Don’t put your money on Juventus lifting the Champions League trophy on Saturday. Against a Barcelona team that has grown into its dominance over the course of the season, the Old Lady’s hopes rest primarily on luck, or in cheating, but Juve’s supposed influence in Italy does not extend into Europe. So luck it will have to be. And should it not have that luck on Saturday in Berlin, Juventus will maintain its current regard – a team that is good enough, but a club not truly at the top of European soccer.
Often teams are celebrated for merely reaching a Champions League final. Think back to Atlético Madrid last season, the praise given to Diegos Costa and Simeone. A “small” club (at least, relatively), doing things the “right” way, triumphed over the Barcelonas and the Chelseas on its way to Lisbon. By then, it had proved its worth. No one talks about the easy beginning, the conquering of Zenit St.Petersburg, Porto and Austria Wien, or the ease with which a decrepit Milan was dispatched.
Juventus has been given that luxury, that ability to hide its comparably easy run to the Champions League final. The Italian champions went straight into the group stage, winding up with Malmö, Olympiacos and Atlético Madrid. Despite scoring just seven goals and recording two losses, Juve squeaked into second, having managed a scoreless draw with Atléti on the final day. Next up was Borussia Dortmund, a team that, in any other year, likely would’ve caused some anxiety. But this time around, not a whimper was to be heard as Juventus ran out 5-1 winners. Then came Monaco, a team that would finish the season in third place in France.
Perhaps Atlético got a the pass Juventus has not because of its domestic competition. After all, Atléti won La Liga last year as well, shuttling aside the dominance of Barça and Real Madrid, a move that automatically earned respect. There’s not the same pride in winning the Italian league, a league now reduced to little more than a joke. No one considers the Serie A title to be comparable to Spain’s trophy: the competition at the top of La Liga is viewed as fierce, with Barcelona’s path this season made even more difficult by improvement from Valencia and Sevilla. Juventus, meanwhile, never saw a serious trophy challenger, yet still fell flat against doomed sides Cesena, Cagliari and Parma.
So yes, Juventus and Barcelona both arrive in Berlin clutching recently acquired domestic titles, but only Barça’s bears any weight. Without genuine competition at home, Juventus must be judged on the teams it faced in Europe. And even there, the team falls far short.
The one place where Juventus defied this pattern is in the Champions League’s semifinals, where it eliminated a Real Madrid side many penciled into the final. Meeting the current holders can never be classified as “easy,” and coming from behind to grab the vital goal at the Bernabéu is even less so. Allegri’s side didn’t set out to simply sit back and absorb pressure, but after the Álvaro Morata scored the tie-deciding goal, the manager was certainly willing to be pragmatic about things. His rattled defenders managed to hold out.
So Juve enters into Saturday’s final having earned its place on field, but not actually having earned it with the judges. The respect simply isn’t there. The manager isn’t world-class, nor is that distinction often given to the players – with the exception of Paul Pogba, who’s likely to leave in the summer. Juventus is not a team that can hold on to the best of its best. Juventus is not top.
But that all stands to change should Juventus win. If somehow Gigi Buffon manages to keep out the barrage of shots from Lionel Messi, from Luis Suárez, from Neymar. If Carlos Tevez or Álvaro Morata sneaks behind the Barcelona defense. If Allegri finds the perfect balance between defending well and pressing forward.
It’s far from impossible. Think back to the “Miracle of Istanbul.” No one dwells on the fact that Liverpool, too, barely managed to edge Olympiacos to make it out of the group stage. The Reds’ fifth-place finish in the Premier League – and even on points with Bolton, for goodness sake – is obscured. All that matters is that it was Liverpool that stood on the winners’ podium. Hell, Rafa Benítez is still coasting on that win, 10 years after the fact.
The problem is, for Juventus to find vindication, it has to actually win. For all of the crowing about how Juve’s trip to Berlin means Italy has reclaimed its rightful place as a dominant European league, few non-Serie A fans actually believe in this reality. The Old Lady has had an easy time of things. Beating a Real Madrid side that managed to create its own stumbling blocks doesn’t mean all that much. Winning yet another Italian title means zilch. No, for Juventus to actually get the glory it so seeks, it’ll have to conquer the team that the world already views as top.