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A Point To Prove: Gianluigi Buffon – Can Clark Kent Remember How to Fly?

After the miserable results of the latest campaigns, there has been no end to the blame games played in Turin and among the diaspora of Juventini on the web. Fingers have been pointed in almost every direction, and it’s fair to say that very few involved with the club since 2006 can be said to be completely guilt-free. ‘A Point to Prove‘ is a new series where we will focus solely on the PLAYERS. In the end, they are the ones who need to perform to get us out of this mess – and quite a lot of them have… something to prove.


 

There is no question Gianluigi Buffon is an icon of Juventus, Italy, and the proud goalkeeping tradition of both. Since breaking into the Parma (age 17) and Azzurri (age 19) teams at a very young age, San Gigi has been a rock of consistency and brilliance. For the first half of the 2000s, he represented the absolute best among those wearing goalkeeping gloves: quick off his feet, a sublime shot-stopper and absolute leader of the defense, Gigi held the patent of the “Miracle Save.”[TM]

From the words of famous Italian SKY commentator Fabio Caressa, the Carrara-born keeper “delivered up to 15 points to Juventus each season” with his gravity-defying acrobatics, and his performances with the Italian National team have been no less immortal. Buffon undoubtedly cemented his legendary status with an epic display at the 2006 World Cup, conceding only two goals (an own goal and one penalty-kick) the entire tournament leading Italy to their 4th World Cup title. It was the pinnacle of a career. A career during which Buffon, at least up until that point, did not deliver varying performances. San Gigi, at the height of his sanctity and greatness, did not make mistakes.

It may then come as a complete shock to see the name of Gianluigi Buffon appear in this series. After all, what does the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the game still have to prove? Actually, quite a bit.

Four Years of Injuries

Ever since our return to Serie A, Gianluigi Buffon’s career has been far from what we expected. Indeed it has been a recurring factor these past 4 years to have Buffon cursed with a significant injury at some point or another during the season, ruling him out of the line-up for 3 or 4 months and forcing him to set up permanent shop at the Juve infirmary. In our first season back, Emanuele Belardi got a fair amount of playing time as Buffon’s deputy, but didn’t convince. He was shipped off to Udinese, and the club drafted Alexander Manninger to play back-up. Again, Buffon had significant injury issues either with his groin or lower back, and in the next two season Manninger delivered 27 appearances in the league to general satisfaction.

As the awful season of 2009-2010 rolled on, Italy and Juventus were again deprived of their vice-Captain in Winter, as Buffon struggled with the sciatic nerve in his lower back. He spent much of the latter half of the season out, with Chimenti even making his first Juve appearance in years as Manninger’s reserve. Buffon recovered just in time for the 2010 World Cup, but was forced to go off in the first game against Paraguay, making way for Federico Marchetti. With the Azzurri disaster and group stage elimination that was the South African expedition, Buffon’s World Cup involvement ended that day against La Albiroja. It would be another long way to recovery.

At this point, Giuseppe Marotta and Andrea Agnelli decided to bring in more than a valid alternative for Buffon. The club was not satisfied with only having Alex Manninger as competent keeper, Chimenti’s howlers effectively ending his Juve and playing career and showing us we needed a backup for our backup. In came Marco Storari, who was named Serie A’s Best Goalkeeper of the prior year by Gazzetta dello Sport, of course playing for Delneri and Marotta at Sampdoria. Storari delivered excellent performances, above any that Manninger or Belardi had ever given in the past, and thus, the seeds of conflict for a #1 spot at Juventus were planted.

O Gigi, Where Art Thou?

In January, with Buffon’s return from injury imminent, there was heavy debate whether Storari should retain the gloves, and Delneri indicated that Buffon would have to win his place back. He then proceeded to immediately name Buffon his starter. This had the impressive effect of irritating both Buffon and Storari. Buffon’s agent stated Gigi felt slighted by the club and unimportant. Storari’s agent was annoyed his client got benched immediately, despite prior assurances from the coach and the keeper’s outstanding form.

