Leonardo Bonucci asked for it, and Ian Rush delivered.
As the former Liverpool and Juventus striker helped complete the draw for the Champions League quarterfinals in Nyon on Friday, his selections provided a rematch of the competition’s 2015 Final.
In that encounter, Barcelona ran out 3-1 winners, completely outplaying the Bianconeri side for a five minute spell in the second half.
“We’ve reached the last eight in Europe, and now it’s up to us to improve again,” Bonucci told Sky Italia earlier in the week when asked who he’d like to face. “What excites me most is Barcelona, they pulled off a great comeback against PSG and it’d be a big motivation to meet the team which beat us in the final two years ago.”
The Catalan giants have been incredible for some time, but Luis Enrique has already announced his decision to walk away from the club at the end of the current campaign. That will draw a line under a tenure that has already seen the Coach steer the Blaugrana to eight trophies in just three years, with the prospect of more to come before it ends.
With the MSN frontline of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar firing in the goals and Andres Iniesta still pulling the strings in midfield, the team now simply an older version of the one that defeated Juve at the Olympiastadion in Berlin.
Ten of the starting XI from the last time these two teams met remain regulars under Enrique, but his opposite number Max Allegri will send out a very different version of the Old Lady on April 11. Rebuilt, rejuvenated and refreshed, nine of the 14 players who contested the 2015 showpiece have since moved on, the club’s supporters hoping that the result will be equally changed in their favour.
But are Juve better?
“Without wanting to take anything away from previous seasons, this is possibly the best Juventus team I’ve played in,” Andrea Barzagli said earlier this week. Can that be true after so many high-profile stars left Turin? Whisper it quietly, but it just might be.
The previous meeting came at the height of the BBC’s dominance, the three-man defence of Barzagli, Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini providing the foundation upon which Juventus’ recent cycle was first built.
In the buildup to that last clash however, Chiellini was injured and Allegri was forced to deploy a four-man backline instead. That is now their favoured setup, making them much better suited for Champions League games and, after three seasons of switching back and forth, the players are far more used to it.
Bonucci has blossomed into arguably the continent’s best defender over the last 18 months, while Alex Sandro is undoubtedly now among the elite left-backs in the game. That was definitely not true of Patrice Evra two years ago, while Dani Alves – the one player from Barca’s starting XI to have moved on – provides experience and insight on the opposite flank.
Throw in the presence of reserves Medhi Benatia and Daniele Rugani rather than Martin Caceres and Angelo Ogbonna, the improvement becomes impossible to ignore.
You’re about to say “yes but Gigi Buffon is now 39 years old.” Save your breath.
Yes, the Bianconeri skipper is older and at the very end of his career, but he has simply not declined in any way over the last five years, a man who is arguably the best to ever pull on the gloves remains incredibly consistent.
He provides a guarantee and transmits a calm, positive presence whose intangible value to his team is every bit as valuable as his superb shot-stopping skills remain. Yet as good as this side is at the back, it is no longer its defining department, with the system ahead of them now much more deep and versatile.
Less stars, more quality
In midfield, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba have all gone, but now Allegri only picks two of Miralem Pjanić, Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio. He has weapons like wingers Juan Cuadrado and Marko Pjaca at his disposal, a facet to this squad that simply did not exist in the previous meeting and their ability to stretch the field and attack in wide areas.
In attack, the cutting edge of Alvaro Morata and Carlos Tevez has been supplanted by Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala. With Serie A’s record single-season goal scorer and a player who has already been tipped as a future Ballon d’Or winner, there is a case to be made that the new duo are better, and this game provides a perfect opportunity to make their case.
The same is true for this whole team, but Higuain and Dybala have all the tools to succeed at this elite level, and – particularly with Gerard Pique suspended for the first leg at Juventus Stadium – they now have a perfect stage upon which to prove that.
That was something that predecessors Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet did against the same opponent back in 2003. Pippo Inzaghi and Zinedine Zidane had been sold to create space for that young strike partnership, which responded by firing the Bianconeri all the way to the final.
Can Higuain, Dybala and Pjanić emulate the feats of Trezeguet, Del Piero and Nedved rather than fall by the wayside like Morata, Tevez and Vidal? That remains to be seen, but Gianluca Zambrotta – who played for both clubs – certainly believes they can do it, as he explained in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Juve are different to two years ago, improving both in personnel and mentality. Allegri knows that,” the 2006 World Cup winner said. “Juve want to make that step up in Europe and to do that they need to overcome obstacles like Barcelona. They are ready and have everything it takes to win.”
We’re about to find out if he is right.