• UEFA Champions League – Juventus 3 (Dybala 7’, 22’, Chiellini 55’), FC Barcelona 0
GAME RECAP IN A SENTENCE
Paulo Dybala bagged a first half brace, Gianluigi Buffon made a word class save, and the MSN trio was neutralized, as Juventus took a commanding lead in this two-legged series in pushing Barcelona to the brink of elimination.
Juventus fired a warning shot in the third minute when Miralem Pjanic delivered a great cross from the flank deep into the box that a wide-open Gonzalo Higuain should have buried. Instead, Marc-André ter Stegen made an easy save. But Juventus punished the visitors four minutes later when Dybala pulled off a pirouette inside the box to create some extra space for himself, and then fired into the far corner.
Barcelona was reeling from Juventus’s early pressing game, clearly missing midfielder enforcer Sergio Busquets, who was replaced by the ineffective Javier Mascherano on the night. It looked like it was going to be a long night for the Catalans when Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta linked up on a marvellous passing play, only to be denied by a world class save from Gianluigi Buffon. A minute later, the Italians doubled their advantage, with Barcelona defenders Jeremy Mathieu and Gerard Pique found wanting as Dybala was left all alone at the top of the box, and beat Ter Stegen with a low drive just inside the near post.
Barcelona manager Luis Enrique wised up at half time, pulling off Mathieu in favour of Andre Gomes and going with four at the back. Barca looked far more settled and began to pressure Juventus, but it was the hosts who would score again, this time Giorgio Chiellini taking advantage of a mismatch against Mascherano off a corner kick and nodding home from in close.
From that point on, it became about game management by the Italians, who sat deep and effectively cleared their lines, while also relying on some last-ditch defending and wastefulness from Barcelona in front of goal to hang on for the clean-sheet victory.
21’ SAVE! Juventus 1-0 Barcelona: This was a world class play involving three world class players, and it proved to be the turning point for Juventus. After winning possession, Messi languidly lingered on the ball before suddenly cutting to his left. Iniesta immediately read Messi’s intentions, and made an intelligently-timed run down the left, while Messi fed a world-class through ball that took out five Juventus players. Iniesta latched onto it and angled a low shot for the far corner. But Buffon read the play the entire way, stood tall as he cut down the angle, and expertly palmed Iniesta’s shot around the far post. It was a world class save that preserved Juventus 1-0 lead. A minute later, Dybala scored his second of the game to double the Italian’s advantage. How might have the match turned out differently had Buffon not made the save?
Can Barcelona come back in the second leg and advance to the semifinals? Yes, of course they can. But even though the margin is smaller for Barca to overcome compared to the one they faced vs. PSG in the Round of 16, the Catalans are facing a far better defensive side in Juventus, led by the best centre back in the world in Leonardo Bonucci. Still, the Italians played with fire for the final 30 minutes in sitting back a little too deep, and they had to rely on a bit of luck and poor Barcelona finishing in front of goal to hang on to the clean sheet victory. That will give Luis Enrique’s men a glimmer of hope headed into the return match at the Camp Nou next Wednesday.
Barcelona sorely missed the suspended Sergio Busquets on this night. Without the cultured midfielder in his usual spot in front of the back line, Barcelona not only missed that key defensive stopper to thwart Juventus, but they also struggled to start attacks deep in their half. Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar could not count on Busquet’s reliable service, and that lack of presence in central midfield allowed Juventus to flood the middle of the park. Messi and his cohorts were routinely swarmed whenever they worked their way into the middle, and couldn’t do much without the protection of their defensive enforcer in midfield. Busquets is eligible to play in the second leg, so it’ll be interesting to see if Barca will have any better luck winning the midfield battle against the Italians.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Paulo Dybala, Juventus: There were no passengers on this night for Juventus, with all 11 starters making key contributions. One unheralded hero was Croatian forward Mario Mandzukic, who did a wonderful job of holding up the ball and acting as the first line of defence. But the man-of-the-match honour has to go to Dybala, who outshone countryman Lionel Messi on the night with his fantastic double and wonderfully, silky runs in Barcelona’s half. He served as the reference point of Juventus’ attack, and drew the majority of attention from Barca’s beleaguered defenders.