Juventus v Barcelona: Luis Suarez seeks happy ending from Champions League final
What started with the most clandestine of contract signings could end with an open-topped bus ride through the streets of Barcelona tomorrow afternoon for Luis Suarez, to complete an incredible debut season.
Back in August Barça were so wary of antagonising Fifa as they waited for the Court of Arbitration to consider its appeal over their new player’s ban from all football activity for biting Giorgio Chiellini that they smuggled him in and out of the Nou Camp to sign his contract.
World football’s governing body had allowed them to sign the striker from Liverpool but insisted that it be done in the most private way possible. There was even a decoy car leaving the Nou Camp offices from a different exit to put waiting photographers off the scent.
There will be no need to hide on Sunday if Barcelona have beaten Juventus. A treble in his first season would complete the most spectacular of first years and double what was his European trophy haul before this season began.
Only 12 months ago he had just one English League Cup, a Dutch Cup and an Eredivisie medal – sent to him in the post because he had already left Ajax – to his name.
He is late to the Champions League party. He previously had won the Copa de America with Uruguay and a title with his hometown club Nacional in Montevideo, but the European honours list is short for a 28-year-old.
The injury that rules Chiellini out of the Juventus side prevents the season coming completely full circle – what started with the ban for that bite in last year’s World Cup will not end with Suarez facing the Italian centre-back in the season’s showpiece.
There will be a re-encounter with Patrice Evra, his antagonist in that controversial 2011 meeting between Liverpool and Manchester United, but a blanket interview ban for Suarez, and Evra saying after the semi-final win over Real Madrid that he would have no problem shaking the Uruguayn’s hand, seem to have defused any potential heat between the two.
Suarez has behaved himself all season, to the point that he did not pick up a suspension in La Liga. But while it might seem like another redemption story, he has not needed to win hearts and minds in Spain. There was never a “pariah” tag to lose.
He had friends in the dressing room before a ball was kicked and with influential personalities such as Xavi to vouch for him, acceptance was instant.
“I’m very fond of Luis. We knew each other before he came to Barcelona, through Gabri, a mutual friend at Ajax,” says the Barcelona captain.
“He’s an amazing player – the way he plays with his back to goal, his understanding of the game, the outlet he offers when the opposition presses high up the pitch have all been so important.
“He wins fouls and he’s a goalscorer in the instinctive way that Samuel Eto’o was. But apart from all of that, he’s a humble, hard-working guy and someone you want to have in the dressing room.”
It’s the eternal contradiction of Suarez that a hat-trick of bites made him infamous yet team-mates at all his clubs speak of someone whose commitment and comradeship make his influence only ever a positive one.
He smiled at the jokes that were bound to come when he first arrived at the club. “They have finally got him out of Guantanamo,” laughed coach Luis Enrique when he presented him to the Barça squad after the Fifa ban was lifted. And Gerard Pique admitted after the early training sessions: “Of course we have been teasing him a little bit. When we had a defensive drill to practise dealing with crosses and he was the attacker and I had to defend against him I’d say, ‘don’t bite me’, but he just smiled and got on with things.”
As Suarez prepares for his first Champions League final, Pique is one of those who could win a fourth medal. Xavi, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta also already have three each, and Iniesta can say he played in all four of his finals.
But Suarez is not alone in not having picked up club football’s greatest prize. Juventus’s 37-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has won everything in the game except the Champions League.
“It has always been one of my career objectives to lift the trophy,” Buffon said last night. “I never thought that this year would be a good year for us to reach the final. We changed managers and you expect to have to wait three or four years to reach a final in those circumstances.”
Whoever lifts the trophy, be it Buffon or Xavi, the image will be even more evocative than normal, such is both players’ standing in the game.
“It will be emotional for certain,” said the veteran goalkeeper. “Barcelona are favourites because they have magnificent individuals. If you have Messi, Neymar, Suarez and Iniesta it’s impossible that you are not favourites but neither team is at home and this is a final. We are strong tactically, mentally and physically.”
Leonardo Bonucci said the 30th anniversary of the Heysel Stadium disaster and the injury to Chiellini would both in their various ways serve as extra motivation for the Juventus players. “We want to win it and dedicate it to the people who lost their lives – and to Georgio,” the defender said.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri echoed those sentiments. He said: “Heysel is important to the club. It was our darkest day and one of football’s darkest. We will remember it and those that lost their lives.”
He added: “It has been a long time since an Italian team reached the final. The whole country wants us to lift the trophy and we want to complete the treble too. If it cannot be, then we have had a great season.”
Of Chiellini’s absence, Allegri said: “It’s hard for him because he played the whole tournament but someone else comes in to take his place.”
When Allegri was asked about the monumental task of stopping Barcelona’s 120-goal forward line of Messi, Suarez and Neymar. “We have to score,” he said. “Because they will.”