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Pirlo remains the magician at Juve

SpecialtoFoxSoccer JAMES HORNCASTLE
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A brief round of applause brought an end to the final training session of the season. It was only then that it dawned on Andrea Pirlo that he wouldn’t be coming back to Milanello and its leafy surroundings.

He bid a tearful farewell to his teammates, sharing a long embrace with Massimo Ambrosini before being led off the pitch with Pippo Inzaghi’s arm around his shoulders.

A day earlier, Pirlo had presented himself at Milan’s offices in via Turati to reveal that he wouldn’t be renewing his contract at the club. Sidelined by injury and then marginalized by a change in Milan’s playing style, he had taken the decision to leave in pursuit of regular first team football.

With Pirlo’s debut against BATE Borisov on September 20, 2001 in mind, it felt like the end of an era. “It was a Uefa Cup game, Fatih Terim was there as coach and I came on in the second half,” he recalled.

“The game had been postponed for a week because there was the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11. I remember that there was a little fear during the flight… 10 years has passed and now they have got Bin Laden. I made this career with Milan: from the beginning of Bin Laden to the end of Bin Laden.”

Renaissance man: Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo spent 10 years with Milan and will face his former team on Sunday. (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)

It’s an odd way to frame his decade and 400 appearances at a club with whom he emerged as the outstanding deep-lying playmaker of his generation.

Once likened to a "Zico in front of the defence" by Carlos Alberto Parreira, Pirlo was asked if Milan would one day regret allowing him to leave. “I hope so,” he replied.

There was no malice in his voice. Adriano Galliani reminded everyone that Pirlo had said it in a "sweet tone." But Milan’s policy of giving players aged 30 or over only a one-year extension rankled. Intentional or not, it bred insecurity and led Pirlo to believe that they thought he was past his best.

“I have come to be considered one of the old guard but I am two or three years younger than the others at the end of their contracts,” he told Il Corriere della Sera.

"I still feel young. I feel that I can play another three or four years at a high level. I am sure of what I say. I’d be sad to leave after so many years. I’d have to leave the places and people I know: the cook, the gardener at Milanello. Ten years is a long time. But I can’t stay without playing.”

All of a sudden a player with a World Cup and two Champions League winners’ medals in his collection felt that he had a point to prove again. Pirlo could have faded into the background, instead choosing to tend to the pinot noir and lugana grapes that his vineyard is producing. His father had been asked to enter the political arena in the family village of Flero and could perhaps have done with a hand.

But, at 32, he wasn’t finished yet, his influence on Cesare Prandelli’s Italian national team indicated as much.

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When Juventus called to make an offer, Pirlo didn’t hesitate, not out of spite, nor for the money – he did after all accept a 42% pay cut – and while there was prestige in becoming one of the few players along with his mentor and former Brescia teammate Roberto Baggio to play for each of Italy’s Big Three, it wasn’t the driving factor.

Here was a club whose outlook at this particular moment in time mirrored his own. “There isn’t another team that has the same motivations as me,” Pirlo said.

“Juventus have the objective of returning to the top both in Italy and in Europe. I was looking for a new challenge and I found it here: I want to win and take Juve back to the top. For this reason I turned down other offers from Italy and abroad.”

Doubts persisted about Pirlo’s fitness. A groin injury in the build-up to the World Cup in South Africa had taken longer than expected to heal and was followed by a problem with his right knee, which meant he spent more time in the treatment room than ever before last season.

Seventeen appearances for Milan in Serie A told its own story but Pirlo insisted it would still have a happy ending.

“I had physical problems,” he acknowledged. “I had a kind of sabbatical that will lengthen my career. In 10 years at Milan I played 400 games and I am aiming to do in the next four or five years what I did in the last 10.”

Whether he could of course still scale the same heights as before was up for debate, not least because Juventus’s system of play under Antonio Conte, a 4-4-2 evolving into a 4-2-4 led to fears that Pirlo would be overrun in midfield. At Milan, Ambrosini and Rino Gattuso had diligently protected the pocket in which their quarter-back picked his passes. They acted as his right and left tackles in a 4-3-2-1 and without their coverage, it was thought that Pirlo and the team could be stopped.

