Italian soccer giant Juventus is nicknamed The Old Lady of Turin — but the team will have to be full of youthful energy if it is to lift the Champions League title Saturday.
The glittering climax of the European season peaks in Berlin at 1:45 p.m., when two of the most famous names in the continent’s history fight for the sport’s most prestigious international club tournament. Half a century ago, Barcelona vs. Juventus would have been an equally titanic battle.
The Spanish are the favorites, however. They have a superb, sumptuous squad with whimsical talent, spell-bounding artistry and a relentless work ethic. But beyond that there is one overriding reason why they should lift the title for a fifth time — and its name is Lionel Messi.
The soccer world is in danger of running out of superlatives to describe this diminutive genius. “Out of this world” and “from a different planet” are phrases that pop up with boring repetitiveness when yet another vanquished foe gives a deflated post-match interview.
If there was even the slightest suspicion his mesmerizing skill was on the wane — a few whispers have emanated in the Spanish press — then he silenced those as recently as last week. In the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao Madrid, he ballet-danced his way from the halfway line, leaving defenders trailing in his wake as he cut inside to score, and Barca crammed yet another trophy into its packed cabinet.
The Argentinian single-handedly wins games with regularity — the semifinal against German powerhouse Bayern Munich was a tight, edgy affair until the last 10 minutes, when he effectively won the tie with two moments of brilliance. Those of us who love and follow the sport and have been lucky enough to see him in the flesh will one day tell our grandchildren about it.
But the Catalans are by no means a one-man operation. Individually any of their trio of South American forwards would be enough to cause opposition defenders sleepless nights — all three together must give them nightmares of gargantuan proportions. The thought of facing Uruguayan dental expert Luis Suarez and Brazilian wonder-boy Neymar alongside Messi must terrorize the soundest sleeper.
However, if there is one nationality renowned for defensive application and acumen it is the Italians. Juventus saw off Barcelona’s Galactico-laden Spanish counterparts Real Madrid in the semifinal, and if they can repeat the performance that overcame Ronaldo and the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale, they will lift the trophy for the third time. They have seasoned players with enough big-match experience to do it.
In Gianluigi Buffon they have one of the greatest goalkeepers of the modern game, a commanding figure who exudes calm and confidence. In front of him are four players who already have Champions League winners medals stretching back 12 years: Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings from a deep-lying midfield role; veteran overlapping fullback Patrice Evra; ex-Manchester United and Manchester City forward Carlos Tévez; and Álvaro Morata, who won the title last year with Real Madrid.
Juventus are much too canny to get dragged into a toe-to-toe slug-fest with their fleet-footed mercurial opponent. Instead expect them to sit back, happy to let Barca dominate possession and territory, content to squeeze the space and forcing the Spaniards into crowded areas of the field. They will look to break swiftly and decisively on the counter-attack — chances will be few and far between, and if they are to succeed, they need to be clinical and ruthless when one falls their way.
Barcelona should win. But I think it will be a lot tighter than many are predicting, and I expect Juventus to show that there is still plenty of life in the Old Lady yet.