Messi chasing history as Juventus eye redemption

Spain 4 Italy 0: The scoreline that scarred a nation, and above all, one set of players.

Messi chasing history as Juventus eye redemption

There were six from Juventus who suffered that defeat in the European final three years ago and six from Barcelona who celebrated victory. Italians have always maintained that the injury which reduced them to 10 men in Kiev was decisive, and tonight the absence of the injured Giorgio Chiellini will tilt the scales against them again.

This match offers a fascinating contest between Europe’s most prolific attack and meanest defence, but there is more to it than that.

For one historic player, it can be an apotheosis. For one historic team, it provides the chance of redemption.

Lionel Messi for many people has nothing left to prove: he is already the best player of all time. Even if you question that judgment, he is close to the best and could have another five years at the top.

Yet there is one lingering doubt about the four-time world player of the year. Can Messi weave his magic when deprived of space and faced with a blanket defence?

Five years ago in the Champions League semi-finals, he was stymied twice by Inter Milan and his veteran fellow-countryman Javier Zanetti. Guus Hiddink also devised a plan that kept him at bay. Extraordinarily, Messi has yet to score against Chelsea in almost 11 hours of play.

In Spain this season, Messi and his team-mates have twice been shut out by Malaga, using similar tactics.

“I’d like it to be an accident,” said Luis Enrique after Barcelona lost 1-0 in Camp Nou, “but it is becoming a habit, the opposition close up and we can’t find a way through.” Juventus are the masters of defence in the country where defending was turned into an art, and for the first time in his career, Messi has the chance to show he can do what Diego Maradona did 25 years ago: turn them inside out.

Messi has of course already achieved more than Maradona, scored many more goals and won many more prizes. But then Maradona was playing week-in, week-out against the hardest defenders in the world. The two titles he won with Napoli required courage and endurance as well as daring and imagination.

Maradona didn’t score that many in Italy, 81 goals in 188 league matches, but time and again he was the match winner, creating the space for others. His runs would take out three or four players, and at his best, even the two best defenders in the world, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, admitted he was almost unplayable.

Among many sublime games, a 3-1 win against Juventus in 1990 remains iconic. Two goals, both with his left foot — one on the swivel, one a freekick — both unstoppable.

The stage is set for Messi under the lights in Berlin and this could well be the moment when he proves he can perform against the toughest opponents on the most demanding of occasions.

To do so, however, he and Barcelona have to overcome both a side and a club which have worked and worked for this moment. Nine years ago Juventus plumbed the depths and were stripped of the title and relegated in the match-fixing scandal known as Calciopoli. Gradually they have rehabilitated themselves and restored a tarnished reputation. Four titles in a row is an amazing achievement.

But the prize they truly want is the European title, the crown that came with so much grief when they first won it in the Heysel Stadium on 1985.

Many of their supporters, and players, felt they should have refused that trophy, or at least not celebrated. Even more so in retrospect.

Juventus have won it since, against Ajax in 1996, but this moment 30 years on involves huge emotion, reflected in the services and memorial meetings that took place up and down Italy last weekend.

Emotion in football has to be kept in check and no doubt Gianluigi Buffon and his team-mates will have been doing just that over the past week. This is just a football match, albeit a huge one.

But should Juventus lift that trophy against the odds the long shadow of a tragic night may at last be dispelled.

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