La Liga champions Barcelona went head-to-head with Serie A winners Juventus, in the highly-anticipated UEFA Champions League final on Saturday evening.
Both sides had a golden opportunity to secure respective trebles, whilst writing their names in the history books. 90 minutes of football on the biggest stage would decide their fate, and it was a mouthwatering clash between two of the best European clubs this season. Ahead of kick-off at the Olympiastadion, Berlin, the major team news surrounded Juventus' well accomplished backline. Italian centre-back Giorgio Chiellini, who was set for a showdown with Luis Suárez for the first time since the talented Uruguayan forward controversially bit him at last summer's World Cup tournament, was ruled out of contention for the final - having suffered from a calf injury.
Lionel Messi, who was in the Argentinian side that unfortunately finished runners-up in last year's World Cup to winners Germany, was eager for some form of revenge: what better place to do it than the capital of the country that beat the Sky Blues in 2014? What an attacking trio to help Léo, too. Neymar, who has improved significantly following his €50million move from Santos two years ago, and Suárez, the man that has done wonders in his first season at the Nou Camp, despite being suspended until mid-October.
Paul Pogba, who has been heavily transfer-linked with a move away from the Italian giants this summer, could have possibly been playing his final match for Juve, so all eyes were on him, as well as Barça's midfield legend Xavi Hernandez, who has amassed over 500 club appearances for his boyhood side since his debut in 1998. The 35-year-old announced he'd be leaving at the end of the season, to join Qatari club Al Sadd, on a three-year contract. This picture, says it all.
As the game was only minutes away from starting, the two teams lined up in the tunnel, and quite a few of the players looked understandably nervous, especially given the significance of the occasion. Either, Luis Enrique or Massimiliano Allegri, would secure a treble in their first season at the helm of their respective clubs.
Silky move saw Barça were ahead
Javier Mascherano's nerves almost got the better of him on two occasions, first, a mis-hit clearance fell into the path of Claudio Marchisio, who teed up Carlos Tévez on the edge of the box, but the Argentinian forward's effort skewed wide of Marc Andre-ter Stegen's goal. Then, just moments later, a pass into his feet was poorly dealt with by the experienced defensive-minded player, as his first touch let him down and he watched on in disappointment as the ball trickled out for a corner-kick. Thankfully for him, the resulting set-piece came of nothing.
After just four minutes on the clock, Barcelona found themselves ahead. Messi's crossfield spot found Dani Alves on the flank, he found Neymar open in an inch of space, with the Brazilian passing the ball across towards the run of midfield maestro Andrés Iniesta, who saw his chance and unselfishly squared the ball into the path of Ivan Rakitíc. The Croatian creative midfielder, who was instrumental in Sevilla's UEFA Europa League victory last season, got his name on the scoresheet with a clinical slot beyond Gianluigi Buffon, who was helpless to stop the effort from beating him into the corner. Just like that, Enrique's men were ahead.
Fiery affair after Rakitic's opener, with chances galore...
Álvaro Morata exploded down the flank and gracefully slotted a pass towards his team-mate, Arturo Vidal, having span Mascherano on the wing and leaving the defender for dead. The Chilean midfielder, who has been in great form since returning from a troublesome injury problem two months' back, should have displayed more composure when taking his strike, which flew over the young German's goal. It was a cagey start for the 27-year-old, who could have easily been booked if the referee was less lenient, after a naughty sliding tackle on Iniesta. Then, coincidentally enough, after just ten minutes, Vidal was booked for a cynical sliding tackle on Sergio Busquets.
Neymar came close to doubling the lead, but watched on as his effort flashed just above the crossbar and continued to rise, with Juve players knowing they needed to stick tight to their men and avoid conceding again. That's not an easy achievement by any stretch of the imagination, as many of Europe's top clubs have found out over the past twelve months. Messi was less the finisher, and more the orchestrator as he continued to spray sumptuous passes to team-mates, with the opposition struggling to contain his threat at all whilst he weaved one way, and span past them in an instant.
Buffon made an important left-handed save to deny Alves from close range, as the Brazilian full-back looked to increase the cushion to a two-goal one, but for an impressive stop from the experienced Italian. Vidal was lucky not to be sent off after just fifteen minutes, as tempers started to intensify with frustration at the cynical tackles flying in early on. Minutes later, Mascherano made a perfectly-timed last-ditch sliding interception to block Pogba's attempted through ball towards Tévez, who was lurking inside the box and ready to pounce.
Marchisio let fly with a speculative effort, 20 yards out, and it fizzed over the crossbar with ter Stegen making an attempt to dive and save it, if needed to. Just after the half-hour mark, Barcelona boasted having 71% possession, where they controlled the tempo of the match and made Juventus work for half-chances, which they barely made use of in truth. Juventus were visibly frustrated with the referee, after he adjudged that Jordi Alba's challenge on Pogba, on the edge of the area, was a fair one, and although on first viewing it looked like a foul, the pacey Spaniard seemed to get a touch on the ball despite sliding in. Suárez narrowly saw a low stinging drive skim past Buffon's far post, having got the better of Leonardo Bonucci inside the area.
