The reigning Champions League runner-up and the last dethroned Champions League winner meet in a heavyweight tie that serves as a welcome early season test for two of Europe’s footballing giants.
Barcelona versus Juventus is a sumptuous manner in which to kickoff the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League group stages. From here on out, European nights mean no mid-week let off, especially for the big clubs in Europe, and Barcelona and Juventus are still as big as they come.
Despite the embarrassment of not landing clearly identified targets in the summer transfer window, Barcelona cruised to three relatively easy victories to launch its La Liga campaign, including a 5-0 thrashing of city rival Espanyol on Saturday where Lionel Messi grabbed a hat-trick.
Tuesday’s match at the Camp Nou could further prove that the rumors of Barcelona’s death have been greatly exaggerated. What remains of Barcelona is more than Messi standing on a pile of ashes. The Catalan club is in the early stages of a transformation on the sidelines and on the pitch, but of course, Messi remains. And the first half of that thrashing of Espanyol even saw Gerard Delefeu involved with Barcelona hypnotizing the ball into jumping into the back of Espanyol’s net.
On Tuesday against Juventus, one player that should earn a fair bit of attention, and deservedly so, is Paulinho.
The 29-year-old acts as a strong and athletic central midfielder whenever he turns up for the Brazilian national team and is almost guaranteed to feature for the Selecao at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Failure at White Hart Lane prior to a move to China, though, simmered expectations and have created an attitude of notable indifference towards what should truly be considered a vital signing for the team and the season.
Undeniably, Barcelona needed to bolster its midfield, and Paulinho’s arrival helped directly address that weakness. The Brazilian joined Barcelona after the club triggered a release clause and made the former Corinthians man the fourth-most expensive signing in Barcelona’s history. Ousmane Dembele would later push Paulinho down to fifth, but the point remains that a successful season for Paulinho would signal a successful season for Barcelona.
Against Juventus, the Catalans should look to control the middle of the park at home against a resourceful, well-disciplined side that understands the value of gaining a point at the Camp Nou. Paulinho faces a stern test almost immediately, and given his price tag, one should find no reason not to toss him into the deep end.
Juventus, as a reminder, held Barcelona scoreless for 180 minutes, largely by dominating that middle of the park.
And Juventus faced its own Neymar situation of sorts earlier in the summer. Leonardo Bonucci, who had been the best defender on the black and white back line for half a decade, traded his white stripes for red ones as he forced a move to AC Milan. At age 30, Bonucci did not draw the same quarter billion dollar transfer fee as Neymar, and the move within Serie A didn’t generate nearly the same level of mainstream hubbub, but the impact of the Italian champions and Champions League runner-ups losing the best defender in Italy should not be taken lightly.
Facing Barcelona is a test for a new-look Juventus back line that will most likely feature 23-year-old Daniele Rugani. Rugani has started all three Serie A fixtures to start the campaign, and Juventus picked up a 3-0 clean sheet victory against Chievo on Saturday with the young native of Lucca, Italy in the lineup.
Notably, Paulo Dybala scored for Juventus on the weekend, just as he scored two of the three goals that knocked Barcelona out of Europe this past April. Another 23-year-old, the native Argentinian is already a star in Serie A, and his running mate and compatriot Gonzalo Higuain is the best pure striker on Europe’s boot-shaped peninsula. The Old Lady has won the past six Scudetti, so she will be fine, but losing a player like Bonucci at the heart of the back line begins a new era in Turin.
The challenge of defending Messi should provide a fascinating backdrop to Tuesday’s Champions League debut for young Rugani. Dembele should earn his first start for the Catalan club to mark the occasion as well, as a new trident to replace Messi-Suarez-Neymar is formed, with no official acronym agreed upon just yet. In countless ways for both clubs, Tuesday serves as an important, necessary early test to set the first real marker of the new season.
Zooming out for a moment, both Juventus and Barcelona have won their opening three matches and claim the top spots of Serie A and La Liga, respectively. In fact, Barcelona has not yet allowed a goal, and Juventus has outscored its opponents 10-2.
Despite losing key components over the summer, Barcelona and Juventus, as always, remain two of the top contenders in Europe. On Tuesday, both clubs test the fresh waters of the new European season and splash into a fascinating match involving unquestionably two of the best teams on the planet. For both teams, it’s sink or swim time.