Tonight’s Champions League semi-final has the ingredients for a classic.
Two champions elect… a brilliant attack against an implacable defence… four of Europe’s most exciting strikers competing to put their team in the final.
Juventus start as huge favourites, but that adds spice to the contest. Monaco enjoy their status as underdogs, particularly away from home.
And a good 3-0 win at Nancy on Saturday, on a rain-soaked artificial pitch, suggests they may not be as weary as they looked in the first leg.
Their weakness this season, as they showed against Manchester City back in February, has been a lack of energy in the second half of games. But the statistics show that Monaco players are running as much as they did earlier on in the season, and their season began last July.
The French league title may have been a secondary aim compared to Europe for Monaco’s Russian owners, not so for their players or the manager.
“I wouldn’t swap an eventual win against Nancy for a victory over Juventus,” said Leonardo Jardim before Saturday’s game, and he took the full squad, even if both first-choice strikers, Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe, only played a few minutes.
Juventus by contrast put out a virtual B team for the Turin derby, and nearly paid the full price.
Torino were reduced to 10 men for the last 35 minutes, but Juventus could only draw 1-1 and were just spared an embarrassing defeat by a last-minute goal from Gonzalo Higuain, on as a substitute.
Their day was further soured by a nasty post-match incident when Juve’s French-Moroccan defender Medhi Benatia, on loan from Bayern Munich, overheard a racist insult during his interview with Italian state broadcaster RAI.
Benatia immediately stopped the interview and RAI have apologised. However, Juventus believe the company are passing the buck by blaming a ‘non-employee’.
Fortunately the words did not go out on air, but this was another in a series of unpleasant incidents indicating Italian football is still backward in dealing with racism.
Last week Sulley Muntari received a ban after walking off the pitch in protest at racist abuse during Pescara’s match at Cagliari.
The ban has now been overturned yet it is shocking that the initial official response was to punish the victim.
Inevitably the focus tonight will be on the rising stars, about all Mbappe and Paulo Dybala — one of the few first-choice players not rested by Max Allegri.
However, both these sides owe much of their success this season to unsung heroes such as Claudio Marchisio and Valere Germain.
Both are homegrown, both one-club men — apart from one season on loan — both illustrate the team spirit at their clubs.
Maybe it is slightly misleading to call Marchisio unsung. He has been a Juve stalwart for years and would have been a star of Italy’s Euro 2016 campaign but for a serious injury.
All the same he was seen as the ‘other’ midfielder in a side that included Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. His readiness to fill different roles marks him out.
Since his return from injury last October Juventus have lost just one game in which he has played.
Valere Germain is an even better example of loyalty. Saturday was match 56 of the season for him: No-one has played more games in Europe’s top five leagues.
Yet he is no longer a first-choice striker, particularly in Europe, because of Falcao’s revival and Mbappe’s precocious brilliance.
“All the better for the club,” said Germain about Mbappe last week, “and for him as well. He has a good head on his shoulders and will have no worries about having a great career.”
As for his own position, he is focused on the title.
“Any individual issues must be forgotten… Five years ago I was playing in League 2. I feel I’ve turned a corner this season and think I’m important for the group. The coach can count on me.”
He will probably have only a bit part tonight, and Monaco seem destined to go out, but that attitude is part of the explanation why they have toppled Paris Saint-Germain and become one of Europe’s teams of the season.
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