Juventus’ Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci (L) celebrates with Juventus’ forward from Argentina Gonzalo Higuain (C) and Juventus’ forward from Argentina Paulo Dybala after scoring during the Italian Serie A football match Udinese vs Juventus at the Dacia Arena Stadium in Udine on March 5, 2017.
MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP
Barcelona must try to stop prolific Juventus pair Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala when the sides meet in a mouthwatering Champions League quarter-final first leg on Tuesday, admits defender Javier Mascherano.
Juventus meet Barcelona for the first time since the 2015 final, when an early Ivan Rakitic strike left Massimiliano Allegri’s men with a mountain to climb before they succumbed 3-1 in Berlin.
Almost two years on Juventus are much changed but veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon believes they are “more clinical” now thanks to their attacking stars.
Ex-Real Madrid man Higuain hit his second brace inside a week in a 2-0 win at home to Chievo on Saturday, when Dybala was involved in both goals, to take his league tally for the season to 21 and keep Juve on course for a record sixth consecutive Serie A title.
Days earlier, Higuain struck twice against old club Napoli in the Italian Cup as Juve set up a final against Lazio.
“They’re both great players, I know their qualities and it’s obvious we have to pay special attention to them,” Mascherano told reporters of his Argentina team-mates.
“With one move, they can change the whole game. They have our respect.”
Of course, Barcelona have their own Argentine superstar up front in Lionel Messi — on a run of 12 goals in his past 10 outings for club and country — along with Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Buffon, one of the few top ‘keepers in the world yet to concede a goal to Messi, said: “Messi, Suarez and Neymar together are incredible. They’re all very generous, and that’s something that makes you realise it’s going to be even more difficult.
“Because you’re not just up against three individuals, but a devastating trident. On paper, Barca are stronger than us but we’re becoming more clinical.
“It will be nice to measure ourselves up against them.”
It has been a turbulent past month for the Spanish champions.
After overturning a 4-0 first-leg deficit in the last 16 by beating Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the return at the Camp Nou, they lost 2-1 at Deportivo in La Liga.
A run of three consecutive league wins followed but they warmed up for the trip to Italy by losing 2-0 at Malaga on Saturday when Neymar was sent off.
Yet Barcelona coach Luis Enrique remains in bullish mood.
“Juve’s stats at home are impressive, but as always our objective is to go out and play a great game of football, irrespective of the stadium or the opponents,” he said.
“Juve play well in all areas of the pitch. Our job is to go out and chase victory right until the end.”
Barcelona will be without Sergio Busquets due to suspension, meaning Mascherano could be given a rare outing in the midfield holding role.
Neymar, as well as Rakitic and Gerard Pique — who both return following suspension against Malaga — are all one booking away from a suspension that would rule them out of the return leg.
However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri was left with no doubts as to what will be required against the five-time European champions.
“Given they almost always score, we have to score goals if we’re to have any chance in the second leg,” said Allegri.
“Dybala has really been looking forward to this game and is in great mental and physical shape. Having Dybala and Higuain at 100 percent gives us a huge extra boost.”