Neutral? With Alves and Buffon there is no such thing

Matt Stead

If nothing else, Wednesday evening’s absorbing Champions League semi-final answered the question once and for all. The irresistible force can indeed be countered, just providing the immovable object is at the very peak of its powers.

Make no mistake: Monaco showed precisely the kind of form that has dismantled many a defence throughout Europe this season. Kylian Mbappe was a livewire in the first half, having as many shots (two) in the opening quarter of an hour against Juventus as Lionel Messi had managed in 180 quarter-final minutes. Nabil Dirar’s delivery was excellent, and while Bernardo Silva was silenced for much of the game, his talent still shone through.

Kamil Glik tested Gianluigi Buffon; Radamel Falcao should have done so much better when played through on goal by Silva; Valere Germain almost inspired a grain of hope with a late header. Buffon made as many saves in this first leg (five) as he did in two against Barcelona. He was made to work for a 60th clean sheet in his 100th Champions League game for Juventus.

That the 39-year-old was called into action so often is credit to Monaco, who found their way through a stoic Juventus defence on more than one occasion. But when push came to shove, the French side did not have enough weight to make a difference.

That a side who had scored 133 goals in 57 matches this season – the most in Europe’s top five leagues – were denied time and time again is credit to Juventus. This was only the fourth game all season in which Monaco had failed to score, and the first home game since November 2015. The hosts were not quite held at arm’s length, but the gulf in experience was noticeable.

In no player was that gap more pronounced than in Dani Alves. The game’s second oldest outfielder was its most prominent performer; never before has a right-back embraced his role of game-changer quite like the Brazilian. He was a human wrecking ball down the right-hand side, thwarting the previously dangerous Thomas Lemar at every turn, pausing only to wreak his own path of destruction on the Monaco defence.

That description sounds somewhat barbaric, but the opener, orchestrated by Alves, was anything but. Eight Juventus outfielders combined to play the ball from their own half and into Danijel Subasic’s goal, the Monaco players powerless. Paulo Dybala’s flick was delicious, and Gonzalo Higuain’s pass excellent, but Alves’s backheel was of another realm. Higuain finished well, and Juventus had their crucial away goal.

But Alves was not done. Monaco threatened to rally in the second half before Juventus’s experience took hold once more, and their right-back lofted in a perfect cross for Higuain, who did not have to break his stride as he slotted the ball beneath Subasic.

The Old Lady could hear her rotund counterpart practicing her scales in the background. Juventus are unbeaten in their last 49 home games, and have one foot, both arms and various other body parts in the final in May.

Higuain will accept the plaudits – these were his third and fourth goals in 22 Champions League knock-out games, and a necessary boost to the confidence levels – while Buffon has captured the hearts of the neutral. The keeper has 19 major honours to his name for club and country, and it would be truly special to see him add number 20 after finishing as a runner-up in 2003 and 2015. Juventus certainly seem better equipped to clear that hurdle than in their previous guises.

But it is Alves who deserves more praise than any other. The 33-year-old spent most of his final year at Barcelona being criticised and scrutinised, and he sought solace in Italy.

“I like to be loved and when I’m not loved, I leave,” he said in February, explaining his decision to end an eight-year association with the Spaniards last summer. That he moved on a free transfer is almost criminal, and he has undoubtedly found what he craved in Turin.

This was not quite boys against men – that would do Monaco a great disservice – but it is clear that Juventus boasted in abundance the one thing Monaco lacked: experience. The French side proved they are capable of wounding any defence, but Juventus displayed the necessary killer instinct.

If Max Allegri’s side do, as expected, defend their first-leg lead in Turin and reach June’s final in Cardiff, they are likely to carry the support of many a neutral. No-one would begrudge Buffon his deserved moment in the limelight, nor Alves his chance to silence the critics as if they were an opposition winger. Two of football’s most unique characters remain on course for a Cardiff crowning.

Matt Stead