Saturday 24 March 2018

Tears for Barca as watertight Juventus snuff out any chance of another Nou Camp miracle

Barcelona's Neymar looks dejected after the match. Reuters / Sergio Perez
Barcelona's Neymar looks dejected after the match. Reuters / Sergio Perez

Jason Burt

Miracles do happen. But not every six weeks. And not against this Juventus; not with Giorgio Chellini and Leonardo Bonucci, born to block, at the heart of a defence.

Barcelona are out of the Champions League, with Juventus going through into the semi-finals, and now the recriminations and rebuilding will begin in Catalonia.

They could not over-turn a daunting first-leg deficit, as they did in the previous round against Paris Saint-Germain just a month and a half ago, although there were chances. Lionel Messi, amazingly, was wasteful.

It was the first time Barcelona had not scored in Europe at home for four years and they will have played far worse and done so. But there is – as with that other semi-finalist Atletico Madrid – a daunting beauty to Juventus’s defensive organisation.

In their desperation Barcelona surrounded and harangued the referee who took a hard-line against them and did not shift. Maybe they also paid the price for the way they behaved against PSG with Uefa flexing its muscle.

“Unleash hell,” read the headline in the Turin newspaper which could have been read either way. Certainly, though, the Italians were not cowed. And anyway ‘hell’ was not full. The Nou Camp not at capacity – a sign, maybe, that there was not quite the same level of belief as had overpowered a callow PSG.

Just as against the French champions, though, a giant mosque was unveiled pre-match. “More than a club” it read, in English, as opposed to “Mes que un club”, the motto in the local language, in the Barcelona colours, and this needed to be more than it had taken in the last round.

Coach Luis Enrique had said all the right things, had sounded as if it was eminently doable – although the key was getting that first goal and that meant trying to knock Juventus out of their stride, getting the crowd up and getting ahead.

That was easier said than done. Juventus are organised, street-wise, more experienced than PSG and clearly saw the benefit of getting another goal themselves to kill any attempts to gain momentum or turn this tie. It needed a strong referee and Bjorn Kuipers warned Paulo Dybala for waving an imaginary card after he was fouled by Ivan Rakitic while every time a Barcelona player hit the turf there were howls from the stands and demands from the pitch – led by Luis Suarez.

But it was Suarez who should have done better than head the ball across goal when he was picked out by Neymar, with a clever lob, and it was the same for Rakitic as he blasted over while, for Juventus, Gonzalo Higuain slashed at a half volley, sending it over the bar, having already failed to connect with another chance.

Finally Lionel Messi got involved, sending an angled cross to pick out the run of Jordi Alba who only just failed to connect and send it into the net. And so it continued with Messi then missing the best chance so far – dragging his shot wide when it was laid off to him, inadvertently, by Suarez. Little wonder he held his face. He knew, he really knew, he should have scored.

Even though they were playing well and perceived a Juventus weaknesses by continually attacking down the Italians right their frustration grew and they heaped the pressure on Kuipers, crowding round, complaining at every challenge, every perceived injustice. It also had the effect of fuelling them – Messi, who forced the first save from Gianluigi Buffon, and then fired the rebound into the side-netting and Neymar in particular. And it went too far with Neymar launching himself at Miralem Pjanic and was booked. It would take him out of the semi-final first leg if Barcelona made it.

Half-time came. No goal. Juventus would not crack and it continued with Neymar dribbling his way through only to be crowded out before the visitors again also threatened, after Jordi Alba lost the ball, with Higuain picking out Juan Cuadrado who shot low across goal and just wide.

Messi had two shots. One he skied and then it appeared he was sure to score as he shifted the ball onto his left foot only for Chiellini to get a slight deflection just taking it wide.

Barcelona pushed and pushed and threw men forward – their formation was basically 2-8 - and were caught on when Pjanic fouled Sergio Busquets but was allowed to play on with his deflected shot almost catching out goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen who tipped it onto the crossbar.

It was astonishing there had not been a goal and yet another opportunity fell to Messi – from Suarez – but, unmarked, he volleyed over from seven yards. Incredible.

Soon after and Sergio Roberto cut inside and drove a shot narrowly wide. It would not go in. Just to lock it down further Juventus withdrew Dybala and brought on another formidable defender, Andrea Barzagli but it was another substitute, Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano, who should have made a difference – only for Buffon to block from point-blank range. They were out. And Juventus had avenged their defeat in the 2015 final and will be powerful contenders to reach another final.

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