Ninety-third minute of regulation. Ronaldo crosses the ball in the heart of the Juventus box. A whistle. Pandemonium. Match official Michael Oliver sees a push by Benatia on Vazquez. Penalty. Buffon is expelled. Ronaldo steps up and the rest is history.
These are the images that Juventus fans had seared in their retinae of Juventus' last attempted remuntada, or comeback, in Spanish territory. With pride in their hearts and tears in their eyes, Juventus and their fans saw a historic comeback crumble in added time at the hands of an officiating decision.
For intellectual honesty, it was the right decision.
A few fans - not yours truly, a perennial pessimist (I say, realist) - thought that Juventus would snatch first spot away from Barcelona on match day six of group G of the 2020-21 UEFA Champions League. Fewer still would have thought so on the heels of a Barcelona whose Champions League performances were to their La Liga performances as Dr. Jekyll was to Mr. Hyde.
The same team, troubled in domestic competition, would transform upon hearing the Champions League anthem into the storied, goal-scoring machine known to everyone for the better side of two decades. Minnows Ferencvaros, and the less storied Dynamo Kiev suffered sound beatings at the hands of Leo Messi & Co. It's hard to argue with aggregate scores of 8-1 to the Hungarian champions and 6-1 to the Ukrainian side.
The Catalan side showed little sign of the critical moment they were suffering in La Liga when they took on Juventus in Turin on October 28. It took less than two minutes for the Blaugrana to expose a Juventus that were rattled, nervous, insecure. First Demiral gave away a ball to Messi whose shot was saved by Wojciech Szczesny, and after Miralem Pjanic forced the Juventus goalkeeper who was beaten by Antoine Griezmann on the ensuing play just to see the ball ping off the post. Only 10 minutes later Ousmane Dembele put the visitors ahead with a deflection.
Truth be told, Barcelona should have been ahead by two goals already, and could have doubled their lead, had it not been for bad luck and near misses by Dembele, Messi and Griezmann. In the second half, a clumsy foul by Federico Bernardeschi on Ansu Fati sealed Juve's fate: 2-0 was the final result for the Spanish side.
Juventus were utterly lost, dejected, leaderless, and Ronaldo-less. Their spirit was embodied in Paulo Dybala. Save for false hope that Alvaro Morata's three goals, justly disallowed, Juventus produced little to recriminate, in terms of attitude, game play or chances created.
Fast forward to December 8, 2020: Barcelona-Juventus. Still reeling from a victory in the Derby Della Mole, through which the Bianconeri alternated a questionable first half to a more encouraging second half (attitude-wise); Pirlo’s side took on the group leaders attempting an unlikely ‘remuntada’. Like at the Bernabeu in April 2018.
Except this time, Juventus accomplished their mission. A resounding 3-0 victory featuring a stupendous ballistic feat by Weston McKennie who finished off a delicious counter attack, and two penalties by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored his first two goals against Barcelona in the Champions League (out of 132 career goals in the competition).
Truthfully, it can be said that the game against Torino was a trial run for a come-back in Barcelona: arguably the poorest first half under Pirlo's tutelage was alternated by an awakening which featured one of Juventus’ defining DNA qualities: hunger.
The resulting win against Torino (who have had a penchant for being on the wrong side of comebacks) perhaps gave Juventus a change in attitude, spurred by a new-found hunger for victory that had been missing.
Mentality and Maturity
Unlike the match against the Granata and the reverse fixture against Barcelona, Juventus demonstrated from kick off a "winning mentality". They were simply determined to win the match not to win the group (which came as a consequence of the magnitude of the victory) but to prove to themselves that this team was mature enough to win big in a storied side’s home.
Winning in Barcelona was a rite of passage for this group of players. An opportunity to demonstrate this group's growth so far and margin for improvement.
One cannot ignore that the Juventus that featured in the reverse fixture were missing the character and determination of key starters like Alex Sandro, Matthijs De Ligt and Cristiano Ronaldo. Their presence at the Camp Nou was by no stretch the be-all and end-all but it was certainly felt, and went to enrich Morata, McKennie and Juan Cuadrado's good spells.
Italians often have the bad habit of downplaying success, especially that of others. For intellectual honesty, one must admit that perhaps the La Liga's version of Barcelona was seen at the Camp Nou and not the Champions League’s.
Without Fati, Dembele and Gerard Piqué but with Messi, Griezmann, and interesting youngsters who shined in Turin, like Pedri, the Catalans showed all of the limits that saw them fall domestically to Cadiz, both Madrid sides and Getafe.
The Blaugrana dominated possession but failed for the most part to produce the multitude of scoring chances seen in Turin in late October.
Juventus recorded (only) their 5th clean sheet of the season. Full credit goes to their defensive phase, which left little to show for Barcelona's 712 passes and 59% ball possession. The exceptional time that the home side did get through (7 shots on goal on 20 total), they found goalkeeping veteran and legend Gigi Buffon ready. The Juventus seen in Turin were rattled and looked like conceding on every one of Barcelona's 13 shots at goal in that game.
"Spotting one sparrow doesn't mean it's Spring" as we say in Italian. Juventus have not "become" yet, but are "becoming". A convincing win in Barcelona is courtesy of hunger, improved mentality, better available players and a good defensive phase. It can prove to be a rite of passage for a newly minted coach of a younger Juventus side that may just be coming into their own.