Juventus suffer Champions League heartache, but the future is bright
Juventus' choreography before tonight's final featured a pair of hands reaching for the Champions League trophy. They were within touching distance but, alas, came up short. The accompanying slogan underneath "Fino alla Fine" -- "Until the End" -- did not foreshadow a fairytale ending: Juventus were not destiny's team.
The road to Berlin might have been the same -- it even passed through Dortmund -- as it was for the team's 2006 World Cup winners, Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Andrea Barzagli. Juventus got ready in the same dressing room as Italy, their fans congregated in the same end of the Olympiastadion, and The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", the anthem of that triumph, played before kickoff. But the omens were red herrings.
Juventus couldn't do to Barcelona what Milan had achieved in 1994, when they upset the odds to beat Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team", despite the absence of centre-backs Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi, a parallel of sorts with the Bianconeri's loss of Giorgio Chiellini to injury in the run-up to this game.
Instead, their painful tradition in European Cup finals continued. This was the sixth defeat in eight for Juventus and their fourth in a row in these showpieces games. No club -- Bayern Munich and Benfica have been beaten finalists five times -- has had to climb the stairs as often to receive a runner-up medal before descending to watch the winners' lift the trophy. "Unfortunately, Juve's history in this competition isn't good," Claudio Marchisio sighed.
Barcelona were overwhelming favourites to claim their fourth Champions League title in nine years, and they lived up to expectations, even if they played in fits and starts. There is no shame in losing to them, and Juventus weren't humiliated. Far from it, in fact; this was a respectable defeat.
Juventus and their fans were under no illusion as to the size of the task awaiting them. Marcello Lippi no less believes this Barcelona team to be the best in history, while Leonardo Bonucci acknowledged tat Juventus are a "step below" the Catalans. Buffon felt his team had a 35 percent chance of winning and hit the nail on the head when he insisted Lionel Messi is an alien playing among humans.
If there was sympathy for Chiellini before the game -- the defender was consoled in training Friday by Pavel Nedved, who missed Juventus' last final through suspension in 2003 -- hearts immediately went out to the team's goalkeeper and captain.
Buffon had lost on penalties to Milan 12 years ago, and even if he believes this wasn't his last chance, time is ticking on the 37-year-old's chances of winning the one medal missing from his collection.
A world-class save to deny Dani Alves after 13 minutes, then another from Luis Suarez at the beginning of the second half to keep the score 1-0 offered a reminder that, unlike his great contemporary Iker Casillas, he has yet to enter a decline.
Without Buffon, Barca would have been out of sight. Instead, Alvaro Morata, a scorer in both legs against Dortmund and former club Real Madrid, equalised in his personal clasico. It was regrettable that Juventus conceded at the time when they were enjoying their best moment in the game.
Buffon, for whom this arguably meant most, was left disheartened by defeat. "I really did believe," he said. On the eve of the game he had echoed coach Max Allegri in rejecting the line iterated by the papers in Italy that whatever happened after Juventus qualified for the semifinals for the first time since 2003, their campaign in Europe would merit consideration as a success. They weren't here to be tourists or sacrificial victims, the goalkeeper said. As a winner, he and his team hadn't come this far just to lose.
But when the pain subsides, Buffon will surely come around to the journalists' take on matters, for Juventus have so much to be proud of. Italian football should be proud of them too, and their season can't be considered anything other than a success. No rotten tomatoes will be thrown when they touch down at Turin's Caselle airport. Instead, they will be welcomed back with applause.
No one expected them to reach the Champions League final at the beginning of the season. No Italian team had gotten there since Inter back in 2010, and group stage exits in back-to-back World Cups had contributed further to a gloomy assessment of the state of Serie A.
Antonio Conte resigned from Juventus because he thought that, without heavy investment, it would be years before a team made it so far again. Downbeat about the league and mindful of The Old Lady's recent disappointments in Europe, many shared that impression and didn't believe it was about to change when Max Allegri was appointed his replacement.
Upon clinching the Scudetto, Bonucci recalled how the season "started in chaos". Nevertheless, Juventus and their coach have surprised everyone and so nearly matched Inter's achievement of five years ago.
After clinching a fourth straight Scudetto with a record four games to spare, they won an unprecedented 10th Coppa Italia to do the double for the first time since 1995 and, next season, will become the first team to wear a silver star on their shirts to commemorate the achievement.
They return to Turin not with the cup, but with 100 million in TV and prize money. It's an amount they would have earned from Paul Pogba's sale, which means they don't have to sell the midfielder.
If the player does wish to leave -- and there is a sense he might not want to risk putting his place in France's Euro 2016 squad in jeopardy by moving somewhere and not settling -- then the cash already banked, and the new contract they got him to sign means they are in strong negotiating position.
Edinson Cavani, Mario Mandzukic and Axel Witsel seem ready for Juventus to come calling, should anyone else, such as a homesick Carlos Tevez, decide to leave. Meanwhile, Paulo Dybala, one of Europe's most wanted, has already signed and was in attendance in Berlin, while the free transfers of Neto and Sami Khedira are expected to be made official next week.
Juventus' financial power isn't the only thing that has grown this year. Their attraction has too, particularly with their definitive re-establishment as a force in Europe. "Today Juventus' appeal is notable," general manager Beppe Marotta told Il Corriere della Sera. "There was a time when players like [Antonio] Di Natale turned us down. Today players come running."
One who is seriously contemplating leaving, however, is, apparently, Andrea Pirlo, whose tears at the final whistle were interpreted as being indicative of a farewell. Asked if that really were the case, Marotta said: "I hope not."
However, talk of a move to New York City has grown in recent days, and though the midfielder might yet go back on his mooted decision to leave, just like he did to retire from the national team, it would represent the end of an era if he departed.
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Pirlo's arrival four years ago represented a turning point for Juventus and opened this cycle of success. He is still decisive in Serie A, as has been shown by the no-look passes, free-kicks and that last-minute winner in the Turin derby.
He is irreplaceable, and the closest player in terms of comparison, Marco Verratti, doesn't appear to be a realistic target. But Marchisio, Juventus' most consistent midfielder this season, whose back-heel in the buildup to Morata's goal underlined his class, has done well in the role, even if he has interpreted it differently.
Juventus's management handled Conte's succession excellently and can be trusted to move the team on post-Pirlo, should that be required. The next aim is to emulate the Juventus of the 1930s and the Grande Torino of a decade later and win five Scudetti in a row, while also ensuring cup runs in Europe are a rule, not an exception, normal not abnormal.
"History says Juventus must always -- or almost always -- get at least to the semifinals of [the Champions League]," Buffon said this week. "We also feel great responsibility because we know that if things go well, we've done something great. But it's almost business as usual for Juventus. A month and a half later, we're back to work for the new season."
Life goes on at Juventus, who have a lot to look forward to. Morata, a symbol of the bright future, believes they will be back. "This is a great squad, a great family, and we must continue working hard," he said. "This team has no limits. It can win the Champions League, and the directors are working to build an even stronger side."
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.