Juventus 2015 Champions League Final run a story of under-appreciation


When Juventus came into the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid, they were viewed as the underdogs, with some seeing Los Blancos as an overwhelming favorite to advance behind stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez, who were both in-form going into both legs. However, Juve won a gritty first leg 1-0 behind on-loan Madrid striker Alvaro Morata’s goal, which resembled something straight out of Thomas Muller’s textbook.

Teams with elite defenses and stacked midfield’s like Juventus generally don’t blow leads in a second leg, no matter how slim the margin of error is. But it looked like Real would be able to make it through after Ronaldo dispatched a first-half penalty following a controversial call. However, Morata was once again the hero, and Juve made it through to the final to face FC Barcelona after the 22-year-old scored his 12th goal of the season and fourth goal of the 2015 Champions League.

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Everybody knows that the Serie A isn’t the same force it used to be in world football, and that’s unfortunate, because I think that’s the only reason why some people almost discounted the Zebras completely in their draw against mighty Madrid. 17 points in the clear of AS Roma at the top of the league table and with a +48 goal differential, Juve simply dominated everyone they came across domestically, and yet not even the goal-scoring efforts of a Carlos Tevez or the fantastic play of Paul Pogba could earn them the recognition they deserved.

That is, until they beat Real Madrid on a 3-2 aggregate in the semi-finals. We all know Madrid had to deal with several injuries this season (Karim Benzema, James, Toni Kroos (who was clearly playing hurt in the second leg), and most prominently Luka Modric), but it wasn’t like Juve went without facing adversity. Pogba and Claudio Marchisio- two of the best players in the world, irrelevant of position- went down with injuries during the team’s CL run, with Pogba missing the first leg of their battle against Madrid. Meanwhile, Arturo Vidal had to get back on form following nagging knee issues.

Pogba’s absence from the first leg of Juve’s battle at the Bernabeu could have been as big of a loss as Modric’s absence was for Los Blancos, but here’s where the story of Juventus’s under-appreciation continues. It’s remarkable how Marco Sturaro, who later scored THIS beauty against Raul Albiol and Napoli, came in and played so well that the team didn’t miss a beat. He came into the game as an unknown on the global scale and emerged as a hero, especially after his goal-saving block on James that went completely under-appreciated until highlights after the game.

We knew Juventus would be able to dominate the Serie A, and we expected them to avoid an Arsenal-like letdown against Monaco. But Juve wouldn’t earn national respect until they could show an ability to play up with a stacked side like Real, and they obviously were more than up to the task. Aside from Marcelo and Ronaldo, Madrid didn’t seem to cause them many problems, and the elite center-back duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci (who are both so good that they leave another  top CB like Andrea Barzagli on the bench) was just unbeatable, aside from Ronaldo’s run into space in the first leg.

Now that Juventus have proven their dominance domestically, their ability to beat up on good-but-not-great squads like this year’s version of Borussia Dortmund, and their ability to play a perfect game against an elite team like Real, it’s time for them to win their first Champions League final since 1996. This is the moment that Italian legends Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, and Gianluigi Buffon, who have all been so critical to the team’s success this season, have been waiting for.

You could see it when all of them played their hearts out in every game this season, and one of the lasting images of Juventus’s 2014-15 season will always be a bloodied, battered, and determined Chiellini snuffing everything out late in the first leg, with special mention to his crunching tactical foul on Ronaldo.

And while Juventus is filled with under-appreciated players such as the versatile Stephan Lichtsteiner or 34-year-old Patrice Evra, who was a rock on the left side against Real, they do have their share of star talent. Not only do they have three of the best midfielders in the world in Pogba, Marchisio, and Vidal, but they also have Carlos Tevez, who did it all in attack for the Old Lady, scoring 20 league goals with seven CL goals and seven league assists.

He scores screamers, he poaches, he feeds teammates, he creates chances with his dribbling, and he drops back to receive the ball. Tevez does it all, and he’s quietly been arguably one of the best ten players in the world this past season.

