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Juve fends off fears it has taken a step backward

WHEN Miralem Pjanic asked Lionel Messi for his shirt at halftime, it was clear that Juventus was bowing down to Barcelona and its stars.

It was only one match, and it was an injury-depleted side visiting Barcelona, but the general sense surrounding Juventus is that last season’s finalist has taken a slight step backward.

The humiliating 0-3 loss on the opening night of the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday meant that Juventus has already conceded the same number of goals it allowed in all of last season’s competition before it was beaten 1-4 by Real Madrid in the final.

“I think you’re exaggerating a bit,” Pjanic said in a post-match interview that highlighted the squad’s struggles. “You’ll see that at the end of the season the results will come.”

However, Juventus standout Paulo Dybala was completely outplayed by Messi, his Argentina teammate; center forward Gonzalo Higuain was nearly invisible — just like last season’s final — and the Turin squad hardly put up a fight in the second half.

“The absences are not an alibi,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “We should have remained in the match in the second half, whereas instead we made too many errors. ... If you leave Messi with open field you know what’s going to happen.”

At the end of a strong first half from Juventus, Messi gave Barcelona the lead following a quick 1-2 with Luis Suarez.

Messi helped make it 2-0 in the 56th minute when Ivan Rakitic scored, and then got another in the 69th that left goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon — who had not conceded a goal to Messi in their three previous meetings — with no chance.

This is likely Buffon’s final season, and the 39-year-old goalie is not having an easy time of it. He was roundly criticized for his performance in Italy’s 0-3 loss to Spain in a World Cup qualifier this month.

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