It is the moment many Juventini have eagerly awaited for more than a decade. For many others, such as myself, it is a moment we will be experiencing for the first time. Juventus have returned to the elite European stage, The UEFA Champions League semifinals, for the first time since we finished runners-up in 2003. Who did we face in the semis that year? That’s right, REAL MADRID, who just so happen to be preparing for the match at the Juventus Stadium in Turin as I sit writing this.
Now, what is left to say about Los Blancos? One of the most powerful and revered footballing brands in the world, boasting the most expensive squad set up in history, they also happen to be the defending Champions League winners. No team in the Champions League era has ever managed to win successive titles, so you can bet your bottom dollar that Los Meringues have every intention to knock our beloved Bianconeri out. So, with just about 10 hours left to kick-off from Turin, here are six factors that I think will help determine whether La Vecchia Signora can take a positive result to defend in Madrid in 8 days time.
There. I said it. I truly believe a lot of our chances for tonight’s game hinges on the formation Max Allegri rolls out. To me, it is an absolute no-brainer, that the 4-3-1-2 must be used for this game. Why? Because Madrid are short of midfielders at the moment. The absence of Luka Modric in midfield is almost as massive a blow to them as the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo might be. He has been the unsung hero of this Madrid side, and is in my opinion, one of the most underrated, yet world class central midfielders on the planet. Sergio Ramos is likely to slot into central midfield in his absence, and while he is no slouch, his presence in central defense will be sorely missed. Time and time again over the past few years, Ramos has been the heart of this Madrid team, and him playing out of position in midfield can only be to our advantage. It is imperative to win the midfield battle! And having the extra man, in the lively aggressive Pereyra could make all the difference against a side who attack from deep the way Los Blancos do.
The 3-5-2 definitely has its perks, but I feel like Allegri’s Juventus look sharper, more creative, more dangerous and more defensively compact while playing the 4-3-1-2. I would consider our odds to be ever so slightly higher should that be the way Allegri rolls the team out. Either way, we are going to need a Herculean effort by our MVP trio of Marchisio-Vidal-Pirlo in the middle of the park.
2) A FATIGUED MADRID?
One significant difference between the two teams, is that Juventus have the luxury of knowing that their Scudetto has been wrapped up neatly. Madrid are currently in the thick of a very demanding race with Barcelona towards La Liga glory, and not only did they face a very good and demanding Sevilla side over the weekend, they face another excellent and demanding side in Valencia this coming weekend, before the second leg. You can be sure that Carlo Ancelotti will be keen to push Barca all the way to the wire for the right to be called Spanish Champions, and this must surely work in our favor. Not only did a majority of their strongest current side play on the weekend, two CRUCIAL players, in Modric and Karim Benzema, are missing through injury. Gareth Bale too has only just returned to match fitness and played just a half hour over the weekend.
It is no surprise that Madrid boast immaculate physical conditioning, however if there is even the slightest possibility that their long season could be weighing them down even a little, it is imperative that Juventus use that to their advantage.
3) CONTAINING MADRID’S WING PLAY
You’d think that facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on the wings is enough of a challenge for any defense to handle. Then you consider their full-back’s: Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, and if you just swallowed hard, we’d be in the same boat. Los Blancos’ speed and link-up play down the wings is nothing short of devastating, and you can take it from me in writing, that containing their wing play is our best hope if we wish to carry a clean sheet into the return leg next week. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra surely have their work cut out for them, but here is where they can hopefully use their experience to their advantage.
Additionally, sparing another thought to the midfield, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal will be VITAL in making sure the Madrid full backs don’t rip our defense to shreds on the overlap, and the onus will be on them to help double team Ronaldo and Bale at every given opportunity. Both played their roles to perfection against Borussia Dortmund, but with all respect to Marco Reus and Kevin Kampl, they’ll be facing a different kind of monster tonight.
4) MAKING SET PIECES COUNT
It seems to be a well documented fact that Real Madrid aren’t the best team in the world at defending set pieces. If the joy the likes of Atletico Madrid have consistently enjoyed this season against their bitter local rivals is any indication to go by, it is crucial to make your set pieces count against Real Madrid. With great headers of the ball in the form of Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Arturo Vidal and Fernando Llorente (should he play), it is up to them to make the most of any chance that may come their way as a result of a corner kick or indirect free kick. It has seemed to be a common feature this season, for Bonucci or Chiellini to win that header in the opposing box, only to put their header over the bar, wide of the post or straight at the keeper. Making the most of these chances could well be the difference between making the Finals, or losing in the Semi-Finals.
Which brings us to:
5) ANDREA PIRLO
The Bearded Wonder has a vital role at the heart of our midfield. Il Maestro has enjoyed an odd campaign as compared to the immense superlatives he has attached to his name since swapping Milan for Turin back in 2011. However, in recent weeks, he has flaunted that devastatingly quick mind of his numerous times in creating chances out of nothing for his team-mates. Considering Madrid’s full backs will definitely attack without invitation, Pirlo will surely have an eye on the darting and probing runs of the likes of Pereyra, Morata and Tevez, who will be trying their hardest to get behind the defense at every opportunity.
So besides delivering dangerous corners and his direct free kick mastery, the kind of game Pirlo has could be the major difference in this tie. His ability to pick out a run with a long pass is second to none. Equally importantly, Pirlo has suffered from giving the ball away in crucial defensive phases numerous times over the season. With the memory of Caceres‘ failed back pass and Ronaldo’s otherworldly ability to make even a half chance count fresh in my mind, here’s hoping Pirlo restricts the risky play to a bare minimum.
6) USING THE UNDERDOG STATUS TO OUR ADVANTAGE
A pretty surprising factor to end with, when you’re considering the four times consecutive Italian Champions no? Nevertheless, looking at the other three semifinalists: Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it is quite clear that Juventus is the underdog. Crucially though, that could work to our advantage. Italian teams have always produced the goods with their backs against the wall. Heck, you can look at our performances in Europe over the last few years, and it is easy to point to the games against Chelsea in 2012-13 and Real Madrid in 2013-14 as our best performances. Teams we were the underdogs against. On the other end of the spectrum however, the games against Copenhagen FC, Galatasaray and Benfica…. Yeah, I’ll just stop right there.
Compounding the effect, compared to Antonio Conte and his suggestions that Juventus would not be able to compete against the financially powerful, Max Allegri has been a breath of fresh air for the way he’s built the team to channel that same Underdog status, and use it to play fearlessly instead of meekly. Our two best performances this season, have arguably been the second leg away to Dortmund, and the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final away to Fiorentina. In both games the team started with their backs against the wall, but came out all guns blazing and played fearlessly and blew our opponents away. So a lot does come down to the mentality with which Juventus take the field tonight.
Carlo Ancelotti is a master tactician in cup competitions, and if anyone should know best not to take this Juventus side lightly, it will be him. However even he could not have hidden his satisfaction with this draw. If Madrid do end up taking to the field with even the slightest hint of complacency tonight, here’s hoping we use our Underdog status to the fullest, and rip them a new one.
All in all, the stage is set for a tremendous showdown, between two of the most legendary names in footballing history. Which team will come out on top and book their tickets to Berlin for the final? Only time will tell!