"If you want to find a skyscraper that's already been built, then that's Bayern – let's say we are a third of the way there." The metaphor used by Juventus coach Antonio Conte before his side's quarter-final decider against FC Bayern München kept echoing in my mind on Wednesday, as the German champions set about dominating the Bianconeri for the second time in eight days.
Most people, including myself, thought Bayern were favourites when the two teams were paired up in the last eight. Many of the Juve players were still getting to grips with their first experience of the UEFA Champions League, while Bayern have contested two finals in the last three years. Not many, however, could have predicted such a huge gulf between the sides when they met, with the Serie A leaders struggling to get a shot on goal in 180 minutes of football.
"They were superior to us physically, technically and mentally," admitted Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon after the 2-0 second-leg loss, before confessing that he himself was surprised by the difference between the teams. A dominant force in Italy, Juve reached the quarter-finals by taking four points against reigning champions Chelsea FC in the group stage, before easily defeating Celtic FC 5-0 on aggregate in the round of 16.
"After beating Chelsea 3-0, we thought we could compete with any team in the competition, but Bayern proved they were too strong for us," added Buffon. Encouragingly, his coach and team-mates refused to look for excuses after their exit, admitting only that they still have a long way to go to match the very best in Europe. As they say, admitting you have a problem is half the solution.
Juventus, however, can still be proud of their UEFA Champions League run this season. It is easy to forget that they finished seventh in Serie A for two consecutive seasons before Conte was appointed ahead of the 2011/12 campaign. Indeed, I was at Craven Cottage on 18 March 2010 when they lost 4-1 against Fulham FC in the UEFA Europa League round of 16 – several steps in the right direction have been made since that bitter night in London.
Meanwhile, a football lesson like the one Bayern handed the Bianconeri could prove crucial for the club's future. "These great games against fantastic players can help improve a team like ours, which lacks experience in the competition," defender Andrea Barzagli said after the game. After all, key players like Giorgio Chiellini (28), Leonardo Bonucci (25), Claudio Marchisio (27) and Arturo Vidal (25) still have several seasons of quality football to offer Juventus.
Not to mention a 20-year-old like Paul Pogba, who is rapidly proving to be one of the most promising midfielders on the continent. "I'm sure the next time we face them, we will be readier and possibly beat them," the French international said after Wednesday's encounter. Meanwhile, the Bianconeri have already strengthened their attack for next season with the signing of Spain forward Fernando Llorente on a free transfer.
Rome – where Juventus won their last UEFA Champions League back in 1996 – was not built in a day. This squad, however, have proved to have solid foundations and Conte looks like the perfect architect to complete that skyscraper.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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