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Barcelona vs. Juventus: 2015 Champions League final preview

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Can Lionel Messi lead Barcelona to another treble, or is this Champions League final the game where Paul Pogba cements his status as one of the sport's greatest players, helping Juventus to a treble of their own? (Saturday, 2:45 p.m., FOX).

Spare a thought for those we have lost. All around the world, on hard drives and floating in the cloud, are hundreds upon thousands of words hyping up the first-ever Clásico Champions League final. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid! Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo! The pinnacle of modern foot ... wait, hang on, Juventus have equalized. Oh dear. Er, does this fixture even have a name?

Probably not. Nor does it have a precedent: despite their shared status as continental big beasts, these two have somehow managed never to contest a European Cup final. They've come close -- Michel Platini's Juventus contested the 1983 and 1985 final, then Terry Venables took Barcelona there the following year; Johan Cruyff's Dream Team made the final in 1992 and 1994, then Marcello Lippi's Juve made three consecutive finals between 1996 and 1998 -- but have never shared the the biggest European stage of them all. So whatever happens this Saturday, we're guaranteed something historic.

Something surprising, too, at least for those of you who can remember the beginning of the season. As things got going, neither of these two sides were expected to make it this far. Nor were these managers. The appointment of Massimiliano Allegri, recently despised and deposed of AC Milan, to follow three-time title winner Antonio Conte was greeted with incredulity by plenty of Juventus fans and amusement across much of the rest of Italy. Now, with Allegri having made the progress in Europe that his predecessor couldn't, it's only the Juventini that are laughing.

Meanwhile, over in Catalonia, Luis Enrique spent the first few months of the season plunging his team into crisis and driving Messi toward the welcoming arms of PSG/Manchester City/Manchester United/Chelsea (delete according to the day of the week). Back-to-back losses against Real Madrid and Celta Vigo were greeted with the sound of sharpening knives. He then decided to pick all of his good players at the same time, told everybody else to pass them the ball as quickly as possible and spent the rest of the season overseeing the most terrifying front line in world football as Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez shared over a hundred goals between them.

The potency of that front line means that Barcelona must start as considerable favorites. They've failed to score in precisely five games this seasons, and have been kept to one goal in just eight more. And while Juventus can boast a stronger defense than most of La Liga, it will still be faintly remarkable if the Old Lady keeps her onion bag empty. My, that nickname does take you to some odd places.

Luckily for the game as a spectacle, they're pretty strong everywhere else, too. Up front, Carlos Tevez -- a manic honey badger of a forward -- stands as good a chance as anybody of discomfiting Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, but it's the midfield that promises the meatiest contest. The hyperactive Arturo Vidal versus the equally dynamic Ivan Rakitic. World's greatest-in-waiting Paul Pogba versus soft-shoed angel Andres Iniesta. Possession fetishist Sergio Busquets versus Andrea Pirlo, a player who is certainly descending the wrong side of the hill, but remains one of the best passers of a football around.

No matter. We're going to go out on a limb here and suggest that what we've ended up with -- despite the lack of a catchy nickname -- is, as a final, better than any Clásico would have been, and not just because the Messi vs. Ronaldo argument is among the more tedious ways to waste a life. Hype is one thing, quality another, and with nods of acknowledgment in the direction of Munich, West London and Paris, these are the two sides that have had the best seasons across the continent. It's always pleasing when a final reflects that, and as both have already racked up league and cup, what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a treble-off. Yes, that's a real word. No, you shut up.

Projected Barcelona lineup (4-3-3):

GK Marc-André ter Stegen; LB Jordi Alba, CB Gerard Piqué, CB Javier Mascherano, RB Dani Alves; DM Sergio Busquets, CM Ivan Rakitić, CM Andrés Iniesta; LF Neymar, ST Luis Súarez, RF Lionel Messi

There are few potentially surprising elements about Barcelona. Sure, they might switch the starting positions of Messi and Suarez, or occasionally drop Alba for a more defensive left back, but Enrique doesn't make massive adjustments frequently. And ultimately, why would he? Barcelona have the best, most well-balanced starting XI in the world. He doesn't need to re-invent the wheel.

Messi, Suarez and Neymar make up a sensational front line that no one has found an answer for yet. They took a few months to figure out how to work together, but they've developed excellent chemistry and become extremely unselfish. If they have any flaw -- and this is a massive reach -- it's that they occasionally make one pass too many. They look like they're even more interested in setting each other up than they are in scoring goals.

