Paulo Dybala and Juventus have plenty of questions to ask of themselves after a comprehensive loss in Barcelona. (Reuters)
Lionel Messi has played in six competitive games for Barcelona so far this season. He has scored eight goals. Seven of those have come in the last three games.
Since Barca’s disheveling 5-1 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana to open the season, Ernesto Valverde’s new team has played four, won four, scored 12, conceded none. The reports of Barca’s decline in the wake of Neymar’s summer departure, as it turns out, were greatly exaggerated.
On Tuesday, the Catalans dismantled Juventus 3-0 in their continental curtain-raiser. They hammered the team that lost the final to Real Madrid last season. The team, we should add, that had knocked Barca out in the quarterfinals last spring — also by a 3-0 score. The team that also reached the final in 2015, falling to Barca 3-1.
These teams have history, but neither one had seemingly ever won this convincingly, even as Juve outshot Barca. This clash of European juggernauts was a bit of rout, if you take a little distance and discard any partisanship.
Barca had more or less all the big chances. In the 20th minute, Andres Iniesta won a free kick outside the box. Messi’s effort was blocked by the wall but Luis Suarez’s curler on the rebound provoked a solid save from ageless Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
On the brink of halftime, Messi and Suarez exchanged a give-and-go. Messi got through and nutmegged Mehdi Benatia and nailed Gianluigi Buffon to the ground with his finish. It was his 95th Champions League goal, but his first on Buffon.
Paulo Dybala blasted a rare Juve chance high just after the intermission, whereupon Messi hit the post with a shot from outside the box. But in the 56th minute — after Messi somehow got a yellow card for demanding a yellow be given to an opponent — Juve was caught on the ball playing out of the back.
Messi’s cross was cleared on the goal’s doorstep, but right into the path of Ivan Rakitic, who whipped it into the net.
Messi got his brace in the 69th minute. He cut inside from the flank and whipped a finish out of Buffon’s reach.
The obvious headline was Barca’s dominance. But Juve’s difficult night is just as interesting. Yes, the Messi-powered dynasty is plainly not over. What will it take, however, for the storied club from Turin to finally begin winning European trophies again? Wasn’t this supposed to be a year when a stacked Juve side would be better than Barca?
Context is crucial here. Almost winning in Europe is very much in Juve’s DNA. For its European crowns in 1985 and 1996 — the former during the Heysel Stadium disaster; the latter on penalties — it has lost an astonishing seven Champions League finals. That’s two more than the next-closest clubs, which would be Bayern Munich and Benfica.
This Juventus team, rebuilt into another superpower after the Calciopoli scandal literally relegated the club in 2006, has everything it needs to conquer Europe. It has talent, depth and, crucially, sufficient dominance in its league to be able to rotate and rest players for the key games in the Champions League. Six straight Serie A titles make La Vecchia Signora — “The Old Lady,” the club’s magnificent nickname — the overwhelming favorite to win it again, in spite of Napoli’s dazzling form. Juve already leads the pack, on goal difference, with a perfect points haul.
Losses happen. And sometimes the score slips away from you. Especially at Barcelona with Messi’s form rising to a rolling boil. Tuesday’s loss doesn’t mean a whole lot in and of itself. Juve, after all, was missing a raft of players due to injury.
But at a certain point, Juve will have to turn the corner in Europe. It’s tough judging teams on how many Champions League finals they win — or indeed lose — because the variables in a one-off game are so many and the outcome so fickle. Yet that is nevertheless how we remember teams a decade down the line.
Few recall that after Juve won in ’96, it lost the final in both ’97 and ’98. Who now remembers that Valencia lost the final in both 2000 and 2001? Or that Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco and Arsenal made the final in the following half-decades? Only the most ardent fans of those specific clubs.
Will we remember that Manchester United made the final three times in four years? Quite possibly not, because while it won in 2008, it lost in 2009 and 2011, dulling the shine on an enormous accomplishment. Shall we ever again think of Atletico Madrid overcoming staggering odds to reach, and then lose, the final in both 2014 and 2016?
Juve’s ongoing dominance of Serie A is no less impressive for the decay of what was once the world’s strongest league by consensus. Doing it that often is hard no matter your advantages in transfer budgets and other resources. But maybe the only reason that Inter Milan’s five straight Serie A titles stick in the mind — although the first of those was awarded after being stripped from Juve in the scandal — is because the club also summited the European mountain in 2010, to cap that run with a treble.
What Juventus is accomplishing is historic. But for this wonderful team to get its due, it will need to win the Champions League as well.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.