In Stopping Tottenham, Juventus Holds Back Time With a Smile

In Stopping Tottenham, Juventus Holds Back Time With a Smile

And yet, at that moment, when the suffering should have been greatest, it looked — somehow — an awful lot like Juventus was enjoying itself. Chiellini and Barzagli, backed into a corner and straining every sinew, seemed to be having fun.

“That is the kind of players they are,” their coach, Massimiliano Allegri, said after his team had held off Tottenham for the 2-1 victory. “The problem is that Chiellini is 34 and Barzagli is 37. That is difficult for us.”

In the first leg of this tie three weeks ago, Juventus allowed Tottenham off the ropes in Turin. The Italians scored twice in the first 10 minutes, missed a penalty, and then ended up tying, 2-2. It was heralded as conclusive proof that this team was locked into an unavoidable decline.

Photo

Buffon smothered the ball as Andrea Barzagli, center, and the rest of the Juventus defense held off Tottenham.

Credit
Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

The supporting evidence was compelling. Leonardo Bonucci, the most elegant member of its fabled defensive line, had left for A.C. Milan last summer, after a second defeat in three years in the Champions League final. In November, Buffon and Chiellini were unable to help Italy qualify for the World Cup finals.

For the first time, almost, in living memory, Juventus was not unquestionably the best team in Italy’s Serie A: It was being seriously challenged by Napoli, playing the sort of swashbuckling soccer that seemed completely beyond Allegri’s team and doing it so well that it seemed destined to win its first title in 30 years.

Time seemed to be catching up with Juventus, at last. That it was unable to keep up with Pochettino’s intense Tottenham team in Turin simply exposed that to a wider audience. For an hour or so at Wembley, the same message was reinforced. Tottenham created a raft of chances, finally scoring one through Son, and Juventus looked, well, shot.

Dybala and Douglas Costa provided some reason for optimism, but those moments were relatively rare. Even the vast bank of Juventus fans who had traveled to London seemed peculiarly quiet. This club’s mythology centers on its ability to win from almost any position — fino alla fine, as its motto goes, “until the end” — but even its fans seemed to have accepted that this was a step too far.

All of those worries remain true, of course. Juventus is not quite what it was; it is not as strong a team as last year, or as strong a team as in 2015, when it lost to Barcelona in the Champions League final. Buffon, Barzagli and Chiellini are not immortal. Their sheen will fade with time.

Underneath it, though, they have not changed. Beneath the mottled surface, they are still iron, and it is that which carried them through: their refusal to wilt; the wisdom that is measured in battle scars; and, yes, their relish for the fight.

It was there when Chiellini made a last-ditch challenge, and Buffon grabbed him by the scruff of his neck in sheer, screaming delight. It was there when Barzagli beat Alli, almost half his age, to the ball as it bounced along the goal-line in the final minute, and thundered it high into the sky. It was there when Buffon fell on a cross, right at the last, and Chiellini pummeled him with punches in celebration. They are not just good at this, not just at home when they are doing it. They are having fun, too.

Whether it is enough to erase the pain of last year, when Juventus lost in the final to Real Madrid, compacting what increasingly looks like a curse in this competition, is hard to say. Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid would all believe they can beat Juventus, which has lost seven European Cup finals. A level below, Liverpool and Manchester United would not necessarily be filled with fear, either. They would feel that this is an aging side, one a little past its best, one in need of rejuvenation.

And they would feel all that with some justification. Juventus is not what it was. But what it is should not be underestimated. Wizened and grizzled, tough and smart, not just ready for battle but positively looking forward to it. It is one thing to endure an onslaught and come through unscathed. It is quite another to smile as the blows rain down.

It is how Juventus reacts when it is threatened that makes it so dangerous. In those last few minutes, its players would have been forgiven for feeling that the clock was standing still, for wishing that it would move just a little faster. They did not give that impression, though. They looked, instead, like a team that always has time on its side.



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