FOX Soccer Exclusive
Del Piero on course for winning exit
“Godot has come at last,” wrote La Stampa, and wasn’t the wait worthwhile? The 285th goal of Alessandro Del Piero’s Juventus career came 260 days after his last. But that of Tuesday night in a Coppa Italia quarterfinal against Roma ranks among the very best for its execution and its sense of occasion.
It was a “gol alla Del Piero.” By now everyone is familiar with his trademark. La Repubblica claims it was copyrighted on December 11, 1994 in a 4-3 win away to Lazio. His most famous goal had come a week earlier – a looping cushioned volley with the outside of his foot against Fiorentina. But it was exactly this kind of strike, perhaps because it was more repeatable – with Del Piero dribbling slightly off-center, then taking a few steps inside before finding either the top or the bottom corner with a shot – that would become synonymous with his playing style.
When and Where
FOX Soccer, FOX Soccer Plus, and FOXSoccer2Go, are your homes for the Italian Serie A, with 5 live matches this week, starting Saturday:
Saturday, January 28
12:00 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus, live, Catania vs. Parma
2:30 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer, live, Juventus vs. Udinese
Sunday, January 29
6:30 a.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus, live, Fiorentina vs. Siena
9:00 a.m. ET, FOX Soccer, live, Lecce vs. Inter Milan
2:30 a.m. ET, FOX Soccer, live, AC Milan vs. Cagliari
As the ball flew beyond Roma goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg and kissed the bottom of the bar, Del Piero’s goal brought all 38,498 fans in the Juventus Arena to their feet. He received a standing ovation, just as he did at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2008 after a similar glorious effort against Real Madrid. That was very special. This, though, held another special significance. La Gazzetta dello Sport even published a piece written as though it was 2045 and Del Piero, now old and with grey hair like his former teammate Fabrizio Ravanelli, was telling his grandchildren about it.
Why? Well, to begin with, it was his first at Juventus’ new ground – Del Piero has now scored in four places that the club, at one time or another, has called home in their 114-year history, from the Communale and the Delle Alpi to the Olimpico and the Juventus Arena. He has left his mark on each of them. It’s perhaps a unique feat in football.
More poignant, however, was that it came on January 24, the ninth anniversary of the death of Gianni Agnelli, the Juventus patron known as l’Avvocato, with whom he shared a special bond and owes his nickname Pinturicchio. Even for those of you who don’t believe in fate, it’s hard not to see destiny at work here. Del Piero scored an acrobatic and emotional goal against Piacenza in Juventus’s first game after Agnelli past away in 2003, and by honoring his memory again in this, the greatest imaginable way, he only served to reinforce the profound connection he has with this football club.
That connection began in 1993. It bears remembering how, on being unveiled to the media and presented with his first Juventus shirt back then, Del Piero famously folded the black and white jersey neatly, delicately and respectfully once he had finished up with the photographer Salvatore Giglio. He didn’t toss it to one side and leave it crumpled on the floor somewhere like other new signings. Rather pointedly after Tuesday’s game, Del Piero’s great friend and contemporary, the Roma captain Francesco Totti, advised Juventus that they now treat him with the same care.
The club, and in particular the president Andrea Agnelli, were criticized, despite having their reasons, for announcing at a shareholders’ assembly in October that, come what may, this would be Del Piero’s last season as a player at Juventus. Some felt he deserved more. “That hurt me,” Paolo Maldini said. “Alessandro should have been the one to talk about it when he felt ready.”
But what’s done is done. At 37, Del Piero isn’t willing to hang up his boots yet. He still feels like he has something to give and wants to play until he is 40. Seeing him in the colors of another team - be it in the United States, Japan or Dubai - would not look right. Yet, judging by Juventus’s season so far, the end of the current campaign could be, if there is such a scenario, as close to a perfect time to say goodbye as possible.
Last Saturday’s 2-0 win away to Atalanta, a result encouragingly sealed by a goal from Emmanuele Giaccherini after an assist from local-born academy graduate and Juventus fan Luca Marrone, meant they were crowned winter champions - an unofficial title without a trophy, it’s true, though one that’s still been welcomed in some quarters as the first since the club returned to Serie A in 2007.
Worthless, though it may be, it does often provide us with a strong indication as to how the season will end. “I’ve heard that in the last five years the team that were winter champions then won the Scudetto,” Michel Platini told Sky Italia. The Juventus legend and UEFA president is almost right. It’s actually the last seven years. What’s more, according to Il Corriere dello Sport, of the 24 occasions in which Juventus have finished the first half of the season top of the table, they’ve held on to stay there 18 times – a conversion rate of 75%, which, out of interest, is above the national average of 68.3%.
Unbeaten for a club record 19 games with the best defense in Serie A (a feature of every title-winning side of the last 10 years), head coach Antonio Conte is refusing to take anything for granted, nor are his players letting themselves get carried away. Accused of shying away from any title talk by Milan coach Max Allegri, he hit back: “No one’s hiding here. I just don’t believe anyone wakes up in the morning and says: ‘I’ve got it won’. I was lucky enough to win five league titles (as a player) and for this reason I know that the road is long and difficult.”
Del Piero knows that, too; so does Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo. They’ve been here before. The others haven’t. Mindful of Juventus’s back-to-back seventh place finishes, Conte is wise to be cautious. Though undefeated, winning hasn’t come as easy to Juventus as it has to Milan at times this season.
Like Napoli, Cagliari and Atalanta, they’ve been held to eight draws - almost one every other game - and while that has to some extent been offset by their excellent head-to-head record against other teams in the top six, there’s a sense that they’ve had to sweat for every single point. “In order to stay where we are we need to give 120%,” Conte claims.
There’s a grain of truth in that. One often gets the impression that Milan can perform below par and have an off-day yet still get results, because, if all else fails, they can fall back on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to get them over the line. With the exception of Pirlo, who can’t convert all the chances he creates for others, Juventus don’t have a comparable match-winner on whose back they can clamber and ride their way to victory when times are hard.
To put that into some kind of perspective, Alessandro Matri, Mirko Vucinic and new signing Marco Borriello are all proven strikers in Serie A, yet Ibrahimhovic has four goals more than they have put together in the league this season. Is that a drawback? Not necessarily, no. The heartening aspect of this Juventus side is that they’re dependent on everyone, not someone. They’re a team.
Up next on Saturday are Udinese, themselves just three points behind in third place with Toto Di Natale, the player who turned down a move to Juventus this time last year, still top of the scoring charts and looking likely to be named Capocannoniere for a third straight season (a feat realized by Gunnar Nordahl between 1953 and 1955 and Platini between 1983 and 1985). Will he add to his tally in Turin and end the league leaders’ unbeaten run?
One thing’s for sure: Nothing’s ever that black and white. Not even a match between Juventus and Udinese.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.