season as opposed to the 4.1 managed by Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Messi in 2011-12). That risks losing possession – even Messi loses the ball with 35% of his attempted dribbles – but it also means that with a tick, a moment of magic, and a defender or two can be taken out of the game, shattering even the most tightest of marking structures.
In a sense this Juve team is ideally suited to dropping back and keeping midfield compact. Andrea Pirlo can sit just in front of the two centre-backs and – assuming his waywardness in the semi-final was an aberration – launch counters with his long passing. Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio can forage alongside him with Arturo Vidal providing a spiky link to a front two of Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata who showed against Real Madrid in the semi-final how good they can be on the counter. The danger is that they will, inevitably, end up playing quite narrow, which opens avenues down the flanks for Dani Alves and Jordi Alba to exploit. Their overlaps can help Messi and Neymar cut infield, drawing away full-backs, but, as PSG found in the quarter-final, if Dani Alves is given time to cross, this is a Barca side more than capable of scoring headed goals. It has more variety than the side of three years ago.
It’s hard to see how Juventus can keep Barcelona out. Only twice this year and not since the defeat to Malaga in February have Barcelona failed to score. Goals seem almost certain, which makes over 2.5 goals at 1.9 look attractive. It’s true that Juventus present probably the toughest midfield that Barca have faced this season, but it’s still hard to see past a fairly comfortable Barca win. Back them -1.5 on the Asian handicap at 2.65.