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Barcelona defensive midfielder and tactician Sergio Busquests recently stated that Juventus do not play “great football”, and I’m sure players like Tevez and Pogba would have something agains that. And it is true that they don’t play “pretty football” that mirrors what Madrid and Barcelona are able to do in attack, but they play their own brand of football. With an incredible midfield that bossed Real’s around and consistently found space in between the midfield and defense, as well as a rock-solid defense that features an envious center back pairing, Juve know how to play a perfect game under Massimiliano Allegri.

It was Allegri who took the Juventus job this season with tough expectations as Antonio Conte’s replacement, and that makes the coaching job he’s pulled this season all the more impressive. Allegri has proven that he is one of the best managers in the world, and his decision to use Marchisio and Pogba as wide midfielders in defense and attack caused massive headaches to a Real side that simply didn’t even pick up Pogba at times, allowing him to constantly find space.

In fact, all of Juve’s players have excelled at finding space, picking apart weaknesses in the opposition and magnifying them. But to beat Barcelona, they’ll have to put it all together in terms of planning and execution, as they will be facing the only team in the world that can beat you in every way possible. They can beat you with over-lapping fullbacks, controlled midfield passing, long balls or high through balls over the top, counters, electric dribbling, and pace. Barcelona have no glaring weaknesses on paper, but if anyone can sniff blood, then it’s Allegri and his hounds in the black and white stripes.

It almost seems like the Zebras are the perfect foil for Barca, because they are the under-appreciated XI that has finally earned plaudits after working their way up, whereas Barca are the dominant side that absolutely blew apart Bayern 3-0 in the first leg before Pep Guardiola’s side came racing back. Even when they were tested by rival’s Real in the most recent El Clasico, Lionel Messi and Co. always found a way to come roaring back. Because with their roster that is equal parts loaded and balanced, they can force you to pick your poison, with all options having the lethality of a Russell’s viper.

Although Busquests stated that their Italian opponents don’t play “great football”, he did have two important bits of praise for Allegri’s side.

“Then over time they showed that they were well-prepared to go all the way.”

“It’s always like that with Italian teams, they’re competitive, they know what they want and they know how to get it.”

“Juve have not reached the final playing great football, or scoring a lot, but they deserve to be here, they’re a compact team and very difficult to beat.”

I agree on all accounts, and it will be interesting to see how Juventus handle the pace that Neymar, Messi, and recent 150 million euro buyout-clause left-back Jordi Alba bring to the table. And while I also view Barca as the favorites, I’ve learned not to count Juve out of anything, because they have always found a way to win this season. They pushed past Madrid through excellent defending, perfect positioning in midfield, expert finishing and dangerous poaching/positioning via Morata, and Tevez’s tireless work-rate.

This is a squad that was under-appreciated for far too long before that pivotal semi-final, but they did give us a sign of their dominance back when they blew out Dortmund in the second leg 3-0 following their 2-1 first leg victory. Yes, Dortmund won’t even be a Europa League side next season, but beating Jurgen Klopp’s side (one that included Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) by that margin shows something.

And those watching that game were treated with magnificent performances from Tevez, Morata, Marchisio, and Evra, who have been stalwarts for the Torino side throughout the 2014-15 campaign. I bring up Evra as well, because he’s the sort of veteran who seems like he should be over-the-hill (especially at left-back), and yet he is exactly the wily, hard-nosed defensive presence on the flank that this team needed in the CL (he’s also been phenomenal).

When kick-off starts at 8:45 p.m. CET on Saturday, it won’t matter that Juventus only came second to Atletico Madrid in Group A and were just one point ahead of Olympiacos FC. What will matter is the fact that they persevered, improved, and executed perfectly with a balanced squad and a brilliant manager who has gotten the most out of his veterans, youngsters, and stars alike.

And if any one player exemplifies this Juve squad, then it is Morata, who wasn’t appreciated enough by Real, loaned to Juve for this season, and bit his parent club in the behind by scoring two goals in the leg to add to his running tally of four. With the way he’s been poaching goals, I wouldn’t put it past him to add a fifth by netting one past world-class keeper Claudio Bravo, who has been on an equally excellent run of form lately.