With their eyes set on European glory this season, Juventus now have to get past Barcelona. While it looked unlikely that the Spanish giants would progress past the round of 16 after their 4-0 defeat to PSG, Barca’s never-say-die attitude and offensive firepower eventually saw them prevail over their Parisian counterparts. With Enrique’s men rolling into town on April 11th for the first leg, Juventus cannot afford a slow start and have to take full advantage of their early home-field advantage. But what exactly do the bianconeri need to do to eliminate Barca? Let’s break it down.
First and foremost, Allegri has to get his formation right. It may sound basic but recently the Juventus tactician has made a few questionable decisions in this respect. With Barcelona almost certainly playing their trademark 4-3-3 formation, Juventus must counter it with a three-man midfield of their own. Over the past few months, the Italian champions have used the 4-2-3-1 formation and it has done the job, to a certain extent. However, if they are to have success against the Catalan giants, they cannot afford to lose the midfield battle. The 4-2-3-1 is far too offensively loaded for an opponent of Barca’s stature and will leave them exposed come time for the first leg. Until Porto got men sent off in both legs, there were early signs of vulnerability on Juventus’ end. While Mandzukic and Cuadrado have tracked back well on their respective wings, a double pivot means Juventus will lose the numerical battle in the middle of the pitch, which could prove to be tactical suicide against Barcelona.
Instead, Allegri would be wise to bring back the formation that got him to the Champions League final last and deploy a 4-3-2-1/4-3-1-2 formation. A midfield trio of Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio and Tomás Rincón with Dybala and Pjanic behind Higuain is sure to pose Barcelona all sorts of problems, from both a physical and technical standpoint. All three midfielders compliment one another well and provide quality, tenacity and tactical intelligence. In attack, by contrast, Dybala, Pjanic and Higuain are all world class players and will pose a serious threat to Barcelona’s suspect defence if they are playing off each other and interchanging positions.
After getting the lineup right, Allegri then has another important decision to make: To sit back or to press high? In my opinion, the former Milan tactician would be foolish to defend deep. If Juventus are to have any success against Enrique’s men, they need to press them frequently and force turnovers high up the pitch. Simply put, Barcelona’s midfield isn’t what it used to be and has struggled when put under pressure. With Sergio Busquets suspended for the first leg, Juventus have to take advantage of whoever plays in his place and mark him out of the game. André Gomes hasn’t lived up to expectations in that role and could be exploited. Without the 28-year-old, Barca’s midfield lacks an outlet and struggles to maintain possession.
In addition, the Spanish champions aren’t exactly what you would call defensively solid. By pressing them up the pitch, Juventus are ensuring that Barca’s defence will constantly be under pressure, creating chances for their world class forwards to finish. Juventus could also capitalize on Barca’s lack of a natural right back. Over this season, both Sergi Roberto and Aleix Vidal haven’t impressed at fullback and have consistently been taken for a ride from opposing wingers. In this game, Alex Sandro will need to get forward and provide width from that flank for the bianconeri. The Brazilian has had great success doing so this season and should have the upper hand over whoever Enrique goes with at right back.
It’s also important to note that Juventus looked uncomfortable sitting back against Napoli at the San Paolo defending their 1-0 lead. They would eventually go onto concede an equalizer to Marek Hamsik and draw the game. Against Barcelona, they simply cannot afford to play cautious or it will cost them like it did against the partenopei.
Considering the second leg is at the Camp Nou, the bianconeri absolutely have to get on the scoresheet early and often at home whilst not conceding more than one. Let’s face it – The only way Juventus are progressing to the semi-finals of the Champions League this season is if they go into the second leg with a lead to defend. Ideally, it would be a two-goal lead, however, I’m sure Juventus would settle for just about anything right now. Going into the Camp Nou, on the other hand, is a whole different story for another article.
Outside of getting the formation right and pressing Barcelona, it goes without saying that Juventus have to do their best to neutralize MSN and make the most of their chances early in the game. Neutralizing MSN, however, raises one important question: Who will start alongside Leonardo Bonucci in defence? I think that while he isn’t what he used to be, Giorgio Chiellini’s European pedigree and no-nonsense defending is truly needed at the heart of defence. The hard-nosed defender has already played against Barca’s mouth-watering offensive line, which could prove to be helpful in this game. Otherwise, Daniele Rugani should get the nod but his lack of big-game experience is slightly off-putting therefore I’ll go with Chiellini for now. A defence of Dani Alves, Bonucci, Chiellini and Alex Sandro led by Buffon should have enough quality and experience to see this one through.
Having dominated domestic football for the past six seasons in Italy, it’s now time for Juventus to take the next step and lift the ever-so elusive Champions League trophy. That being said, beating Barcelona over two legs has proved to be extremely difficult over the past few seasons and is a tall task for what remains a revolutionized Juventus side. Last time these two teams met in the 2015 Champions League final, the circumstances and lineups were extremely different and Barcelona would go on to win the game. Two seasons on, despite the many changes in both sides, the task remains just as hard for the Italian giants. But can Juventus do it this time?
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