Pirlo (third left) believes he can play for another four years at the top level. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Amid the general climate of suspicion, Conte sought to allay any misgivings the press had regarding his role in the midfield. “Great players will always find space with me. Andrea has charisma, personality and a winning mentality. His identikit says Juve. I am happy to have him available to me.”

Juventus’s season opener against Parma showed exactly why Pirlo enjoyed his confidence. The regista could still conduct an orchestra, and did so in a new theatre to a stunning 4-1 win, pulling the strings for his team’s first goal, scored by Stephan Lichtsteiner, and their last, finished by Marchisio after another wonderful lofted pass over the top of the defence.

“I believe that signing a player of his level and worth for free has been the deal of the century,” declared Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. “When I watched him play, I thought: ‘There is a God,’ because his class as a footballer is embarrassingly good.”

Wearing the No 21 shirt, which had been used by Zinedine Zidane during his time at the club in the late 1990s, Pirlo was man of the match again in Juventus’s 1-0 win at Siena and their 1-1 draw at home to Bologna when he added another assist to his tally, making it three in three games. La Gazzetta dello Sport even called him the 'Magic Johnson of football' while his passing ability also evoked a comment made by Frank Rijkaard in reference to Andrés Iniesta – that he was like a “child handing out sweets.”

Stopping Pirlo is now back at the top of the agenda on every opposition scouting report in Serie A relating to Juventus. After the Parma game, which refreshed everyone’s minds as to what he could do when given the time to “direct play with a cigar in his mouth”, the need to snuff out Pirlo became clear.

Still cutting it: Pirlo in action for Italy in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Slovenia. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Take the ace out of the pack, and Juventus’s house of cards would come crashing down too. That’s at least what Catania coach Vincenzo Montella thought when drawing up a strategy to cope with him last Sunday. He specifically asked his midfielder Gennaro Delvecchio to man-mark Pirlo out of the game, pressing him on receiving the ball.

Admittedly Pirlo wasn’t completely cancelled out – far from it in fact as he provided an assist for Milos Krasic, which the Serbia international missed - but there was still a sense that his impact had been reduced.

On review, he lost 60% of his duels, as Juventus fought to come from behind to earn a 1-1 draw with Krasic eventually redeeming himself by finding the equaliser in a Sicilian rainstorm. “They man-marked me and then I had to sneak away to create space and room for my teammates,” Pirlo said.

It’s hardly anything new, or something he hasn’t had to deal with in the past. To a degree it worked for Catania, although there are significant caveats. A heavy pitch in sodden rather than slick conditions slowed things down while the tiredness that comes with playing three games in a week also made itself felt.

Conte experimented too, elaborating on his 4-2-4 by adopting a 4-2-3-1 as an alternative, which reverts to a 4-1-4-1 when out of possession.

Concerned that four of Juventus’s goals this season came in one game and three have been assisted by Pirlo, he has tried to diversify the origin of the team’s attack and vary their play either on the wings through the pace of Krasic, Eljero Elia and Simone Pepe or more interestingly via Arturo Vidal’s ability to time runs into the box, which brought the Chile midfielder 10 goals for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga last season.

The system still needs work, although Juventus will have had time to make the necessary adjustments given they aren’t involved in European competition ahead of Milan’s visit on Sunday in what will be an emotionally charged occasion for Pirlo.

No group of players knows his style better, and a fit-again Kevin-Prince Boateng is likely to be awarded the job of thwarting him, even if this encounter is one to be decided on the wings where Juventus’s width will provide a narrow Milan side with a problem to solve.

“It’s important for everyone, not just me,” Pirlo said in reference to the game. He’s right of course.

After facing Parma, Siena, Bologna and Catania, the fixture list finally presents Juventus with their first real test of the season. Top of the table going into Week 5, albeit with the lowest points total for a leader since the introduction of three for a win in 1994, the question is: are they the real deal?

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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