Barca's midfield is, somewhat surprisingly, headlined by Rakitic. He looked like a smart depth purchase in the summer, but he's upped his game after a fantastic couple of seasons at Sevilla. In a team that has so much of the ball, and with so much talent surrounding him, Rakitic has finally been able to show off his full range of skills. He was never going to be able to replace Xavi, but he hasn't really tried. He's a tireless runner and his work rate has allowed Busquets to be more of a pure holder, never out of position, rather than someone who occasionally has to cover for Xavi. Iniesta has become a bit more of a deep-lying playmaker, while Suarez acts as more of an advanced playmaker than Alexis Sanchez or Pedro -- who were more or less pure poachers as Barca starters -- ever did.

The Blaugrana's defensive personnel is virtually unchanged from last year, but they've improved immensely. Through some combination of a more solid midfield in front of them, better goalkeepers behind them and Mascherano getting more experience at center back, the Barca back line looks like one truly worthy of winning the Champions League. It's been a resurgent season for Pique, who looks like one of the world's top central defenders again, while Alves and Alba are the best pair of attacking fullbacks in the sport.

ter Stegen isn't quite Gianluigi Buffon, but the 23-year-old has had an excellent first season as Barca's cup and Champions League keeper. He's just as brave off his line as their departed long-time goalkeeper Victor Valdes, but probably a better decision-maker in that respect, and a more prolific shot-stopper to boot.

Projected Juventus lineup (4-4-2 diamond):

GK Gianluigi Buffon; LB Patrice Evra, CB Andrea Barzagli, CB Leonardo Bonucci, RB Stephan Lichtsteiner; DM Andrea Pirlo, CM Paul Pogba, CM Claudio Marchisio, AM Arturo Vidal; ST Carlos Tevez, ST Álvaro Morata

Few of the top teams in Europe are as tactically versatile as Juventus, with Allegri frequently switching between three and four men in defense depending on the match situation. The former is the much more negative approach, meaning we've only tended to see it in the latter stages of matches throughout Juve's Champions League campaign so far. That's probably a good thing: in increasing the number of center back, it reduces the control the Bianconeri have in midfield, meaning they can struggle to keep the ball for prolonged periods. We'll hopefully only see this strategy enacted if Juve are winning late in the match.

That means we can expect to see them line up with a back four and a midfield diamond; a tactic reliant on the industry of its midfielders, who have to shuttle across the width of the pitch to ensure their opponents can't capitalize on their greater width. Fortunately, Juve have plenty of energy in the engine room, with their two outside midfielders necessarily covering an awful lot of ground. In this game Pogba will be one of those midfielders, with the second being either Marchisio or Vidal, depending on whether Allegri decides to push the latter into an attacking midfield slot. If not, Roberto Pereyra will likely get the nod over Marchisio in the attacking midfield role.

At the heart of Juve's midfield will be the unmistakeable Pirlo: the 36-year-old passing maestro who dictates the play from deep on the field. He's not quick or particularly strong, but his ability to glide away from markers to pick the killer pass has ensured he's kept his reputation as one of the planet's best playmakers. On what could well be his last shot at lifting this trophy for a third time, he'll be as crucial as ever.

When on the ball, Juventus' attacking width will be provided by the attack-minded fullbacks Lichtsteiner and Evra, who will flank Allegri's most trusted center backs, Bonucci and Barzagli, who should deputize for the injured Giorgio Chiellini. Should they have to switch to a back three at some point during the game, expect to see Angelo Ogbonna brought on in place of a midfielder.

Up top, Allegri will certainly start with his preferred strike force of Morata and Tevez. The former has enjoyed a breakthrough season in Turin after joining from Real Madrid last season, so much so that whispers are already suggesting that Los Merengues could well activate a clause to bring him back to the Spanish capital. He's scored four crucial goals for the Bianconeri in their Champions League knockout games, and will look to take advantage of the energy of his strike partner to do so again. Tevez is now 31 years old, but is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career.  There's just about nothing he can't do, whether it's beating a man for pace and skill or lashing the ball home from 30 yards. He remains one of the most technically skilled players on the planet, and is the man Barcelona will be most anxious about keeping quiet.

Last but certainly not least, a word for Juve's goalkeeper and captain, Buffon. The timeless 37-year-old is one of the greatest goalkeepers in footballing history, yet in over 700 professional appearances -- and over 500 for Juve -- he's never lifted the Champions League trophy. If this was a just world he'd rectify that this year. Alas, it isn't, so he'll have to be on the top of his game.

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Key matchups

1. Conservative Juventus vs. aggressive Juventus

Under Allegri, Juventus have tended to flip between two styles that, while different in their end approach, hold enough tactical similarities that make it easy for them to switch back and forth with the way their squad is built. Each method has different strengths, though, and it's not exactly clear which will be the best approach to use against Barcelona.

