How do you break down this Juventus rearguard?
What shape Juve use probably depends how they expect Real Madrid to line up
Gianluigi Buffon and Leonardo Bonucci during the semi-final gainst Monaco at the Stade Louis II stadium. Photograph: Getty Images
Scoring goals is not something Real Madrid usually have a problem with. They have scored in every game this season and have not failed to score since Manchester City stopped them in the Champions League semi-final last year, a run of 64 games in a row in which they have found the net.
If any team can stop them, though, it is Juventus, who have let in only three goals in 12 European games this season and only 27 in 38 in Serie A, and are equally comfortable in either a back three or a back four. So how do you score against Max Allegri’s side?
The first question, perhaps, is what shape Juve will use. Juve began the season with a back three but seemed to struggle to accommodate two of their new signings, Gonzalo Higuaín and Miralem Pjanic.
The back three returned for the semi-final against Monaco
From the beginning of December, the 4-2-3-1 became more prominent and, after a 2-1 defeat at Fiorentina with a back three in January, it became the default, producing Juve’s best football of the season.
But the back three returned for the semi-final against Monaco, for two reasons. Monaco play a 4-4-2 with the midfield very narrow and attacking full-backs. Using three central defenders meant both that Juve were competing three v two at the back, four v four in the middle (albeit in differing alignments) and that their wing-backs could then engage the Monaco full-backs high up the pitch, something that worked so well Dani Alves set up three and scored one of their four goals.
What shape Juve use in the Champions League final probably depends how they expect Madrid to line up. If Gareth Bale starts then it will probably be a 4-3-3; if Isco plays, as seems more probable, Madrid will be in more of a 4-3-1-2.
Then the challenge for Juve becomes more similar to the one Monaco posed: two central forwards, a midfield that plays narrow and attacking full-backs, which may encourage the use of a the 3-4-2-1 again.
That presents Madrid with a number of problems. Cristiano Ronaldo remains a wonderful footballer and his finishing is remarkable, as his eight goals over the last two rounds have proved, but he is not as mobile as he once was. He will not, as he might have done in the past, move into the area behind Dani Alves, isolate and beat Andrea Barzagli. Against Atlético Madrid in the semi-final, in fact, it was noticeable that it was Karim Benzema pulling into those wide areas behind the full-backs that led to Isco’s goal in the second leg.
Perhaps that is an avenue for Madrid to exploit but forwards have been looking for the space behind Dani Alves for years without a huge amount of success (even if Monaco’s goal in the semi-final did come down his flank).
Both Benzema and Ronaldo are capable of a moment of brilliance that could turn any game
Besides, this is not the back four of Atlético, it is a back three and there is probably no side that has been as comfortable in that shape defensively as Juve over the past few seasons. The match-up between Dani Alves and Marcelo on that flank will be key, and while it’s probably true that the younger man has improved over the past couple of seasons, it’s not insignificant that, in 19 previous meetings between the Brazilians, Marcelo has lost 13 times and won just three.
Both Benzema and Ronaldo, of course, are capable of a moment of brilliance that could turn any game, but Juve will be confident enough in the capacity of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Barzagli to handle them. Besides which, the ball has to get to the Madrid front two.
Six of the 27 goals Juve conceded in Serie A this season were from corners
Isco looks like having the playmaking role but he will probably be up against Pjanic and either Sami Khedira or Claudio Marchisio. Given Pjanic will push forwards, Juve have in effect four and a half central players deep against three.
That makes two factors vitally important if Madrid are to break Juve down. One is that their midfield three of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos can dominate with their slight numerical advantage against Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and half of Pjanic. And the second is that their full-back pairing of Danilo and Marcelo can make some inroads against Dani Alves and Alex Sandro.
There is, of course, always the possibility of Sergio Ramos scoring from a set play in a third final – and Madrid will note that six of the 27 goals Juve conceded in Serie A this season were from corners – but Juventus, if they go with the back three, look as well equipped as anybody, both in terms of shape and personnel, to thwart Madrid.
That may be a case for Madrid to start Bale despite his lack of match fitness, or perhaps Marco Asensio, and operate a 4-3-3 – or play Isco wide in that system. Either way, Zinedine Zidane cannot let the game become too channelled down the centre, and in this case, he probably cannot rely on his full-backs, who have been excellent this season, to provide width.