In coming up with an angle for writing this, I was conflicted. On one hand, there are an exorbitant number of spectacular storylines for Saturday’s Champions League Final. When this many legends-in-the-making take the pitch at once, there are bound to be more than a few fascinating plot points. But then I kept coming back to one thing: Lionel Messi will be on the field.
I’m going to run through four of the most interesting storylines for Barcelona vs. Juventus on Saturday, and then I will get to Messi. As you read them, just remember the presence of that diminutive Argentine could render all of them basically irrelevant. Here we go.
1. Treble Will Find Me
Only seven teams have won the European treble since the European Cup (now known as the Champions League) was founded 60 years ago, in 1955. On Saturday, we will crown an eighth. Just six years ago, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona famously won the La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League. Is this team as good as that one? They might be better.
Inter Milan won the treble under Jose Mourinho the year after that, becoming the first Italian team to do so. Now Juventus look to become the second after running roughshod over the rest of Italy all season long. Both teams had unbelievable years, but only one will get to enter the sacred and prestigious treble-winning circle, the Holy of Holies for a European football club. It’s crazy to think an accomplishment that rare could turn on a single play.
2. Two Unproven Managers
The fact that two younger, relatively inexperienced managers steered their teams to the Champions League final in their first season as skipper speaks to the outrageous level of talent that resides on Barcelona and Juventus. I’m not trying to downplay the contributions of Luis Enrique and Massimiliano Allegri, but I am saying that one has Messi, Suarez, Neymar, and Iniesta, while the other has Tevez, Pirlo, Pogba, and Buffon. There are many difficult things about managing one of the world’s top clubs, but a lack of talent around you isn’t one of them.
Of course, there are more similarities between the two. Both are in their mid-40s, both are presumably in their dream jobs, and both have something to prove. Four years ago, Enrique was coaching the Barcelona B squad. Just one year ago, Allegri was drowning on a disappointing AC Milan team before Juventus threw him a life preserver. One of them will have a Champions League title on their resume after Saturday.
3. Farewell, Xavi
I’m not sure enough has been made of Xavi’s Barcelona exit. This is one of the great midfielders of all-time. He has worn the Barca badge since 1991, when he joined their youth academy, La Masia, at age 11. Making his first appearance with the senior squad in ’98, Xavi finished third in Ballon d’Or voting three times, in 2009-11. Among a murderer’s row of all-timers to play at Camp Nou, Xavi’s name sits in the top echelon. He probably won’t start Saturday, but it would be nice to see him as a sub. Headed to Qatari club Al Sadd for now, we could be looking at a future manager – maybe even back at Barcelona someday?
4. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object
The most electric clash will come when Barcelona’s swaggering Three Musketeers assault Juventus’ stout back line. Messi, Neymar, and Suarez is probably the best Barca attacking trio ever (and that’s saying something). Their connection has flourished in the last few months since Suarez started to round into form. Speaking of the Uruguayan, he has a little bit of history with two of Juve’s defenders, Patrice Evra and Giorgio Chiellini. The Suarez-Evra racial incident has its own lengthy Wikipedia page, so read up on that if you like.
Chiellini, who Suarez famously chomped on in last summer’s World Cup, has just been ruled out due to injury, which is a huge blow to Juve’s back line. The veteran center back has been in a Juve shirt for a decade now and will not be playing in the biggest match of his club career. This could spell doom for Juve’s chances of even slowing down Barca’s three-headed monster.
OK, now we get to the only thing that really matters Saturday. I’ll let two people help me explain why.
“People think in the wrong way. One thing is a team. Another thing is a team with Messi. It is a different story… when people analyse teams, you have to remember that this boy makes everything different. He makes everything different.” – Jose Mourinho
You don’t usually hear the self-assured and enigmatic Mourinho speak like this, but he’s right. Lionel Messi makes everything different by changing the game with a single run. Bayern Munich fell victim to this in the semifinals when Messi almost singlehandedly knocked them out (while dropping poor Boateng down a trap door he had installed on the field) in a 15 minute span. Athletic Bilbao fell victim to it in the Copa del Rey Final when number 10 humiliated four defenders from midfield before slotting one home.
“Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans. The only hope is that this Saturday he will be from earth, like the rest of us.” – Gianluigi Buffon
Buffon is also correct, Messi’s alien-ness makes him legitimately unstoppable if he is playing his game. Like Michael Jordan, opponents seem to genuinely have no answer when Messi gets going – and lately, he has been at another level. Also like Jordan in the NBA Finals, Messi has never lost a Champions League final. That’s not a direct 1:1 comparison, but its close. If Messi wins on Saturday, it only heightens the sense of immortality to his club career. It makes his greatness seem more unattainable than it already is. He’s accomplished more than just about any player ever, but somehow a piece of his legacy is still at stake. How great is that for us, the fans?
Don’t get me wrong, the four storylines above are important. And I didn’t even get to Pirlo, Barcelona’s full backs, the midfield battle, or Paul freaking Pogba. It’s just that when Messi finds a moment of space, he can suddenly make all other narratives immaterial.