Strip away all the back-stories: Buffon and Pirlo back in Berlin where they won the World Cup; Suárez facing a tense re-match with Evra; Xavi’s last game for Barcelona – and what you get is your core story – Do you dare bet against Messi?’
Football, the ultimate team sport, is once again under his thumb.
Since January 4 this year Juve, as a squad, have scored 60 times in all three of their competitions.
Since January 4 Messi (below), alone, has scored 36 and given 14 goal assists – it’s completely remarkable.
He ripped up the Copa del Rey final last weekend with two beautiful goals and a clever part in the third.
When the big games arrive – so does Lionel Andrés.
One of my early interviews with him was Autumn 2006 when he was admitting that it had been a flash of temper which made him refuse to go down to the pitch in Paris and celebrate with his team mates after Barça beat Arsenal in the Champions League final.
Not being named in the match squad by Frank Rijkaard had absolutely infuriated him.
He closed that subject with a:
God willing I’ll be back to lift that trophy a few times in the future.
Well, he’s had the opportunity twice and in both 2009 and 2011 he took that opportunity by scoring past Edwin Van Der Sar twice.
Not a bad record. (Ex Juventus keeper Van Der Sar was 38 when he first conceded to Messi in a Champions League final, Gigi Buffon is 37).
But add this context. Messi has played in 23 ‘final’ matches for Barcelona – 12 ‘one-off’ finals and 11 other ‘home-and-away’ finals. 23 matches … 20 Messi goals. Of those 18 finals he’s only lost three.
And it might guide you to know that the only one-game finals Barcelona have lost with Messi in their side are the ones where he hasn’t scored – the 2006 Spanish Supercup and the Spanish Copa finals of 2011 and 2014.
Stop Messi and you have a chance – that’s the message.
Big game Hunter
During 2015 he’s shown his big-game mentality. Goals home and away against the reigning champions – Atlético. Goals in key matches against Valencia, Sevilla, Athletic and the Catalan derby with Espanyol plus a nifty assist for the first goal against Madrid in the Clásico.
Notwithstanding all that – IF you want to oppose him, oppose Barça, then perhaps there’s a gentle hint.
He’s gone from having scored eight in six Champions League games during the 2014 group stage to having scored twice in six games in the 2015 knock-out matches.
Okay – he was just stunning despite not scoring in the home win over Manchester City. And the two he did get, plus an assist, were in the epic 3-0 semi-final win over Bayern.
But, figure it as you wish, there’s been a drop-off in him hitting the net in the Champions League this calendar year.
Juve never done this before
So, how do you rate the test that lies in front of him?
He’s never played Juventus competitively, never played Italy either. Thus it is that despite he and Buffon having played well over 1500 competitive club and international matches between them they’ve never gone toe-to-toe.
Who wins – the good big one or the great little one? Lucky it’s not boxing. Might Buffon (above) in any way intimidate Messi – it’s not so ludicrous?
Messi’s penalty misses tend to come against keepers he thinks loom large in the goal. Something he once told me about Abbiatti at Milan.
No case for the defence
Speaking of Milan, Messi’s faced the defensive strategies of Juve coach Maxi Allegri eight times in the Champions League when he’s been in charge of the Rossoneri. Eight times, eight goals.
Where else might there be some fun? I pointed out last week that Barcelona have just begun to drift a little from nearly an entire season of excellence defending set plays or the ball into the box from open play.
But conceding like that to Bayern, Deportivo La Coruña and now Athletic [Iñaki Williams] in the Copa final tends to indicate that this is where Juve will surely concentrate. Pogba, Vidal, Morata all look like goalscorer candidates for the Italians.
Of the two golden veterans, Pirlo (above) and Xavi, only the Italian is sure to start. But is Iniesta fully fit after his calf problem? Might Xavi get some game time? Probably, yes.
Pirlo scoring a direct free kick ain’t the daftest idea, Pirlo perhaps winning the MVP [if there’s a market on that] isn’t outright crazy.
Xavi said last week:
I adore watching Pirlo play, we’ve been facing each other for club and country since we were kids.
They’ll probably be playing together in Qatar from next season.
So, Xavi? (below) Well he has a remarkable record.
Goal assists in each of the two Champions League finals in which he’s played. A goal assist in each of the two European Championship Finals in which he’s played.
A goal and a goal-assist in two of this three Copa Finals against Athletic Bilbao, a goal against Juventus the last time they faced each other, a goal assist in the World Cup semi final, a goal and an assist in the World Club Cup final.
If he’s on the pitch at any stage on Saturday night then you might want to back him as an anytime goalscorer.
This is quite possibly Barcelona’s tightest final since Sampdoria took them to extra-time in 1992.
I reckon both teams to score. Then either 2-1 Barcelona or 2-2 and penalties. But if Messi wants it, if Messi performs – don’t back against him. It’s that simple.
Graham’s best bets: