Juventus hangs on to knock Barcelona and misfiring Messi out of the Champions League

Messi and Barca are out of the Champions League. (Reuters)
Messi and Barca are out of the Champions League. (Reuters)

There was a moment, late in the first half, that seemed to capture the game up to that point, and from there on.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, misfiring in rare fashion all night, rose for a header by the halfway line. While airborne, he was shoved hard by Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic. When the Argentine superstar landed, right on his face, he received no call from stubborn and unfeeling Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers.

Barca’s ouster was especially painful for Messi. (AP Photo)
Barca’s ouster was especially painful for Messi. (AP Photo)

So his teammate, Neymar, took matters into his own hands, and clattered into the fray with a reckless challenge. For that, a yellow card did emerge. Neymar was furious. So were his teammates.

Things were not going according to plan.

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In Barca’s miraculous comeback over Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16 of the Champions League, when they overcame a 4-0 loss in the first leg with a heart-stopping 6-1 win at home, Luis Enrique’s team had found an early goal to inspire hope and a late one before the break to mark the halfway point in its comeback.

But Barcelona was getting nowhere against the Italian team. A 3-0 loss in Turin a week earlier in the first leg of the quarterfinals necessitated another big win. None seemed to be forthcoming. And indeed, none would materialize, with the return game ending 0-0, sending Juve into the semifinals at Barca’s expense.

Certainly, Barcelona was the better side. And had far more chances. Messi had connected with Jordi Alba early on, but he’d come up just short on his run. And the maestro himself had failed to score on three good looks before halftime.

Juve had done just enough to keep Barca from coming at them without recourse, as the Argentines Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala threatened on the break. But it was largely one-way traffic. Barcelona couldn’t get through that final line of defense, though, where things were too congested to get quality shots off – save for Messi’s.

As Barca’a pressure built, so did its frustration. It felt victimized by Kuipers’ laissez-faire handling of the game.

Barcelona had, going into the night, won 15 straight games at home in the Champions League with a 50-7 scoring record. But Juventus would not be as prone to mistakes as the Parisians. And subsequently, it would not get rattled by a succession of hope-inspiring goals by the Catalans.

In the second half, Messi had several more looks but seemed entirely out of sorts. It was a Messi we’re unaccustomed to, a discombobulating human version of an otherworldly talent. Capable of failure. Not impervious to missing decent chances.

At the other end, Juan Cuadrado came closer than Messi did, rolling a finish just wide.

Barca spent much of the game in customary territory, around the other team’s box, occasionally venturing in to attempt a shot or two. But for a team for whom scoring his been so facile since it assembled the best-ever attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, they just couldn’t buy a goal.

Let alone the three it needed to force extra time.

And to say nothing of the four required to win outright.

For Barcelona, it wasn’t meant to be. The truth is that everything went right in the home leg against PSG, even after Edinson Cavani scored a seemingly lethal away goal. And it all went wrong against Juve.

It felt sort of strange, in these last two European home games, to consider Barca, the world’s most admired soccer club, as something of a Cinderella story overcoming impossible odds. But the hole it had dug itself in Turin was simply too deep to scramble out of.

While it was one goal shallower than the one excavated in Paris, Juventus proved a savvier team. One more settled defensively, with a central block of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, backstopped by Gianluigi Buffon, that had faced down the toughest of tests in the crucible of elite defending careers. Juve last gave up a European goal in November, 541 minutes of play ago.

They were buffered and protected and sheltered from all sides in manager Max Allegri’s unapologetically artless game plan. In the 75th minute, Allegri had no qualms about throwing on a fifth defender for a forward, to go with the two holding midfielders already out there.

While the game, at times, opened up plenty of space, Messi never located the keys to unlock a defense poured out of lead. For once, the game’s greatest player could not summon the magic when it mattered most. Neither could Neymar. Or Suarez. Or Andres Iniesta.

Barca took 17 shots. Only one was on target.

A masterful defensive performance from a worthy Juventus keeps it on course for a second final in three years. Therefore, Barcelona will not win the Champions League this year. A difficult season probably won’t yield a third straight La Liga crown either. And a Copa del Rey trophy alone is unsatisfactory.

This absurd run through the Champions League knockout stages might have salvaged a chaotic campaign. But Juve would not wither in the cauldron of Camp Nou the way PSG did.

And so a reckoning is coming to Barcelona.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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