Pogba was the second player in the referee's book, albeit slightly harshly for his first foul of the match. He was in pursuit of Messi who was driving towards the edge of the area, and slipped on the turf, taking Lionel down with him. The referee brandished a yellow, and although he was unhappy, there was blatant contact and he stopped the 27-year-old in his tracks. Messi started to tease Vidal and Pogba into making challenges, with a smart decision made by the silky magician, who was annoying the Juve players, who struggled to contend with him.
Marchisio's stinging strike from range, with just a minute left of the first-half to play, was easily parried and smothered by ter Stegen. Messi went on a jinking run once more, and created a chance for himself out of nothing. He almost went all the way through to Buffon's goal, beating three players before the ball trickled out of play for a goal-kick as he was distracted by a sliding tackle from Bonucci.
The referee looked at his watch, and blew the whistle to signal the half-time whistle with no stoppage time, Barcelona a goal up going into the break, and it could have easily been three or four. Juventus were by no means out of the contest, especially with a one-goal deficit to overturn.
Interval, time for a goal or two?
As the second-half began, it was soon clear that the spectacle needed another goal, to spark something. Suárez nearly got that within a minute or two of the restart, but for a good diving parry to safety by Buffon at his near post. The link-up play between Messi, Neymar and Súarez on the edge of the area was near criminal, as they just popped the ball off to each other, with relative ease whilst the Juventus backline were standing stranded.
Then, just when a goal was needed, who else to get it than Álvaro Morata? He pounced after an initial shot from close range was well saved by ter Stegen, but unfortunately for the young German 'keeper, the ball trickled straight into the 22-year-old's path, and he simply could not miss with the goal gaping to equalise. The Old Lady roared with delight, and the momentum was finally in their favour.
Pogba was incredibly unlucky not to get a penalty-kick after he was manhandled by Dani Alves inside the box, with the Italians pushing forward in search of another goal to send the Juve supporters in the crowd completely wild. Tevez and Pogba both came close with respective efforts, neither of which tested ter Stegen in the Barca goal, but soon, everything changed in a blink of an eye.
Messi got on the ball, and drifted past his defensive marker for the umpteenth time, dribbling with ease as the ball stuck to his majestic feet, and Lionel unleashed a low fizzing strike goalwards, to which Buffon did well to get down quickly and parry to his left. Unfortunately for the 37-year-old goalkeeper, Suárez was alive to the strike and had no trouble whatsoever to slot home and give Barcelona the lead once more. Suárez was next in the referee's book, for a cynical trip on Bonucci as he was stretching to try and reach the ball.
The match had turned on its head, and having dominated for a short period of time, Juventus found themselves behind once again. In such a big match, controversy is never too far away, which was reiterated as Neymar's close-range haeder was deflected past Buffon by the youngster's hand, albeit accidentally. The linesman on the byline next to Buffon's goal ruled the strike out as a handball, whilst the Barcelona players reacted with utter disbelief.
Time running out, intensity increases
Xavi Hernández made his final appearance with just less than fifteen minutes left to play, replacing Iniesta, who had started the match well but faded as proceedings intensified and saw less of the ball with Juventus pressing for another goal. He was greeted with a hero's welcome from all sections of the crowd, acknowledging just how great of a player he has been throughout his illustrious career.
With time running out, Juventus needed a goal, and fast. Vidal, who got more involved in the match as it continued, was brought off in place of Roberto Pereyra with ten minutes plus stoppages left to play. He came inches close to having a chance of his own inside the box, but Barcelona ensured his threat was quelled on the flank as the underdogs continued in search of another equaliser. A big target man, Fernando Llorente, came on with a few minutes to spare as Morata was given a warm round of applause, as Allegri pushed his men forward in the hope they'd grab a half-chance to utilise.
The clock continued to tick down on the affair, with Suárez going down in considerable pain, clutching his ankle after landing awkwardly as he tried to vy for possession in midfield. The well-known grimace that supporters are never sure of, as to whether he's honestly injured or not, troubled Juventus again as they watched on with discontent as he trudged off the pitch in the closing stages.
Then, to put the icing on a tremendous cake, Neymar finally got his goal. A counter-attacking move was completed to devastating effect, and the young Brazilian fired home past Buffon into the bottom corner of the net, before wheeling away to celebrate with the rest of his team-mates and the fans on the far side of the pitch. The cameramen sprinted across to take a picture of the poster boy, who had secured the Catalan's record-breaking treble triumph.
Juventus players will be disraught, having come so close to glory, having it cruelly snatched away from them, but in truth: Barcelona were the deserved victors in an action-packed finale which concluded with the best team in Europe securing their fourth Champions League trophy in just nine years.