Champions League Final Preview (with LOP's Maverick)
After a month of waiting, waiting, and laughing at Sepp Blatter as he went the way of Johnny Depp's Lone Ranger, the UEFA Champions League Final has finally arrived. No more waiting, no more talk of corruption and no more of John Oliver rightfully body slamming Blatter into the dirt (actually, we can have more of that), it's time for some actual football to be played. Most importantly, it's time for some football to be predicted, which is where I come in. Yes, even though I'm cutting this really, really short, I've decided to predict today's Final between Italian club Juventus and the Zanarkand Abes of football themselves, Barcelona. I've also decided to not do it alone. With me today is my buddy and wrestling/football fanatic Maverick, one of the best main page writers Lords of Pain has to offer. Originally, fellow LOP writer Mazza was going to join us, but apparently he got stuck staring in awe at a Roman Reigns poster for hours. Thus, it's just Mav and I who'll be having the fun. But let's not waste time; there's football ahead! ON WITH THE SHOW!!!
Champions League Final
Juventus vs. Barcelona
Cult: Is this where Gianluigi Buffon finally gets his Champions League title? As a poor soul stuck in America, where football doesn't even rank higher than keeping up with the Kardashians, I haven't really gotten a chance to catch much Italian club football over the years. So I'll freely admit my knowledge of Juventus is limited. That said, I do know Buffon, and I know that he's without a doubt one of the best keepers I've ever seen, a dynamic force both in the locker room and between the posts. I also know that this will be only the second Champions League final appearance in his career, his last one coming twelve years ago in a heartbreaking penalty kicks loss to A.C. Milan. Buffon is a man who has done it all, having won a World Cup with Italy in 2006, several league titles with Juventus and nearly singlehandedly carried Italy to a European title just three years ago. But he's never won a Champions League title, and at 37 years old, this could be his last chance. I expect to see him as fired up as ever for this match.
Maverick: If you read certain sections of the sporting press, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Lionel Messi is going to be the only player on the pitch in Berlin on Saturday night. Truthfully, I find the whole "magic of Messi" narrative incredibly tiresome. Is he a unique, once in a generation talent? Undoubtedly. But amidst all the highlight reels of Messi goals, assists and moments of genius, it is often forgotten that he has played his entire career surrounded by a supporting cast of world class footballers, without whom his brilliance would not be possible. So, with apologies to Mr. Messi, I'm going to focus on the narrative that is closest to my heart; the respective swansongs of the magnificent Xavi (who has spent the last decade supplying Messi's ammunition) and the peerless Andrea Pirlo of Juventus.
These two midfield maestros have redefined what it is to play the position through the course of their careers. As the heartbeat of the great Spain side that won Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 consecutively, Xavi showed the world that possession is everything in modern football. If the other side does not have the ball, they can't score. But you can. It is football boiled down to its simplest tenet. Xavi was the conductor of the orchestra, dictating tempo, tone, and volume. At his best, he often had a pass completion rate in the high nineties. That is outrageous. He became symbolic of the Barcelona way and in turn, the Spanish way, the style of football we came to know so well as tiki taka. Encouraged by his mentor Pep Guardiola, Xavi's technical qualities- the close control, the vision, the obsessive perfectionism- defined an entire era of the game. This will be his very last game in the famous red and blue stripes; at his advanced age, it is likely that he will start the match on the bench, but you can bet that Luis Enrique will insert him into proceedings the moment he feels the need to assert some control on possession. Andres Iniesta, his partner in midfield during those halcyon days in the late 2000s, said the following about him: "I have run out of eulogies. I cannot find words that reach his level as a player and a person. The years, the success, the feelings, the way he did things ... all of that is beyond words. He is a unique player who will never be repeated, fundamental for club and country. It has been a true pleasure and a privilege to have spent my entire career by his side." Amen to that.
While Xavi the pass master was known as much for his modesty and his unassuming attitude to his gifts, Andrea Pirlo is a different character altogether, a charismatic figure who seems to have stepped straight out of a nineteenth century romance with his flowing hair and rugged beard, a cool head in a footballing nation known for volatile and temperamental maniacs. Pirlo is perhaps the ultimate hipster footballer, with his award winning wine vineyards, propensity to read philosophy and the portentous post-match interviews. Unlike one club man Xavi, Pirlo actually left his beloved Milan in 2011 after being deemed surplus to requirements due to his age. Juventus, not quite believing their luck, stepped in and took the great man on a free transfer. Their goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, described it as "the signing of the century". At Juve, Pirlo showed that, far from declining, he had actually aged like one of his fine wines. In the quarter finals of Euro 2012, he singlehandedly passed England off the park in one of the greatest individual performances I have ever seen; Roy Hodgson's side had no answer to the deep lying playmaker's vision and passing range. They couldn't get near him. England somehow managed to cling on through extra time to take the game to penalty kicks, but Pirlo had the last laugh, putting an outrageous "Panenka" penalty past Joe Hart, dinking the ball in a slow loop into the empty space Hart had dived from. Afterwards, Pirlo said that Hart's energetic behaviour on the goal line, designed to put the penalty taker off, had made his mind up for him "now you get the spoon", Pirlo had said to himself. With the bearded wonder pulling the strings, Juve have won four Serie A titles in a row. Unlike Xavi, he will still be a key man on Saturday night, but like Xavi, this is his last game at the top level of club football, as he is due to move to New York City F.C. next season for handsome financial reward. Typically though, Pirlo has graciously accepted the Italian national team's plea to continue bossing their midfield in their efforts to qualify for Euro 2016. Any discerning fan, if asked which footballer they would most like to be, would say Pirlo.
We will not see the likes of Xavi and Pirlo again; it saddens me that this will be their last hurrah on the grand stage, but really this is a night to celebrate two of the greatest players of the era. That, to me, is what this final is all about.
