Itailian Soccer Special by Antoine Dalli

Wednesday, June 3, 2015, 18:00


On Saturday, Spanish giants Barcelona start favourites to lift their fifth European Cup – their fourth in less than a decade – as they take on Juventus in Berlin, the venue where Italy were crowned world champions in the 2006 World Cup. Although many reckon Barcelona to be stronger than Juve, the reigning Italian champions are determined to clinch their third European Cup – the first since beating Ajax, in Rome, 4-2 on penalties in season 1995/96.  


For both sides this will be their eighth European Cup final appearance, with Juventus having finished runners-up on no fewer than five occasions – vs. Ajax 0-1 in 1972/73, vs. Hamburger 0-1 in 1982/83, vs. Borussia Dortmund 1-3 in 1996/97, vs. Real Madrid 0-1 in 1997/98 and vs. Milan 2-3 on penalties in 2002/03. An eventual Juve success this weekend would be the perfect way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Heysel tragedy which had preceded the side’s 1-0 win against Liverpool in the 1984/85 European Cup final.


Both Juventus and Barcelona are on course to complete a treble this season. Whereas Barcelona have already achieved this feat in season 2008/09 under Pep Guardiola, the same cannot be said of Juventus, who are relishing the chance of emulating Jose’ Mourinho’s Inter of 2009/10 by becoming only the second Italian side to win theScudettoCoppa Italia and Champions League in the same season. For the record, the five other European sides to have completed the treble are Celtic in 1966/67, Ajax in 1971/72, PSV Eindhoven in 1987/88, Man United in 1998/99 and Bayern Munich two years ago.


The Spanish connection


The Catalans are the third Spanish opponents Juventus have crossed swords with in this season’s Champions League. In the group stages, last year’s runner-up Atletico Madrid overcame Juve 1-0 at the Vicente Calderon Stadium before a goalless draw in Turin ensured both sides progressed from Group A. In the semi-finals, the ‘Old Lady’ ousted none other than cup holders Real Madrid 3-2 on aggregate. One thing is for sure, Barcelona are the toughest of the three and Juventus need to be on top of their game to defy the odds on Saturday.


To begin with, Barcelona have been firing on all cylinders ever since the start of the second half of this season. Luis Enrique has a highly experienced squad at his disposal. The former Roma trainer can still count on eight members of the Barcelona team that outclassed Man United in the 2010/11 Champions League final in Wembley. Also, in Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, popularly known as Barca’s ‘MNS’, the 23-times La Liga winners have a formidable attacking trio who can unlock any defence in the world.


Last Saturday, ‘MNS’ struck three goals – Messi (twice) and Neymar – in Barcelona’s record-extending 27th King’s Cup success against Athletic Bilbao.


These three goals enabled Barca’s attacking trio to bring their season’s combined tally to 120 goals in all competitions, thus setting a Spanish record for the highest number of goals scored by a trio of teammates in a single campaign. Also, if four-times Golden Ball winner Messi finds the back of the net against Juve, then he will become the first ever player to score in three Champions League finals, after punishing Man United in the 2009 and 2011 showdowns.


Juventus, though, will be no pushovers. Massimiliano Allegri’s side are undefeated in their last nine Champions League outings, keeping five clean sheets in the process. The 10-times Coppa Italia winners were off to a stuttering start in the UEFA’s premier club competition, suffering two identical 0-1 defeats, vs. Atletico Madrid and Olympiacos, in their opening three games.


In a way, such a disappointing start vindicated Antonio Conte’s decision to quit Juventus in view of the club’s meagre efforts on the transfer market to bridge the gap with respect to Europe’s elite. But ever since beating Olympiacos in spectacular fashion early in November, Juventus never looked back as they increased in stature game after game up to deposing Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in the semi-finals to reach their first European Cup final in 12 years.  


Juve’s march to Saturday’s final is very similar to the way Mourinho’s Inter had reached the 2009/10 showdown. TheNerazzurri were off to an unimpressive start in Group F and seriously risked being knocked out at such an early stage. But Inter grew tremendously in confidence when the competition entered its knock-out stages as they eliminated Chelsea, CSKA Moscow and Barcelona in succession before ending their 45-year wait to lift their first European Cup. My crystal ball shows a similar outcome of the 2010 Champions League final.

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