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Gigi Buffon’s Champions League moment

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-06-2017 Nitin Sreedhar

The National Stadium of Wales in Cardiff will host a cluster of superstars on Sunday as defending champions Real Madrid take on in-form Juventus in the Uefa Champions League final. Europe’s premier club football competition features the best and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cristiano Ronaldo taking centre stage in the final.

The Portuguese has been a poster boy of world football for many years now and will be expected to help Madrid retain the trophy—something no other team has achieved since 1992, when the European Cup was renamed Uefa Champions League.

Juventus are in top form. They knocked out Barcelona in the quarter-finals and Monaco in the semis. The Madrid forwards will have to be at their attacking best—they are the highest scorers in this season’s Champions League, with 32 goals—if they intend to beat a Juventus defence that has conceded just three goals in the competition so far this year. A big part of this resolute defence is their goalkeeper-captain Gianluigi Buffon.

Quite often, a goalkeeper’s contribution to a team’s success, his saves and clean sheets, can be overshadowed by other performances in the field—a striker’s goal tally, a midfielder’s assists, or even tackles by a defender. But “Gigi” Buffon is cut from a different cloth.

Since he left Parma for Juventus in 2001 for €51 million (around Rs367 crore today)—a world-record fee for a goalkeeper—Buffon, has been a symbol of Italian football. Over his 20-year international career, he has played a record 168 times for Italy. He was part of the Azzurri that won the 2006 World Cup.

He has made 621 appearances for Juventus, second only to Alessandro Del Piero, the former Juventus striker. Buffon has won eight Serie A titles and three Coppa Italia titles with the team.

There is, however, one crucial piece of silverware missing from his career—the Uefa Champions League trophy. Buffon has fallen short twice in the finals—in 2002-03, when Juventus lost to rivals AC Milan on penalties; and then in 2014-15, when the team lost 3-1 to a Barcelona powered by the formidable trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. Consequently, Juve became the first side to lose six European cup finals—not a record they would have hoped for.

This might, of course, change on Sunday. It has been a record-breaking year for Buffon. The 39-year-old played his 1,000th career game in March and lifted a sixth consecutive Serie A title with Juventus. With the Coppa Italia also in the bag, Buffon—and Juventus—are on course for a fantastic treble if they can overcome Real Madrid in Cardiff.

A Juventus win could also have major implications for next year’s Ballon d’Or. While many have tipped Ronaldo to again win the coveted annual award given to the player who has performed best over the previous year, players and football pundits believe Buffon could break the Messi-Ronaldo monopoly. Apart from Juventus manager Max Allegri, the likes of Antoine Griezmann (the Atlético Madrid forward) and Gerard Pique (the Barcelona centre-back) have also come out in support of Buffon. “If we look at trophies won (this season), then it would be nice if Buffon would win (the Ballon d’Or). He’s won the Scudetto, the Coppa Italia and he can still win the Champions League…. He would deserve it for the career that he’s had,” news reports quoted Pique as saying last month.

If Buffon does win the Ballon d’Or, he would become the first goalkeeper to do so since 1963, when Lev Yashin, who played for the Soviet Union and FC Dynamo Moscow, won it.

This is the fifth time Ronaldo and Buffon will be facing each other in the Champions League. The Portuguese has managed to find the back of the net in each of their previous four confrontations, but in the current Champions League campaign the goalkeeper has shown that he is a man for the big occasion. Eight clean sheets in 11 matches stand testimony to this.

Buffon has, in fact, weathered the rough times with the team too, staying on when Juventus were relegated to Serie B and stripped of two Serie A titles (2004-05, 2005-06) after the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Almost 10 years later, he explained the reason for this decision to an Italian newspaper: “I could’ve left that summer and I was contacted by important clubs.... But I decided to stay at Juve first of all because I believe in gratitude. Football is not just a business, it is also sentiments. The sport would die without the former or the latter, we ought to know that.”

If Buffon does manage to deliver the Champions League to his club this Sunday, he is bound to feel vindicated.

*****

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo: Reuters

Ronaldo eyes a 100% record

There’s something about Cristiano Ronaldo and the Champions League final—he leaves a mark on it for reasons good and bad. In the 2007-08 final in Moscow, he scored the opening goal for Manchester United against Chelsea, but scuffed a penalty in the shootout, which United eventually won.

In the 2013-14 and 2015-16 finals, he scored the winning goals against Atlético Madrid.

He has been in fine scoring form this Champions League too, with 10 goals so far, one behind Lionel Messi.

He has managed to score against Buffon in each of their previous four meetings. While Buffon will desperately try for another clean sheet this Champions League, Ronaldo will be aiming for the back of the net again. Their duel will make for a compelling watch.

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