Tough as nails Juve hitting its stride at the perfect time

Juventus' Leonardo Bonucci, left, celebrates with teammates Giorgio Chiellini, center, and Andrea Barzagli during the Champions League quarterfinal second leg soccer match between Barcelona and Juventus at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, April 19, 2017. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

• UEFA Champions League – Juventus 0, FC Barcelona 0

GAME RECAP IN A SENTENCE

There was no miracle comeback this time for Barcelona, as Juventus blanked the Catalans at the Camp Nou with a masterful defensive display to advance to the semifinals and send the Spaniards crashing out of the competition.

THE MAIN STORY

Could Barcelona do it again? That was the question ahead of this contest, with the Catalans looking to overturn a 3-0 loss from last week’s first leg in Turin. It’s amazing to think that this match remained on a knife edge with the Italians sitting on such a comfortable lead, but this is the Camp Nou, where Barca have mounted many a comeback, including against Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round.

What’s more, the Spanish side was riding a 15-game home winning streak in the Champions League. Barca won their previous four home games in the competition by a combined 21-1, and hadn’t failed to score at the Camp Nou in Europe since a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich almost four years ago. And the memory of the miracle comeback against PSG was still fresh, right?

Juventus, though, is not PSG. The Italians are a far more balanced squad than the French league champions, and considering their defensive record in this year’s competition – more on that later – the hole that Barcelona had to dig itself out of on this night was actually a lot deeper. Led by the sublime duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini – the finest centre-back pairing in club soccer – the Bianconeri comfortably contained Barcelona, who enjoyed 61 percent possession, but never really opened up Juventus’ back line.

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Saurez all had chances that they squandered, so there is no doubt Juventus benefited from good fortune. But they also put on a great defensive performance – the art of defending and game management was on fully display for the millions watching around the world to see. Over the course of two legs, the Serie A champions shut out a relentless, attacking juggernaut, reducing mighty Barcelona to chasing shadows, pumping long balls forward, and trying to win fouls from the referee by going down too easy. Juventus didn’t take the bait, never giving the officials any reason to make a major decision that would have tipped the game in Barca’s favour, and instead relied on their outstanding defensive guile and skill to book their spot in the final four.

KEY MOMENT

31’ SAVE! Juventus 0-0 FC Barcelona: After a strong start by Juventus, Barcelona slowly began to take control of matters and put the Italians under pressure. With Barca swarming the Juve 18-yard box, the ball fell to Lionel Messi who fired a quick shot aimed for the inside of the near post that Gianluigi Buffon blocked. The Italian goalkeeper’s save kept Barca off the scoresheet and their frustrations grew as the game carried on.

TALKING POINT

Is Juventus the favourite to win the Champions League? It’s a very competitive final four, with Real Madrid (the reigning champions), AS Monaco (one of the best attacking clubs in Europe), and Atletico Madrid (like Juventus, masters of the art of defending) all more than capable of lifting the trophy on June 3 in Cardiff, Wales. Juventus, though, seems to be hitting its stride unlike the other three sides, and appears as though it has another gear it can shift into now that the final four is upon us. With eight clean sheets in 10 games – two of them against mighty Barcelona – and with just two goals against during that run, Juventus have been impregnable during the course of this year’s tournament.

QUICK TAKE

Kudos to Björn Kuipers who was put in charge of this match and managed the situation brilliantly. The Dutch referee let the players get on with it, and he set the tone early by warning players, instead of instantly reaching into his pocket for a yellow card. He was firm but fair, and more than once he pulled aside players on both sides when they complained too much or asked for one their opponents to be booked by brandishing an imaginary card. He also didn’t let the protesting Camp Nou fans sway him in his decision making every time a Barcelona player was tackled and dropped to the ground. We give the refs a hard time whenever they have a bad day at the office. It’s only right and proper to herald them when do a good job, and on this night, Kuipers was spot on.

STANDOUT STAT

MAN OF THE MATCH

Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus: Usually the man-of-the-match honour goes to one player. On this night, you have to give it to both Bonucci and Chiellini. The centre-back pairing put on a masterclass showing, organizing a Juventus defence that was swarmed by Barcelona’s relentless attack, but never crumbled under the pressure. The Bianconeri kept their shape and were rarely caught out in transition thanks in large part to the outstanding organizational skills of Bonucci and Chiellini. These two quarterbacked the back line to near perfection and played a big part in shutting down one of the most lethal attacking trios in the history of the game.

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