The weight of history clearly lies behind Real Madrid in their quest to retain the Champions League trophy but Juventus remain the clear form pick to upset the odds.
It would be difficult to claim, with any sense of honesty, that this has been a vintage season for European football. The top Leagues all threw up worthy champions, but none who emerged from epic, sweat-inducing campaigns. England was particularly uncompetitive, the fare dished up between the top sides mostly turgid and unappetising. Spain delivered a tighter, often compelling contest between its most storied rivals, but not without the sense that we were witnessing two wonderful teams approaching the end of a cycle.
Wider afield, the Europa League, aside from offering Manchester United a precious lifeline into next season’s Champions League, was distinctly unmemorable. For all the verve and adventurous spirit of Monaco, Bayern Munich and, yes, even flawed Manchester City, the Champions League itself fell short of the quality you’d expect at this level. Barcelona’s late late show against PSG may have blessed us with one of the greatest European nights, but even then, it seemed, Luis Enriques’ team was virtually running on empty.
Even a moderate year can throw up a great side, though, and as luck would have it, this weekend’s Champions League final in the worthy setting of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff provides us with one genuine contender at least. And while Real Madrid’s credentials remain as impressively solid as ever, guided by the dead hand of Zinedine Zidane and happily reliant on the sturdy genius of Cristiano Ronaldo, it is Juventus, so often the frustrated bridesmaids at this stage, whose light flickers with that bit more suggestion of a team whose time might just have arrived.
The bookmakers, slaves to history no doubt, see it quite differently. The giants of the Spanish capital are 11 times winners, including last year, and lose, on average, just one of every five finals they contest. Throw in the capacity of Ronaldo to rescue all manner of dying causes and that’s a pretty potent combination. The Italian champions, meanwhile, have contested eight finals and can boast no better than a 25 per cent winning record. In other words, they have won the same number of titles as Nottingham Forest. History, resolutely, does not lie on their side.
Yet, in making Real Madrid clear favourites to retain the trophy, those oddsmakers may simply be attaching too much weight to history and, in doing so, critically overlooking recent form. Real may well have an unrivalled capacity to tear defences apart and repeatedly rattle the opposition net, but that masks the reality of several questionable refereeing decisions in their conquest of Bayern as well as a mild scare during the second-leg of their semi-final at Atletico. In all they have won seven of their 12 matches in the tournament, good enough to get them this far, but not near enough to suggest any great aura of invincibility.
In contrast, Juventus have won 10 of their 12 games en route to the final and negotiated each of the three knock-out rounds with emphatic three-goal aggregate margins. True, they are not as free-scoring a side as Zidane’s, either domestically or in Europe, but boasting the tightest defence in the competition, remarkably conceding only a single goal in their last six matches, there is simply no imperative on Massimiliano Allegri’s side to be so..
It is easy to regard the statistics and label Juventus a negative team who will simply set out their stall to frustrate Real and hope to sneak what could be a decisive winner on the counter. But while it remains likely that their opponents will enjoy more possession, the notion that Juventus are a one-dimensional is grievously wide of the mark. Allegri’s side can dictate when they want to, as they did when routing Barcelona in Turin or dominating Monaco at the Stade Louis II. We are not talking about Mourinho’s Inter here or even anywhere close.
The tactical fluidity that Allegri has developed has been the making of a fine team. There is a chameleon-like quality to Juve that makes them, more than any team that defends well, both pleasing on the eye and enormously difficult for opponents to deal with. A rigid defensive formation can be turned into a devastatingly offensive one, seemingly at the flick of a switch. The opening goal in Monaco, despatched by Gonzalo Higuain, was the most perfect expression of what they are about.
What is more, there is a financial temperance to Allegri’s side, a notable emphasis on value, that makes them all the easier to admire. Sure, Higuain did cost a gob-smacking £78m or so when acquired from Real Madrid a year ago, but that was made possible by the transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United and enabled Juve to have a net spend of just over £15m, for which they have been rewarded many times over. There is a moneyball flavour to many of Allegri’s signings, underscored by imagination and thoughtfulness as much as by the customary open chequebook.
How many top sides would have coveted a 30-year-old Mario Mandzukic from Atletico two summers ago and contemplated turning such a potent striker into a wide midfielder? Or seen a role for Sami Khedira, out of contract and favour at Real Madrid? Or contemplated signing Dani Alves from Barcelona a year ago, 33-years-old and, it seemed, on a downward spiral? But they have all been important cogs in Juve’s inspired run to the final. Allegri’s instincts that they each had something left to offer turned out to be right on the money.
It also hints at another important factor about this Juventus side. It is not, by any stretch, a young team, the average age heavily skewered upwards by the presence of the remarkably evergreen Gianluigi Buffon, all of 39 years young, in goal. Between Buffon and Juve’s regular back three, the average age comprises a startling 34 years. Seven of the likely starting line-up will be aged 30 or more.
And no doubt, many will see a definite source of vulnerability there, as well as in Buffon’s occasional tendency to flap at crosses, which Real Madrid can exploit through the aerial ability of Ronaldo and, if fit, Gareth Bale. Yet, Juve have coped with everything thrown at them so far, including the dynamic and youthful energy of a thriving Monaco. There is a shrewdness to Agnelli’s game-plan that helps to conserve energy before unleashing it to an often devastating impact. Real Madrid could be the team to finally unsettle them, but that remains to be seen.
It is fascinatingly poised at least. The season reaches a fitting climax with a showdown between the continent’s two best teams and if there is some purchase in the notion of one the game’s true greats burnishing his legend in what might well be his swansong at this level, there just seems more imperative the other way right now. Time is assuredly running out for many of these Juventus players and that, conversely, might make it their time.