In Europe this season, one club has stood clearly above the rest. Barcelona defeated Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid easily to claim the La Liga title. The Blaugrana have reached the Champions League final by defeating the German and French league title-winners (Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain). Statistically, Barcelona’s goal difference of plus-89 and expected goals ratio of 0.780 are both best in Europe.
Could this Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final be anything other than a coronation of Barcelona? In any single-match final the underdog has a puncher’s chance, and Italian title-holders Juventus has a defense which might be able to slow down Barcelona’s seemingly unstoppable attack. But to do that, Juventus will need to accomplish something that has so far proved too much for Europe’s other leading defensive sides.
That is, can anyone prevent Barcelona from creating high-quality chances? Barca has consistently created more shots in the most dangerous areas of the pitch than anyone else. Luis Enrique’s side has attempted the most shots this season from the danger zone, the region in the center of the pitch from which most goals are scored. Even more impressively, few of Barca’s chances in this region were created with crosses. Instead, Barcelona completes huge numbers of passes within the danger zone itself, eliminating defenders with skillful play and creating excellent scoring opportunities. (Because there are fewer games played in the Bundesliga, totals for German clubs are pro-rated to 38 matches.)
This is what Juventus face. Barcelona’s attacking three—Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi—have combined on huge numbers of danger zone attacking opportunites. An attack spearheaded by one great attacker perhaps can be stifled, but how can a defense plot to stop three elite forwards at once?
Juventus did slow down Real Madrid, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, to reach the final. And the Old Lady has defensive statistics among Europe’s best. Just as Barcelona dominate in creating danger zone shots without crosses, Juventus appear to be among Europe’s best in preventing such chances. Perhaps Massimiliano Allegri’s side stands a chance?
So if anyone can stop Barcelona and the big three, perhaps it is indeed Juventus. The problem here is that Juventus is only one of the top defensive sides in Europe. The two clubs that appear to be the continent’s best in the above charts, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, have already been dispatched by Barcelona. In the semifinal, not only did Barcelona score six against Bayern, but the Catalan club consistently broke through to the center of the box to create chances. Of 20 shots attempted, 15 were created in the danger zone and another three were just outside the box in a central area. The black circle on the map marks the danger zone.
Against the Spanish defensive giants Atletico Madrid, Barcelona likewise had little trouble creating chances. Both league matches between the two sides were won by Barcelona. The combined 4-1 score reflected almost exactly the chances created.
So far, two of Europe’s best defensive clubs have tried and failed to contain Barca’s big three of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi. Juventus on Saturday hope not to become the third. If anyone in Europe has a chance, it may be the Italian title-holders. But if Atleti and Bayern could not pull off the feat, it is hard to believe anyone can.