Juventus can't let golden opportunity slip away against Monaco
"This is our year" has become the Juventus motto. After so many disappointments, so many chances, this has to be the year the Turin giants make history and reap the rewards of a well-planned project.
A perfectly balanced side coupled with remarkable mental fortitude, this version of Juventus boasts the right tactical and psychological combination to achieve something special, something historic to allow the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Barzagli to celebrate a trophy they have coveted for too many years.
Only Monaco stand in the way of the Bianconeri reaching their ninth Champions League final. A side that surrendered to defeat at home, Leonardo Jardim's men suffered from inexperience. Pitted against a club renowned for its tactical intelligence, ability to halt the opponent and attack with panache, Monaco's weaknesses were painfully highlighted.
However, the beauty of the young is that they rarely give up, and if their coach is not ready to give up, then neither are they. Despite chasing their first League 1 title since 2000, Jardim chose to not start Tiemoue Bakayoko or Kylian Mbappe in the weekend's match against Nancy. By choosing to rotate ever so slightly, the tactician sent a clear signal to his men: The Juventus match is important, and it will be taken seriously, and thus freshness must be ensured. Monaco went on to pummel Nancy 3-0.
Considering that Juventus have never lost a two-legged tie against a French side, RTL reported that 40 percent of those interviewed believe the Monegasque are capable of winning and progressing to the final. Forward Valere Germain was quick to point out how difficult it would be to overcome the Old Lady, but he also noted that anything is possible, especially if the away side manages a quick goal to introduce a little fear.
It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility, as despite Juve's defensive might, Monaco had their chances and are likely to create more Tuesday evening. Jardim admitted to working on new tactics, which will undoubtedly be aimed at nullifying Juve's strengths. It is for this reason that the Italians must play with discipline, composure and patience. If they play a technical game and do not surrender to frustration, they will progress.
Thankfully for the Bianconeri, Gonzalo Higuain is in rampant form. Having scored his first and second away goal in a knockout Champions League fixture, the striker can relax in the knowledge that he has made an impact in the big games, relieving the pressure that has strained his performances. Against Torino in the Derby della Mole, it was his introduction that changed the game and rescued a point for the Old Lady.
However, Higuain provides so much more than goals, and to reduce his performance to his exquisite finishes would be a great injustice. In the words of Giorgio Chiellini, "Gonzalo is A+ and has made himself available to the whole team and doesn't care if he scores or not."
Boasting intelligence and the spirit of sacrifice, Higuain has helped elevate the quality of Juve's game in the final third. Consistently looking for the ball, it's incredible how he always makes himself available for the pass. Taking up interesting positions and making the right runs, he not only facilitates the lives of the creators within the side but also helps divert attention from his teammates by dragging defenders out of position. A genuine team player who often is harshly criticised, Higuain's arrival at Juventus has hugely impacted the side's ability to compete and defeat the best.
Another who has truly enthralled is Dani Alves. Although defensively he might struggle to provide the security one expects from a defender playing for an Italian side, his vision and accuracy make all the difference for the team going forward. Delivering delectable passes to his teammates and pushing at just the right moments to destabilise the opponent, Alves always is incisive going forward. Moreover, he has helped improve the team's mentality, ensuring they perform like champions and without fear in the big matches, especially against the likes of Barcelona.
Experienced veterans might not play to such high levels week in and week out, but in the matches that count, they make the difference.
His performances in the Champions League have been such that it seems Massimiliano Allegri is contemplating benching Juan Cuadrado to offer Alves the chance to act as assist-maker to Higuain again. The duo combined perfectly in Monaco and could be set to do so in a fluid version of the 4-2-3-1 formation. Should that happen, Andrea Barzagli, who celebrated his 36th birthday on Monday, will return to the starting lineup.
Experience and composure will help Juventus overcome a wickedly offensive side with a point to prove. This is their time, so let's hope the Old Lady sings.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.