Barcelona fail to shine but Juventus draw ensures they top group
TURIN, Italy -- Three quick thoughts on the 0-0 draw between Juventus and Barcelona at Allianz Stadium on Wednesday.
1. Barcelona into last 16 as group winners
Barcelona secured their place in the Champions League knockout stages with a goalless draw at Juventus on Wednesday in a performance that summed up their season so far. With Lionel Messi surprisingly left on the bench, given a breather, Ernesto Valverde's side failed to shimmer but did get the point they needed to ensure they go through to the round of 16 as group winners.
"I prefer to never shine and to win every game," Ivan Rakitic had said when faced with the latest wave of criticism about the caliber of Barca's performances on Tuesday. "We can always improve. The shine will come."
They didn't win or particularly shine at the Allianz Stadium, but they were solid once again. Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique were both in good form, restricting the threat offered by Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved the few shots that came his way.
There was little for Gianluigi Buffon to do at the other end, either. Paulinho tried his luck from distance twice in the first half, failing to find the target both times. After the break, both Luis Suarez and Messi, introduced for Gerard Deulofeu in the 55th minute, came close with free kicks.
In general, though, it was a game of few chances, which perhaps suited Barca more than Juventus, whose best opportunity came in stoppage time when Dybala drew a fine stop from the in-form Ter Stegen.
Valverde's side are now 18 matches unbeaten in all competitions and can prepare for Sunday's top-of-the-table clash against Valencia safe in the knowledge that they will be playing Champions League football in the New Year.
The shine, they hope, as Rakitic says, will come.
As for Juve, they still have work to do if they want to remain in the Champions League. They have a one-point lead going into the final round of fixtures, when they travel to Olympiakos, while Sporting Lisbon, the team below them, are away against a Barca side who now have nothing to play for -- they may even rest Messi again.
2. Valverde right to reserve Messi
Valverde's decision to leave Messi on the bench in Turin seemed surprising at first. But scratch below the surface and it made plenty of sense. Messi, Barca's top scorer this season with 16 goals in all competitions, had started all 16 La Liga and Champions League games going into Wednesday's fixture. There has been plenty of traveling with Argentina, too. A rest wasn't the worst idea.
Besides, this wasn't even Barca's biggest game of the week. The 3-0 win against Juve at Camp Nou in September meant that, save a three-goal loss, they were still going to be top going into the final game of the group at home to Sporting. They had a cushion.
Their cushion in La Liga is big, too. But it's not as definitive as the one they had in Europe. Sunday's game against unbeaten Valencia, in second, is a huge chance to really strengthen their place at the top of the table. A win against Marcelino's side will extend their lead to seven points -- and, at least, maintain their 10-point advantage over Real Madrid and Atletico.
So leaving out Messi, who had shown signs of tiredness at Leganes at the weekend, wasn't strange at all. Presumably it was talked about with the player himself, who now into his 30s is aware that he's going to have to slowly begin to manage his efforts to prolong his career. It was actually completely logical. With top spot in the group secured, it's been proved to be the right decision, too. And if Messi's on fire at Mestalla, Valverde will be lauded for his call.
3. Juve struggling to hit last season's highs
It's been little more than six months since Juventus tore apart a Barcelona side including Messi, Neymar and Suarez. On Wednesday, though, they never looked like ripping through a Barca side stripped of Messi and Neymar -- until the Argentine came on, at least -- and with an inconsistent Suarez in attack.
The Italian side should not sound the alarm bells just yet, but there are concerns they have not built on last season's run to the Champions League final, where they were beaten by Madrid. They may have been understrength at Camp Nou in September, missing key players, but they were swept away. Even in Serie A, they're playing catch-up to Napoli, beaten by Sampdoria at the weekend and only just scraping past winless Benevento recently.
Higuain, not for the first time, failed to offer a threat against Barca. Perhaps Dybala, who came close to stealing the points in stoppage time, was their most lively player. Other than him, though, Massimiliano Allegri's side lacked a spark.
They should still have enough to qualify for the knockout stages. Few would expect them to not get the job done at Olympiakos in December. But the delay to their progress, coupled with their results domestically, mean there's plenty of work for Allegri to do to match the highs that have accompanied his reign so far.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.