Juventus still a work in progress but no need to overreact to Barca defeat
Fabio Capello tells a story about a conversation he had with Frank Rijkaard at the Camp Nou in 2005. Capello was in charge of Juventus at the time and they were in Catalunya at Barcelona's invitation to play the annual Gamper Trophy match. A teenage Lionel Messi had given Juventus the runaround and made a big impression on "Don Fabio".
"During the game I asked Frank if I could take him on loan. I had seen Messi play for Argentina at youth level and he looked to me like a promising player. But seeing him at the Camp Nou in a Barcelona shirt in front of a crowd like that, I realised I had never seen a player in all my life with his ability. He was able to do things other players weren't even capable of thinking of." Rijkaard and Capello went way back. The Dutchman played under him at Milan. But he couldn't do his old boss this favour. "I can't," he said.
Thirteen years on from that breakout display, Messi put on an even better one against the same opponent and it didn't come as much of a surprise to Massimiliano Allegri. "It's not like we found out about Messi for the first time tonight. He had three shots, scored twice and hit the post." Allegri knew that, for all the pre-match talk about Messi never putting one past Gianluigi Buffon, play against him enough and it's only a matter of time. That's called being realistic. Just watch Barcelona's opening goal.
Juventus actually got seven men back to deal with Messi and Luis Suarez but the speed of the combination and the Argentine's frightening ability in tight spaces, not to mention his sniper-precise finish made all of them miss. La Stampa's headline SottoMessi -- a play on the word "submit" -- was spot on. Juventus had been pretty good up until that point. You might even say they were unlucky to go in at half-time behind. After all, they'd hit six shots at the target, four of which came from inside the box.
In terms of chances, Juventus actually created more than they did on their last visit to the Camp Nou, a 0-0 draw. But Barca, as Allegri alluded to, were more clinical, more efficient. It took you back to what Juventus president Andrea Agnelli said immediately after the Champions League final in June. The Bianconeri need to be piu cattivo -- more ruthless and show their opponent no mercy. An acknowledgement of that meant much of the focus after Tuesday's defeat was on Gonzalo Higuain.
Juventus broke the Serie A transfer record to sign him last summer and at €90 million he remains the most expensive centre-forward the game has ever seen. A big-game player in Italy, Higuain does not have that reputation in the Champions League or for his country for that matter. In 14 games against Barca, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Liverpool, the 29-year-old has never scored and his goals against Monaco in last year's semifinal were his first in the knockout stages in four years -- the caveat being Napoli never got out of the group in the three he spent at the San Paolo.
The tension games like these provoke in him seem to get the better of Higuain as the crowd at the Camp Nou saw when he raised his middle finger to them while being substituted. Allegri didn't exactly shy away from pointing it out either. "Gonzalo has got to be more serene when he plays in these occasions. Instead of keeping his head down, he shakes his head. He shouldn't. Gonzalo's got great ability but he must improve in this regard."
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli presumably won't be persuaded to change his mind and re-call Higuain to his squad on that showing. Former Juventus striker Fabrizio Ravanelli thought the snub played on Higuain's mind against Chievo at the weekend and again in Barcelona on Tuesday, and offers another explanation, in addition to a frustrating lack of service, for his irritability. "Sampaoli's decision has damaged him on a mental level."
His teammate Paulo Dybala fared little better, fluffing one counter-attack and blasting a chance to equalise over the bar just after the interval. Man of the match in every Juventus game up until the trip to Catalunya, there is a sense that Dybala has been covering up for imbalances in the team and the rustiness of some teammates who are still yet to get up to speed.
As in Cardiff, Juventus faded in the second half and Barca, led by Messi, outclassed them. Perhaps the ghosts of that night have not yet been laid to rest -- although Allegri's changes didn't help. As against Real in June, once the second goal went in, Juventus seemed to lose belief, and, in this case, even interest.
Allegri drew some criticism before the game for sending the wrong message to the players by downplaying the significance of their first European outing of the campaign. It was only a group stage game, not a knock-out tie and besides Juventus reached the final in 2015 after finishing runners' up in their group behind Atletico Madrid.
Allegri can point to holders Real Madrid doing the same last year, but, judging by the reaction, perhaps wounds are still fresh in Italy after Giampiero Ventura's comments that the Azzurri could never think seriously about topping their World Cup qualifying group with Spain in it. The parallels here are by no means exact even if it's the second time in 10 days an Italian side has visited this part of the world and returned home with a 3-0 beating. Allegri no doubt remembers that the last time Juventus qualified as runners' up, they drew Bayern Munich in the Round of 16. Although given how close they came to knocking them out at the Allianz Arena maybe his point about there being little difference between finishing first and second still stands.
Juventus are still figuring things out post-Leonardo Bonucci, post-Dani Alves. Just as they spent the first months of 2015-16 working out how to play without Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal.
Every year is different, Allegri says. Juventus start with one formation and finish playing another. It wasn't until January that the team found balance last season and you get the feeling this game came too soon for them.
Six members of the side that beat Barca 3-0 in Turin in April were missing on Tuesday and the injuries to new signings Benedikt Howedes, as well as Giorgio Chiellini, Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic, not to mention the suspension of Juan Cuadrado didn't help matters. It meant Rodrigo Bentancur and Mattia De Sciglio (who didn't take long to join the casualty list) made their first starts for Juventus at the Camp Nou.
No need for an overreaction then, even if there is a sense that this Juventus team is losing its religion, tilting the balance more towards scoring one more than their opponents rather than conceding one fewer. The Old Lady will get better. For now, though, she remains a work in progress.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.