Cult: People do know there are more players than Lionel Messi on the pitch today right? To echo the sentiment of what Mav said a moment ago, it's almost ridiculous how much press Messi is getting, as if he's become the LeBron James of football. Look, Messi is absolutely great. Whether he's the best player I've ever seen in football or not is up for debate, but there's no doubt he's an otherworld talent and he may just be the best player alive right now. But my goodness, there's going to be more to this game than that people. Barcelona is loaded with talented players from top to bottom. Juventus are no slouches either, as seen by the fact that they toppled the ultra talented Real Madrid to get here. No disrespect to Messi at all, but he's simply getting way too much play here. Is it just Mav and I who are noticing it?
Maverick: Italian football, over the years, has been known for producing (and attracting) the best defensive players in the world. Juve did a number on Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema in both legs of the semi-final, reducing some of the greatest attacking talent in the world to frustrated bystanders. The question is, can they do the same to Barca's gang of three, Messi, Suarez and Neymar? Key hard man Giorgio Chiellini is out of the final, but replacement centre half Andrea Barzagli is actually a better technical footballer, which is a key quality when facing up to the quick feet of those three Barcelona forwards. The problem with Messi is that you can have him contained for an entire game and then lose him in one moment of brilliance, but if Juve execute their game plan effectively, they may be prepared to legislate for that, thinking that Tevez and Morata on the break could well get them a couple of goals of their own. All in all, I think we'll see Juve approach this game in much the same way as they did the Real games; chase everything, press hard, defend deep but break quickly through Pogba and Vidal, set free by Pirlo's passing range. It's not quite like Jose Mourinho "parking the bus" with Chelsea on occasion; Juventus are a very good attacking side and I doubt they will restrain themselves completely, though they will certainly be more cautious than Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich were in their thriller of a semi-final with Barca. Juventus' nous and spirit against Barcelona's pure football; it should make for a compelling game.
Juventus Player to Watch
Cult: Carlos Tevez. If Buffon isn't going to be on his game today (which I'd be shocked by, considering the circumstances), Juventus is going to have to score to keep up, something they did have issue against Real Madrid in the last leg of the semi-final. Tevez, the Argentinean striker and former Manchester United and Manchester City standout, is the best offensive player they have. He scored 20 goals over 32 caps this year, including the game winner against Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final, and also led Juventus with assists. He may not have the skill or the flash of the Barcelona players, but he clearly knows how to put the ball in the back of the net. If Juventus is to win this game, they don't just need Buffon and great midfield play, but a goal from Tevez as well.
Maverick: If you watched Chile's thrilling brand of football at the World Cup last summer, you'll know all about Arturo Vidal. If you don't, make sure you watch him closely this evening. He's an absolutely brilliant all round central midfield player who can do a bit of everything. He's strong in the tackle, pacey, has a great range of passing, chips in with vital goals and has an insatiable will to win. A Chilean Steven Gerrard, if you like. Vidal's spirit and drive will be vital to Juve as they seek to topple Barca. Questionable haircut, however!
Barcelona Player to Watch
Cult: Neymar. I know, how dare I pick the flop king right? The thing is, even if Messi plays to expectations, someone else is going to have to step up on that Barcelona front line. And Neymar, at least in my opinion, is a quicker, deadlier forward than Luis Suarez, though Suarez is exceptional himself when he's not Mike Tysoning opponents. In short, if Neymar continues to play in synch with Messi and Suarez like he did against Bayern Munich, this is a potential cake walk. If he starts acting like the dude who faked getting hit by a truck in Slackers, that's a whole other story. And with that, rejoice in the first ever reference to the film Slackers in a Champions League preview. Somewhere, Devon Sawa is fist pumping while watching Idle Hands yet again.
Maverick: No matter who he's playing for, you just cannot take your eyes off Luis Suarez. For me, he's one of the most compelling players to watch I have ever seen, a restless, bug eyed assassin, ready to pounce on the slightest opportunity. His pace, his strength, his unerring finishing, the fact that he scores all sorts of different goals, he really is a huge loss to the Premier League and a huge gain for La Liga. If Juve pay too much attention to Messi, they may well find Suarez picking their pocket instead. On the other hand, the hot tempered Uruguayan might get himself sent off! You just never know with him.
Cult: I'm actually going to go out on a limb and say we're not getting any goals through regulation AND extra time, leading us to the devious bastard known as penalty kicks. And with Buffon patrolling the net and looking for the one thing that's eluded him, I think Juventus takes it in PK's 5-4. I certainly understand that Barcelona is an offensive juggernaut and that Juventus is, well, not. I'm totally prepared to admit defeat tomorrow if they thrash Juventus 5-1 on the strength of four Messi goals. But I like Juventus' defense, I like Buffon, and I like the motivation they'll have from their underdog narrative. I think that's enough for their defense to frustrate Barcelona during regulation, and cause one of the players to choke in PK's. Imagine if it were Messi? The poor bastard would suddenly go from greatest ever to M. Night Shyamalan.
Maverick: I have had a soft spot for Juve since I was a kid; they've always been my favourite Italian team, and their run to the final of the Champions League has been a pleasure to experience. If anyone can stop Barca, I think it's probably them right now, if only because the team play with such verve and passion, but I fear that the Catalan Club's rich vein of attacking riches may prove too much in the end. I would predict a 2-1 Barca win after extra time.
There you have it guys! Special thanks to Maverick for helping me out with this one. Your loss Mazza! I'll be back later today with, finally, a review of Mad Max: The Road Warrior. Should be a good one! Till then, watch the Champions League final, read Requesting Flyby on the Lords of Pain main page and once again, watch the bloody Champions League final. Here's some exciting goals to get pumped up about it!