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Barcelona Beats Juventus, But Neither Appears Anywhere Close to Champions League Contention

A first of two meetings between the European giants showcased how far they have to go and not what they're capable of achieving on the game's brightest stage.

No president, no problem. Those seeking symbols of a brave new world for Barcelona after the resignation of Josep Bartomeu on Tuesday will perhaps find it in the club's first victory at Juventus. And it is true Barcelona was probably more dominant than the 2-0 scoreline in Wednesday's Champions League triumph might suggest. But what was most striking about a meeting of two of the giants of European football, two clubs who would be guaranteed a place in any super league, was just how poor it was. 

In a sense this was typical of the modern group stage: two big teams meeting but with very little sense of jeopardy given they are much better than the other two sides in the group. Juventus had won 2-0 at Dynamo Kyiv last week, while Barcelona hammered Ferencvaros, 5-1. Both knew that, whatever happened here, they will almost certainly qualify for the knockout stage. Further edge was taken off the game by the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed out due to recurring positive COVID-19 tests. There was no new chapter to write in his eternal rivalry with Lionel Messi, at least not until the reverse fixture in December. 

In as much as the game mattered, it was for context. Given the way both sides have started their domestic seasons, there was something to be played for simply in trying to get a sense of momentum moving forward. Barcelona’s problems have been more spectacular than Juventus’s, but doubts are already being raised about Andrea Pirlo’s suitability as a manager after three draws in his first four league games. He was appointed as Maurizio Sarri’s replacement in the summer despite no top-line managerial experience at all, as Juventus, bored of winning the league title every year, decided to gamble on a popular name rather than anybody with any kind of track record. 

This was not a game to erase those doubts. Juventus had a lot of the ball and pressed in numbers, but there was a lack of precision both in and out of possession–and that was against a Barcelona side that has been shambolic for months, lacking pace in the midfield and remains far too reliant on Lionel Messi. Barcelona was also without two of its more reliable recent performers, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and center back Gerard Pique. For all the sense of openness and the occasional flashes of excellence, what was most striking was the lack of intensity, the disjointedness of both teams. 

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These are two clubs who embody the dangers and decadence of the super club era. Both have lost their way badly in recent years, both have recruited bafflingly, both have ended up with slightly surprising figures in the dugout, appointed more on the sentiment of what they did for their clubs as players rather than their capacities as managers. The gulf in quality from when they met in the 2015 Champions League final is vast. And yet the resources they both maintain mean they can afford deep squads and high-class players; the issue is fitting them into anything resembling a coherent structure. 

Lionel Messi and Barcelona beat Juventus in Champions League

Messi, of course, was the architect of the opening goal, his cross-field ball finding Ousmane Dembele in enough space to advance and unleash a shot that glanced off Federico Chiesa and looped over goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and in. There was some fortune to that, but Barcelona had by far the better chances in the first half. Antoine Griezmann, although largely out of sorts, sliced a shot against the post, and Dembele had another effort well-saved by Szczesny. 

It wasn’t unduly troubled by Juventus’s press, passing around it in tight areas, and prepared to go long to exploit the pace of Dembele and Griezmann in wide areas. Although Alvaro Morata had three goals ruled out for offside (one of which was also a handball) to go with the two he has had chalked off in his last two Serie A games, Juventus created little, and Barcelona should have had the game comfortably wrapped up long before the end. 

It was spared a potentially nervous last few minutes, though, when Juventus defender Merih Demiral was sent off with five minutes remaining, following up a cynical lunge on Messi with a vicious late challenge on Miralem Pjanic. Barcelona was able to retain possession after that, calmly passing around Juventus, until Federico Bernadeschi was lured into fouling Ansu Fati in the box. Messi converted to confirm Barcelona had been much the better of two not particularly impressive sides.