Juventus reaches Champions League final as Morata haunts Real Madrid
Barcelona will play Juventus in the Champions League final in Berlin on June 6 after the Italian champion drew 1-1 with Real Madrid to pull off an upset in the second semifinal and eliminate the defending champion.
Cristiano Ronaldo had put the host side ahead from the penalty spot in the first half and had other opportunities to increase its lead. Instead, former Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata scored for Juventus early in the second half. Madrid could not force its way back into the side and for the third season running, this tournament has a surprise side in the final.
Here is what stood out from a surprise conclusion of the semifinals at the Bernabeu:
Morata comes back to haunt Madrid
When Real Madrid sold Alvaro Morata to Juventus last summer, it wanted a clause forbidding the Spanish forward from facing it if the two sides faced each other in European competition. Juventus, helped by UEFA, put its foot down. And just as Fernando Morientes scored the goal that knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League semifinal back in 2004, Morata did the same at the Bernabeu.
Morata has said he felt unwanted under coach Carlo Ancelotti last season in Madrid, but if he felt any sense of vengeance, he hid it well. He did not celebrate after scoring last week in Turin, and it was the same again when his goal, a shot that seemed to go straight through Iker Casillas when, from Paul Pogba's header, he seemed to have all the time in the world to shoot.
Madrid pushed forward in search of another goal, but it was Juventus who could have killed the game off. Casillas did well to stop Claudio Marchisio in a one-on-one and, late on, he kept out a powerful shot from Pogba from close range. On the other side, Gigi Buffon barely had a save to make after Morata's devastating strike.
Morata had options from other clubs in Spain and England last summer but was impressed by how much Juventus had wanted him. "They literally came to my house," he told Onda Cero radio station. And so the story of this season has a twist: Real Madrid spent nearly £200 million on its front three players, and gets knocked out by a player it developed from the age of 16. That's modern football, Real Madrid-style, for you.
Bale's struggles put him in the spotlight
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Gareth Bale could do no wrong in Madrid. He scored one of the goals of the season in winning the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona and scored the eventual Champions League winner in the final against Atlético Madrid. Against Juventus, though, it could not have gone worse for the world's most expensive player. Jeered over the weekend, and not helped by his agent's ill-timed complaint that no one passes to him, Bale missed a succession of chances that will haunt him over the summer.
The first was after just 35 seconds, when he headed over Marcelo's cross at the far post. Twenty minutes later, he created his own shooting opportunity, stinging the Buffon's palms of with a curling 30-yard shot. Just before halftime, his vision created another chance as his wonderful cross-field pass released Ronaldo, whose shot flew into the side-netting. At that stage, Madrid was ahead and Bale's occasional moments of danger and profligacy deserved no more than passing mention.
Once Morata had leveled things up though, and Madrid was chasing the game, the impact of Bale's misses became more poignant. When he was up against Evra on the wing, he took a heavy touch and the ball rolled out of play. That's when the first jeers started. Soon after, Bale whipped a left-footed shot just wide of the post, then came his best opportunity of all. Another cross from the left, hanging up at the far post, and from close range, with the height advantage on Evra, Bale headed over. Again.
It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Bale; the more he tried, the harder it all looked. And yet Spanish media are not so sympathetic. El Pais, for example, has reported that Luka Modric is the only teammate with whom he socializes.
Bale's agent did not need to increase the pressure on him before the game. His comments ensured that he did, and this time, Bale did not deliver on the big stage. A heavy post-mortem will now follow, and it won't be pleasant for the Welshman.
On Ancelotti and the final
And so the wait goes on for a team to successfully defend its Champions League title. AC Milan in 1989 and 1990 was the last team to win back to back European cups–it was a side for which Carlo Ancelotti played–and Madrid's wait for la undecima, its eleventh European championship, continues.
There might be a silver lining for Ancelotti, even if it may not feel like that right now. The only thing worse than losing a semifinal is losing a final to your bitter rival, and had Real Madrid lost to Barcelona in Berlin, then that would have drawn even a stronger wrath. As it is, the likelihood is that he will leave Madrid this summer, and any club who gets him will be very lucky. Manchester City might want him, as might AC Milan.
As for the Madrid job, perhaps Jurgen Klopp or Rafa Benitez can expect a call, should there be vacancy.
And what about the final? For neutrals, I think it will be a better game than another all-Spanish affair. These two teams last met in 2003, so there is not the sense of familiarity that we have had in the last two same-league finals. We also avoid the Messi-Ronaldo final countdown; both are great players, but reducing such marvelous teams to individual talent is reductive.
Ronaldo, though, had an off night here. In the second half he was barely involved; to his credit, it was Bale more than Ronaldo who was looking to make things happen.
And the final has its own twists and sub-plots, not least Luis Suárez facing up to former nemeses Patrice Evra and Giorgio Chiellini. Not to mention Messi versus Carlos Tevez, two Argentine strikers who are not the best of friends. They polarize opinion in Argentina, where Tevez is seen as authentic and Messi as European. Barcelona may well have preferred to face Madrid in Berlin. Better the devil you know.