Do they go with a more aggressive approach, pressing high and driving forward with a more concerted attacking effort, as they did against Real Madrid? It worked out wonderfully for them in the Champions League semifinals, causing a huge upset and getting them this place in the final. So why not stick with what works? Playing with that kind of spark and gumption made for some very attractive football from the Italians, and it caught Madrid completely off guard and unprepared for what they were facing. They've also had some of their best matches in Serie A this past season playing this way, so it makes sense to continue on with that style, right?

Well, maybe not -- Barcelona are a different animal. Different enough that it might require bringing out the more conservative side of Juventus for one more match. Sitting a little deeper, not being so aggressive on the ball and patiently waiting for opportunities to get forward in the counter is something this side is good at. With players like Tevez, Vidal, Pogba and Pirlo in the side, Juventus have got the capability for moments of individual brilliance to turn the game on its head, even if they are playing a bit more "defensively." Even if they're derided as playing "typically dour Italian football" -- despite it being a style commonly used all around the world -- if playing more conservatively gets Juventus the Champions League trophy, isn't that all that matters?

It's a fine balancing act, so Allegri picking the right approach and figuring out how to minimize the dangers either pose to his side will be vital to the potential success of his Juventus side.

2. Sergio Busquets vs. Arturo Vidal

No matter how Juventus lines up their midfield, these two will be seeing a lot of each other. Arguably Juventus' best two-way midfielder, Vidal will be on the ball a lot, and when he's not, he'll either be looking to get into space to get the ball and create danger for Barcelona to deal with, or trying to disrupt what Barcelona's midfield is doing to attack Juventus. He's great at doing both things, which might just have something to do with him being considered one of the elite midfielders in the world.

Of course, Busquets is a pretty good midfielder in his own right. Generally thought of as one of the best defensive midfielders around, Busquets will be trying to keep Vidal at bay when Juventus have the ball. He should be able to do a good job of it, but that's not the only thing these two will be going head-to-head for. Busquets is a reliable presence for Barcelona's possession play, serving as an outlet when another midfielder or defender is under pressure, and operating as something of a reset point for Barcelona when an attack starts to break down. Vidal's defensive abilities mean that he's the one most likely to try to keep an eye on Busquets and keep pressure on him when Barcelona have the ball, trying to keep him off-kilter and hopefully throw Barcelona's attack off-balance with him.

This is a duel of two super-talented midfielders and it's going to be fun to watch these two go toe-to-toe.

3. Lionel Messi vs. Leonardo Bonucci

No matter how Juventus' defense or Barcelona's attack lines up, this matchup will be crucial to how the game unfolds. With Chiellini out, Bonucci should be on the left side of Juventus' center backs, and with how much Messi cuts in from the right, he will be the man who has to step up to stop Barca's No. 10. Of course, Messi is the best player in the world and riding a run of absolutely, mind-staggeringly awesome form, so that won't be easy.

Messi's pace and trickiness on the ball will be difficult for Bonucci to deal with. The Argentine forward also has a knack for finding blind spots in a defender's awareness of the field around him, seeming to pop up out of nowhere to receive the ball and score, though Bonucci's best attribute is his tactical awareness. The Italian defender is going to have to be better than he's ever been before if Juventus will have a chance at upsetting Barcelona.

What to watch for

Allegri's big tactical decisions will be in the center of midfield, where Vidal's positioning should tell you a lot about Juve's goals in the match and what they view as Barcelona's biggest threat. Vidal was effective as an attacking midfielder against Real Madrid, and he'll probably take up that role again. But it's possible Allegri wants Vidal deeper, putting pressure on Iniesta while protecting Pirlo. Pogba and Marchisio are capable of playing the more advanced role, and there's a possibility Marchisio could get dropped for hard-working advanced playmaker Pereyra or athletic central midfielder Stefano Sturaro. They've both been great for the Bianconeri in more limited minutes than their usual four starters, and no matter what team Juve starts with, they'll have a couple of excellent central options on their bench.

For Barcelona, keep an eye on Messi and Suarez's interchanging and who's occupying what spaces. They do a lot of swapping, but they've trended more toward Messi staying on the right and Suarez playing through the middle over the last couple of months. Teams haven't figured out how to stop Messi when he's cutting in from the right yet, but if Juve start to limit his effectiveness in that role, Barca might move Messi back into the middle.

Prediction

Vidal and Pogba are good enough players that, on their best day, they can wreck any opposing midfield and power their team to victory over a superior opponent. Discounting Juventus is not a reasonable thing to do. But this Barcelona side is one of the best in recent history, with the best group of forwards the world has ever seen. Juve are organized, and they can counter press, but the Blaugrana are just too good to lose this final. 3-1, Barcelona.