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This Saturday, Juventus take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final. The Italian side, who have already sealed a sixth consecutive Scudetto and a third consecutive league and cup double this season, will enter the match aiming to complete a historic treble.
Their opponents, meanwhile, will be hoping to become the first side since the competition’s re-branding to retain the trophy. And, with quality individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modrić and Sergio Ramos within their ranks, as well as a first La Liga title in five years under their belt, the Spanish giants will prove stern opposition.
However, Juventus are unlikely to be overawed. On their journey to this moment they took on and defeated some of Europe’s finest, including Barcelona, Monaco and Sevilla. Here, we analyse why they will win the Champions League.
Europe’s best defence
When taking into account all clubs within Europe’s five major leagues – the English Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1 – only two teams could claim a better defensive record than Juventus in 2016/17.
The Bianconeri conceded at a rate of 0.71 goals per game, which was bested only by Tottenham Hotspur’s 0.68 and Bayern Munich’s 0.65.
At the core of this exceptional record was a mature, ultra-competitive and aggressive defensive line featuring rumoured Real Madrid transfer target Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) May 26, 2017
The Italian trident celebrate blocks, clearances and tackles with a ferocity most goalscoring strikers don’t match; they take an almost unnatural pride in defending their goal, and do so in an organised, collective manner that only Atlético Madrid equal.
It helps that behind Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli stands arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time in Gianluigi Buffon. Now 39 years of age, the shot-stopper remains a commanding and agile presence between the posts, acting as a fearsome last line of defence behind a near-impervious central defensive unit.
If the aforementioned names and statistics don’t unnerve Real Madrid’s attackers, perhaps the following information will: in 12 Champions League outings this season, Juventus have let in just three goals, keeping nine clean sheets. And, in six knockout games against some of the continent’s most productive attacking sides, including Barcelona and Monaco, the Italian outfit conceded just once.
Since Massimiliano Allegri’s appointment as head coach in the wake of Antonio Conte’s departure in the summer of 2014, Juventus have grown into one of the most tactically versatile teams in the European game.
They are likely to start this Saturday’s Champions League final in the 4-2-3-1 system shown above, but this could easily become a 3-4-2-1 shape, with Dani Alves dropping back to right wing-back, Andrea Barzagli moving inward to play as the right-sided centre-back, Alex Sandro pushing up slightly on the left, and Mario Mandžukić shifting infield alongside Paulo Dybala.
In terms of pure shape, Juventus are able to shift quickly and comfortably between 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 mid-game. This presents a genuine threat to Real Madrid, who are likely to stick with the 4-3-1-2 system that has served them so well in recent weeks.
And, even if the aforementioned shapes don’t work out, Allegri has a number of others up his sleeve. He has in the past successfully utilised a classic 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and, as seen in the run to 2015 Champions League final, a 4-3-1-2 not dissimilar to that used by their upcoming opponents.
Juventus’ flexibility is about more than mere numbers, however. They are also able to adopt a high, middle or low press depending on the circumstances, and can opt for either assertive man-marking or a more relaxed, passive position-based approach.
Throw in the fact a number of Juve’s players, including Barzagli, Alves, Sandro and Dybala, are trained to operate in a number of different positions, and it’s likely that Real Madrid will have a hard time establishing their strategy this weekend.
While Allegri’s side are more renowned for preventing goals than scoring them, they do have an effective attacking game. It isn’t as productive as Real Madrid’s, but it could nonetheless cause serious problems for Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and Raphaël Varane.
The lynchpin of Juventus’ offensive play is Dybala. The quick-witted Argentine likes to roam between the lines, pulling wide or dropping deep both to link up with, and/or create spaces for, team-mates.
Real’s midfield trident are good at closing off the half-spaces and removing any dangerous gaps for opponents to exploit, but this will be put to the test by the man some have compared to Lionel Messi this Saturday.
Gonzalo Higuaín, who operates as a central focal point for the Bianconeri, is a more conventional forward, but is also a serious attacking threat, as his 37 strikes this season confirm. Meanwhile, behind Juve’s front two, the clever forward surges of Sami Khedira and set piece specialism of Miralem Pjanić are other key elements in an underrated attack.
Experienced, but motivated
Many members of this Juventus side are over the age of 30, and some are considered already past their prime. However, despite their wealth of experience, they have the hunger of a much younger side.
Part of their motivation is down to the fact that so few of them have actually won the Champions League beforehand – of the probable starting line-up this weekend, only Alves, Khedira and Mandžukić have lifted Europe’s most prestigious club trophy. However, their insatiable desire for success is also down to the culture of the team.
Andrea Barzagli: "The difference between Berlin's final and the one we'll play against Real Madrid Is that we are more experienced now." pic.twitter.com/Dw4kGNUDut
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) May 25, 2017
This aspect of Juventus is both admired and despised in Italy, where rivals find the Bianconeri’s appetite for silverware both laudable and unfathomable. This machine-like mentality was discussed by Alves recently, with the Brazilian saying:
“At Barça, we played by memory. At Juve, it’s different. It’s our collective mentality that has carried us to the Champions League final. When the whistle blows, we simply find a way to win no matter what. Winning is not just a goal at Juve, it’s like an obsession. There are no excuses.”
That obsession, combined with unrivalled tactical versatility, an era-defining defensive setup, and an unsung attacking game, will lead Juventus to victory against Real Madrid.