KEIR RADNEDGE in BERLIN —- Favourites Barcelona secured their third Champions League triumph in six years by eventually seeing off Juventus 3-1 in a UEFA Champions League Final which provided a welcome respite on the pitch to 10 days off it dominated by governing confusion and alleged criminality.
Goals from Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suarez and Neymar wiped away Juve’s hopes of marking the 30th anniversary of the Heysel disaster with a success against the odds. The Italians were briefly on terms through Alvaro Morata early in the second half but Barcelona’s overwhelming class and creative brilliance crowned them worthy champions of Europe.
This has been the Catalans’ era even if they have yet to break the jinx that no club has ever won the Champions League, in its modern incarnation, two seasons in a row. They posses all the attributes though they will defend the crown next season without their long-serving general Xavi who emerged from the subs’ bench late in the game and to carry off the cup before heading to Al Sadd in Qatar.
Juventus, in the cold light of day, will realise that they had exceeded expectations in not only reaching the final – eliminating holders Real Madrid in the semi-final – but then in surviving two exhilarating bursts of Barcelona wizardry at the start of each half. In the end resilience was not enough but then, it never could be on the big occasion against any team with an attacking triumvirate such as Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar,
No surprises in the team line-ups as Juventus and Barcelona squared up, each in pursuit of a seasonal treble having won their own domestic league titles and national cups.
Juve missed the injured Giorgio Chiellini in the heart of defence so no renewal of hostilities with Suarez while Barcelona started veteran captain Xavi on the bench, preferring Rakitic and Andres Iniesta – fit after a muscle strain in the Spanish cup final win over Bilbao to flank the anchor operations of Sergi Busquets.
Indeed, there was more experience on the pitch than on the bench. Four Barcelona players were seeking a fourth Champions League but both their own Luis Enrique and Milan boss Max Allegri were confronting this specific challenge for the first time.
Perversely then it was Rakitic who sidefooted Barcelona ahead with little more than three minutes on the clock. Neymar mesmerised the Juve defence on the left then slipped the ball inside for Iniesta who squared with the outside of his right foot and Rakitic emerged unmarked between penalty spot and goal area to sidefoot calmly beyond the diving Buffon’s outflung left hand.
With the exception of Luis Suarez all the other nine Barcelona outfield players contributed to the move which brought the goal.
Juve did manage one brief raid, which saw Arturo Vidal fire an angled drive over the bar, but otherwise the early stages were all Barcelona and their finely-tuned determination of movement and imagination.
Neymar shot just too high and Dani Alves had a snap-shot palmed away by Buffon who had been going the wrong way. The Catalans might even have had a penalty when Stephan Lichtsteiner blocked a Neymar cross between forearm and thigh.
Vidal, otherwise, risked the wrath of Barcelona and referee Cuneyt Cakir with a hat-trick of badly-timed tackles which drew the final’s first yellow card.
Still, as the game settled down so Barcelona failed to find the ‘killer’ second goal and Juventus, having emerged from initial hurricane at a cost of only one goal, began to find their own attacking feet.
Alvaro Morata, almost taken by surprise, swept a half-chance softly wide of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s right-hand post then Claudio Marchisio thumped a ferocious straight drive narrowly over the bar.
As the first half ran on so Messi and Suarez grew impatient at the failure to build on such an explosive start.
Messi on the prowl
Suarez rolled one shot just wide of Buffon’s right-hand post then brought a save from the Juve captain at the expense of a corner. Messi, doubtless to Juve coach Allegri’s consternation, began to drift off the right wing in search of the ball and launch some of his characteristic darts into the opposition defence. Predictably he was fouled, with Paul Pogba collecting the yellow card for a desperate trip.
Barcelona could have killed off the game within three minutes of the start of the second half. Juventus had forced a corner only for Rakitic to break at speed then lay off the ball perfectly for Suarez whose low drive was brilliantly turned aside for corner by Buffon. Now, it was non-stop Barca. Suarez lashed a shot high and wide then Messi exchanged passes with Neymar and Suarez and pulled his own drive just wide of goal.
It was remarkable that Juve were still in the game.
Yet not only were they still in it but they equalised nine minutes into the second half. A deft backheel from Claudio Marchisio allowed to Lichsteiner and when Tevez’s shot, on the turn, was saved by ter Stegen, Morata was on hand to fire home from close range.
Suddenly Juve had their tails up but the exuberance left them exposed at the back. In the 67th minute they broke again at speed, Rakitic fed Messi who ran at the Juve defence, unleashed a low drive which Buffon could only push away and Suarez followed though for his seventh goal in his last 10 games.
They might have had a third almost immediately but Neymar deflected his fine header into goal off his own outstretched arm.
The Brazilian was not to be denied for long. In the last minute of stoppage time he ran away with time and space and the scoreline reflected more realistically the gap between the teams: admirable runners-up but overwhelmingly deserved champions.
As a postscript came a champion touch from their fans, chanting the name of Juve’s veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo. Acknowledgment of a worthy foe but also, of course, a beaten one.
Barcelona 3 (Rakitic 4, Suarez 68, Neymar 90)
Juventus 1 (Morata 55)
HT: 1-0. Att: 70,442. Ref: Cakir (Tur)
Barcelona: ter Stegen – Dani Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Jordi Alba – Rakitic (Mathieu 90), Busquets, Iniesta (Xavi 78) – Messi, Suarez (Pedro 90), Neymar, Coach: Luis Enrique.
Juventus: Buffon – Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Bonucci, Evra (Coman 89) – Marchisio, Pirlo, Pogba – Vidal (Pereyra 79) – Tevez, Morata (Llorente 85). Coach: Allegri.