Perspective often gets lost in the heat of the moment. Juventus came up short in Cardiff but how short exactly is a matter of debate. At the interval, more or less everybody considered this year’s Champions League final to be a classic. Gianluigi Buffon believed Juventus had “Real on the ropes”. The Old Lady certainly started the better and didn’t seem overawed by the occasion. In fact it was Juventus who took the game to Real, playing largely in their opponents’ half.
“We didn’t allow them to get out,” Massimiliano Allegri said. He was just disappointed that his team didn’t get in front at any stage in the opening 50 minutes when this was an even contest. Real’s opener, which deflected in off Leonardo Bonucci’s right foot, was their first shot of the game. Juventus, to their credit, were level again within seven minutes. Mario Mandzukic scored the best goal in a Champions League final since Zinedine Zidane’s at Hampden Park in 2002 and, while the individual brilliance involved understandably drew a lot of the focus, the build-up was every bit as good as that for Gonzalo Higuain’s first goal in Monaco.
Overall, the standard of play from both sides was exceedingly high as Felix Brych called time on the first half. Just what happened to Juventus in the 15-minute break is a mystery. They were a shadow of themselves when they re-emerged, completely unrecognisable from the team we saw in the first half, not to mention the Juventus we’ve seen in the Champions League this season. Allegri put it down to “pushing on the accelerator” for the entire first half. “We didn’t manage the game enough. We could have slowed things down a bit and played with more calm. You can’t play finals at 100 mph from start to finish.”
He promised to work on it next year but, in truth, this has been one of Juventus’ strengths in the Champions League this season. It abandoned them here.
“The 2-1 cut our legs offs,” Allegri said. Casemiro’s shot, kicked up off Sami Khedira’s heel and flew past Buffon. Another deflection. Juventus’ 39-year-old captain lamented how, in moments like these, “everything went against us”. Them’s the breaks of the game. Without taking anything away from Real, deserving winners in Buffon and Allegri’s opinion, they got a little luck where Juventus didn’t. To illustrate that point, Allegri recalled an effort by Miralem Pjanic early on in the first half that was a carbon copy of Casemiro’s in all but one major detail: “Pjanic’s shot gets deflected away and Casemiro’s shot gets deflected towards the goal … that’s football.”
Before Juventus could even get over it, Real mercilessly struck again and the 180 seconds between their second and third goals defined the remaining 25 minutes. It was game over. Juventus lost belief and resigned themselves to their fate while Real just went up a gear. Juan Cuadrado’s wrongful dismissal only deepened the sense that it was not going to be their night and Real’s fourth and final goal came when a dejected Juve were down to 10 men. No one would have predicted a 4-1 defeat at half-time.
Could Allegri have done more? In hindsight, an extra man in midfield wouldn’t have gone amiss. Pjanic and Khedira were outnumbered by Toni Kroos, Isco, Luka Modric and Casemiro. The Bosnian hurt his knee shortly after the interval and maybe should have been withdrawn sooner. As for the German, well, he didn’t go into this game 100 percent fit after only making his comeback last week from the muscle injury he picked up against Monaco at the beginning of May. Higuain had no supply and when he did get the ball he didn’t hold it up long enough to give the defence a breather.
Allegri gambled on Real’s narrow midfield diamond leaving Juventus ample opportunity out wide where he hoped Paulo Dybala and Dani Alves, and Mandzukic and Alex Sandro would double up on the Spanish side’s full-backs and wreak havoc. But in the second half they gave up possession too cheaply. Alves and Sandro lost the ball 15 times apiece. Mandzukic didn’t fare much better, while Dybala, the shining star against Barcelona, got lost behind cloud cover. His substitution in the 78th minute capped an awful night for him. The fact his replacement was Mario Lemina also left the impression Allegri sensed the game was gone. Even before Cuadrado received his marching orders, it had become a damage-limitation exercise.
The biggest surprise of all, though, was how poorly Juventus defended, particularly Giorgio Chiellini. This team’s great strength unexpectedly transformed into a weakness. What also stood out was the contrast with two years ago. Juventus didn’t expect to reach the final then. They were bigger underdogs against Barcelona in Berlin than they were against Real in Cardiff and made big strides in the meantime. The awareness of that as well as the memory of Juve staying in the game longer at the Olympiastadion than they did at the Principality Stadium makes this more painful.
Fans and players alike sincerely believed this to be their year and the outcome has done little to discourage the idea Juventus are cursed in this competition. It was their seventh defeat in nine finals and their fifth in a row. Real have won 12 of 16 and their history in this competition, both old and recent, means they are the only team who can approach it, not without pressure, but as if it were a normal game. It’s no small advantage. Although Juve insisted in the build-up that they weren’t dwelling on the past, they did come into this final with the weight of 21 years of hurt in this competition on their shoulders. That’s a lot of emotional baggage and when Cristiano Ronaldo scored his second goal they seemed to buckle under it.
After ridding Juventus of their inferiority complex in the Champions League, Allegri now has to lift the curse in the final. “We won’t stop,” he said. “We have to get back to the final.” It’s why he’s staying. Breaking the spell is what drives him. “This is not the end of a cycle,” Allegri says. Juventus rebuilt after Berlin, changing 16 players, and returned to the final, and renewal is underway again. The successors to Chiellini, Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have already been found in Daniele Rugani, Mehdi Benatia and Mattia Caldara. Deals have also been done for the highly rated Rodrigo Bentancur and Riccardo Orsolini. Patrik Schick is next in line and the youth system has also produced Moise Kean, the first played born in the year 2000 to score in Europe’s top five leagues.
Juve have a depth that only Real and Bayern Munich can better, which is remarkable considering the wealth gap. The €109.2 million they’ll cash in TV and prize money for reaching the Champions League final will certainly help strengthen it further. A change in system in January to 4-2-3-1 left them a little shorthanded on the wings, particularly on the left when Marko Pjaca tore his ACL. Expect this to be the focus in the summer with Angel di Maria, Douglas Costa, Federico Bernardeschi and Keita Balde Diao among the targets.
Right now there is a wistful look on the Old Lady’s face, the anguish only heightened by the tragic events in Turin where 1,400 people were injured in a fanzone crush. The club’s thoughts are with them. Gradually they will turn to next season. Buffon is yet to give up the ghost. “I still have one more year on my contract,” he told Sky Italia, “That means I have one more chance of winning the Champions League.”
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.