x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

European heavyweights collide as Juventus get ready to lock horns with Lionel Messi-led Barcelona looking back to their best

The Italians knocked Barca out of last season's Uefa Champions League en route to the final

Juventus forwards Paulo Dybala, left, and Gonzalo Higuain take part in training ahead of their Uefa Champions League clash against Barcelona.Marco Bertorello / AFP
Juventus forwards Paulo Dybala, left, and Gonzalo Higuain take part in training ahead of their Uefa Champions League clash against Barcelona.Marco Bertorello / AFP

Congratulations are rationed at Barcelona right now. In the grandstands at Camp Nou, the president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s name is derided, his resignation sought by a significant number of Barca members. Signatures are being gathered in their thousands on a petition demanding he step down.

The departure of Neymar, lured away by Paris Saint-Germain, and concerns that the contracts of club standard-bearers, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, have not yet been renewed are the main gripes. On the field, though, there’s not much to find fault with. Barcelona sit top of the Spanish league, yet to concede a goal and ready to show the second-best team in last year’s Uefa Champions League, Juventus, that post-Neymar, there is still some fizz in Catalonia.

Congratulations were offered, generously, to Ousmane Dembele on Saturday night, after the most expensive player in Barca’s history, signed from Borussia Dortmund for what might rise to €145 million (Dh638m), around two-thirds of the buyout clause honoured by PSG to snatch Neymar, made his debut.

Dembele is 20, has but one season of European club football on his resumé, but did enough in 20 minutes in the 5-0 win over Espanyol to suggest he will play a greater role against the Italian champions on Tuesday night.

Dembele, with a smooth rev of acceleration and a precise low cross, set up a goal for Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan pointing his finger at the young France player to signal his appreciation. Messi made a point of patting Demebele on the back at the final whistle.

“He made things happen,” said Ernesto Valverde, the Barca manager. “We hope for great things from him.” The losing manager, Espanyol’s Quique Sanchez Flores, sighed: “Dembele is like a whip, he’s so fast.”

Dembele will stretch opponents, giving, Valverde hopes, to Barcelona some of the width associated with all the best Barca teams of a modern era during which the club have come to expect regular triumphs in the Champions League. They have won four of the past 12 European Cups, the last in 2015 when Juventus were defeated in the Berlin final. Valverde, who took over at the beginning of what has been a difficult summer, knows he is expected to guide the club beyond the last eight, their finishing point in the last two seasons.

It was Juventus who knocked them out last season, emphatically, a virtuoso performance from Paulo Dybala the centrepiece of a 3-0 victory in Turin. Juve know there are executives at Camp Nou who would have preferred a successful swoop for Dybala than the capture of Dembele as Neymar’s replacement.

Some of them imagine that, one day, the Argentine will be wearing cherry-and-blue stripes rather than black and white ones. Juve will resist that and their manager was again lauding the nimble 23-year-old attacker ahead of the trip to Barcelona.

“When Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo retire Dybala and Neymar will be the best in the world” said Max Allegri, seamlessly praising his man and at the same time reminding Barcelona of the star they have lost.

“Dybala still has a margin for improvement but I am happy for him. He’s growing in his leadership quality and the decisive moments of skill he shows.”

Juventus lost a key man to PSG this summer, too, in Dani Alves, though they have compensated some of the loss of energy along the flanks that Alves provides with the signing of Douglas Costa, the Brazilian winger from Bayern Munich. “A special player,” said Allegri of Costa. “He has pace and always gives us extra numbers across midfield."

That’s an area where the dynamic Blaise Matuidi has also come in to strengthen the 2017/18 Juve, from PSG. Matuidi, at €20m, looks like very good value, even he is 30. At Juventus, the club of Gigi Buffon, age is deemed an asset not an impediment.

It is not so long ago that it was Juventus setting benchmarks for spending on forwards. In the post-Neymar inflationary spiral, the fee paid last summer for 29-year-old Argentine Gonzalo Higuain – some €90m to Napoli – now seems almost modest. At the time it drew sharp intakes of breath. Higuain promptly scored 32 goals across all competitions last season, and his partnership with Dybala stands comparison with the Suarez-Messi pairing.

Higuain and Dybala were both on the scoresheet in Saturday’s 3-0 win against Chievo, a result that maintained Juve’s 100 per cent start to the league season. Over in Spain, Suarez’s goal against Espanyol followed a Messi hat-trick.

The big guns are in form and firing ahead of the Champions League’s most glamorous opening night fixture.