JUVENTUS play part in a brilliant final but have no answer to Spanish verve, writes Jonathan Wilson
If THE rest of the game didn’t quite live up to Barcelona’s picture-book opening, it hardly mattered – nothing could have done.
Barca were brilliant going forward and just shaky enough at the back that an extremely good performance by Juventus troubled them. What could have been an exhibition became instead a superb game, and was all the better for it, establishing Barcelona as the pre-eminent side of the past decade.
While it is worth pausing to note the troubling statistic that this was the fourth treble in the past seven years, while the first 53 years of the European Cup produced just four, this was the great consecration of Barcelona, a fourth Champions League in nine years and a third in the past six. Andres Iniesta is the only player to have featured in all four finals, but there were seven survivors of 2009. This is a team that has evolved since then, though. The basic principles of press-and-possess may be the same, but this is a more flexible, more varied side, in part because of the introduction to midfield of Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian scored one last night, had a key part in another and generally pulled strings in midfield.
Only four minutes had gone when Barca struck with a goal of stunning quality. All the questions in the build-up had been about how Juventus could hope to stop the attacking flair of Barcelona; the truth is, when this Barca are at their best, they are simply unstoppable. A spell of possession that began with a throw-in on the left and worked its way around the pitch in ten passes presented Messi with the ball just outside the centre-circle at which he, as he had in the Clasico and on countless other occasions, hit a cross-field pass to switch the angle of attack.
With Juve’s midfield extremely – and probably necessarily – narrow, Jordi Alba was able to surge forward from left-back, knocking the ball infield to Neymar. Just as the momentum of the attack seemed to be in danger of being lost, Iniesta made a spurt, Arturo Vidal didn’t follow the run, and Neymar slipped the ball inside to him. From there it was the simplest task to roll the ball square for Ivan Rakitic to score a goal that was a work of art, a masterpiece that summed up the philosophy of this Barca side.
The spread arms and the open-mouthed looks on the faces of Rakitic, Iniesta, Neymar and Jordi Alba as they celebrated suggested even they were awestruck by what they had just achieved.
It was the sort of goal that, when it happens, tends to occur late on in games, when one side is too exhausted to track runners; that it could happen so early gives some indication of the abjectness of Juve’s start, of how they lost their composure in the face of Barca’s brilliance. Vidal, in particular, flew recklessly into tackles and by the 20th minute was extremely fortunate to have picked up only one yellow card after committing four challenges that could have earned cautions.
That period was one of almost constant Barca pressure: Neymar flashed a shot just over the angle, then was a fraction from getting on the end of a deliciously flighted Messi diagonal, and Gianluigi Buffon made a fine reflex save, fisting away a Dani Alves shot with his left hand when his weight had been going the other way.
Juve, to their great credit, rallied, but Barca are now so good at counter-attacking – the great change from Guardiola’s side – that there is never a sense of respite. For 20 minutes or so, Juve offered a vague threat, but there was always the menace of Barca’s front three on the break. Sure enough, twice in the space of a minute just before half-time, Luis Suarez went close and the second half began rather as the first had finished.
Buffon, diving low at his near post, kept out a Suarez stab after Rakitic had led a break. Messi, having played one-twos with Neymar and Suarez, fired over.
And as shots were missed, Juve almost visibly seemed to take heart. Ten minutes into the second half, they levelled.
Claudio Marchjiso’s backheel to release Stephan Lichtsteiner was superb in conception and execution and although Carlos Tevez’s shot from the Swiss full-back’s cross was saved, Morata knocked in the rebound.
But Barca, after reeling, recovered. It became for a time an even contest, and then Rakitic with a perfectly weighted ball released Messi. He did superbly to work the angle for a shot and, although Buffon saved that, Suarez was there to slam the ball – at last – into the net.
It perhaps wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the opener, and it was celebrated with a sense of relief rather than admiration, but it halted the Juve surge. Neymar’s late goal on the break was merely the confirmation.