Juventus cannot play like it's a friendly if they hope to knock off Barcelona
In what will be a repeat of the 2015 final, Juventus will once again take on Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. And while they are trying to concentrate on their upcoming Serie A clash against Sampdoria, all anyone can discuss is Barcelona. Can Juve overcome the Catalan side that managed the greatest comeback in European football?
Based on talent alone, Juventus are not inferior and haven't been for some time, yet talent will not be the defining factor when the two sides clash on April 11. Mental fragility has been Juve's problem for some time, and they must grasp this upcoming opportunity with both hands and prove they have grown and are worthy of their history and legacy.
It won't be easy. That is not necessarily because Barcelona are a formidable side this season but because, much like Bayern Munich, they boast a winner's aura and have the power to intimidate an opponent to provoke weakness. Paris Saint-Germain were rattled after conceding only one goal, and Juventus looked awestruck when the two faced off, playing an embarrassing first half in which warriors such as Arturo Vidal were apologetic after tackling the opponent.
Since when should Juventus feel honoured to play anyone? They have spent millions on constructing one of the best sides in Europe, which boasts both offensive brilliance and defensive might. They attack with ferociousness and defend heroically and have not suffered any form of crisis this season. Unlike the great Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barca, they have maintained first place in their league and won their Champions' League group. They also reached the semifinal of the Coppa Italia.
Barcelona, by contrast, have heavily relied on Lionel Messi's brilliance to mask their identity crisis. They no longer hold possession as well as they once did or play a direct game with conviction. They may have scored six against PSG in the second leg, but they conceded four in Paris and lost too many games this season, including last weekend's match against Deportivo.
Sergio Busquets is a shadow of the player he once was, Luis Suarez has hardly played his greatest football this season, while Sergi Roberto is a liability, even if he did score the winning goal against PSG. Luis Enrique suffered so deeply from the criticism leveled at his team that he had no choice but to reveal his departure at the end of the season.
Juve are perfectly equipped not only to comprehensively beat the Catalans but to win the entire tournament. And the very fact Spanish newspapers breathed a sigh of relief that Barca is facing Juve and not the mighty Bayern or Atletico should further motivate the Italians to get the win.
Yet we can understand why Juve are not feared. They may boast great veterans and characters, but the side is too respectful, too nice, too vanilla. The club once boasted abrasive or supremely arrogant players such as Pavel Nedved, Antonio Conte and Angelo Di Livio, players who taunted their rivals by sniggering at their inferiority. They have since been replaced by good or even great players but ones who all hug the opponent after the match.
It's time to fight and, unfortunately, play dirty. It's time to tackle with strength, attack with a vengeance and bully the opponent. Juventus may be hated in Italy, but they need to be hated across Europe. Respecting the opponent suggests weakness and fear. Just ask PSG.
The Champions League clash will truly test the mental strength of this Bianconeri side, and it's up to the players and Massimiliano Allegri to prove the side has grown. The coach has already taken a step in the right direction with his nonchalance, batting away questions on the topic that has Italy quivering at the knees.
"Juventus playing Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinal is not an extraordinary event," he said. "It has to be normal."
It is normal, and if it isn't, then it should be. Tactically, Allegri is confident of his brilliance, but it's up to him to convince his players of the same thing. Until then, Sampdoria await in Serie A.
Marco Giampaolo's team may lie in ninth place in the league, but they have beaten both Milan and Roma and won the derby against Genoa twice this season -- a feat they hadn't managed since 1960. They boast an interesting squad of players, none more interesting than Patrik Schick, the 21-year-old Czech forward who in 788 minutes of football has already managed seven goals, making him the side's second-top goal-scorer.
A team with a clear identity, the Blucerchiati have impressed this season under a coach once wanted by Juve. With the fantastic five set to play from the start, the Bianconeri are heavy favourites to pick up another win. Yet the question remains: Can Gonzalo Higuain rediscover his goal-scoring efficiency? The Argentine has scored only one in his last six matches and will be hoping to get back to his predatory best against a team that has suffered from his lethality before. If the Old Lady wants to continue growing, she will need her best players to be performing at optimum levels at this critical stage of the season.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.