It’s safe to say that Buffon has somewhat disappointed since his return from his umpteenth injury in January of 2011. Whereas from 2008-2010, his injury spells were interlaced with genius goalkeeping, for whatever reason, there has not been the same triumphant return. The unflappable Buffon was making uncharacteristic errors; being sent off for straying outside of his box, imprecise exits that led to goals, and generally looking very unsure in decision-making. Following Juventus vs. Milan back in March, Alessio Tacchinardi made the bold (yet correct) criticism when he blasted Buffon for joking with Rino Gattuso after an error led to Gattuso’s winner. It seemed Buffon was not only making errors, but wasn’t particularly perturbed about it. Or perhaps he was laughing it off nervously, hiding something deeper.

Without a doubt, it’s been the strangest and error-prone period of Gianluigi Buffon’s entire decade-long career at Juventus. With a new season coming up, Buffon has not still not looked totally secure. Storari arguably put in the better pre-season, and when called up for Italy, Buffon was often resorting to punching the ball out rather than calmly collecting. The goalkeeper punch has always been a sign of a lack of confidence, and Gazzetta picked up on it as well in their pagelle rating after the Slovenia game:

BUFFON 6 – Punching and not collecting the ball. In recent times, Buffon has followed this path. It already happened in august, in Bari against the Spanish national side. Okay for now, as long as no one scores on the rebound…

This general uneasiness was witnessed yet again in Juve’s victory vs. Parma. Buffon had very little to do all match, with Parma having only one shot (not even on target) all game with the exception of that injury-time penalty kick. However in one of the few times Gigi did touch the ball, he awkwardly fumbled a simple Giovinco cross and nearly gifted the Gialloblu with an equalizer (if only there had been an opponent lurking). Things didn’t exactly improve in the following game vs. Siena either, when Buffon turned a seemingly simple clearance into a hazardous dribbling attempt & hair-ripping moment.

Stay Healthy & Remember You’re Superman

With his 34th birthday coming up in January, Gianluigi Buffon has a point to prove. Or actually, he has at least two.

  1. The first point is a physiological one; between the player himself, the goalkeeping staff, and the medical group, we have to see if San Gigi can remain healthy. With Buffon’s increasing age, it is a serious concern. Effective outfield performers (yet nowhere on Buffon’s level) like Sissoko and soon enough, Iaquinta, have left the club due to simply being absent more than present.
  2. More generally, Buffon has to seize his #1 shirt and demonstrate that he is still the world’s best goalkeeper. Gigi has not looked confident in pre-season nor last Spring, indeed, he has not been in world class form for two years now, his last long heroic spell occurring in the fall of 2009 under Ciro Ferrara. Buffon also needs to disprove Tacchinardi’s harsh accusation, the notion that the legend between the posts had lost the Juventus never-say-die spirit and hunger to win.

Belardi and Manninger were capable back-ups, but never seriously threatened Gianluigi’s spot at Juve… or Italy. Marco Storari, however, was in tremendous form for much of last season, capping it with a sensational display against his squadra del cuore, Roma, and has continued his good form in the pre-season. Though he may merit it, it seems unlikely that Conte will make Storari his starter anytime soon, so Buffon needs to seize this chance in the best possible way: by eliminating the strange mistakes of last term and providing those highlight reel saves that he’s become so known for.

Our team has young players like De Ceglie and Bonucci in defense and plenty of new incoming transfers, thus badly needing leadership both in the locker room and on the pitch. As he attempts to give this squad the old Juventus spirit back, Antonio Conte made it quite clear that he expects more from veterans like Del Piero and Buffon, and they better step up to the plate. There is some reassurance however about the goalkeeper’s state of mind in that regard. While Gigi’s form may currently be absent, based on the primal howl he let out after Giovinco’s consolation goal vs. Parma (clearly furious the team had conceded despite being up 4-0) his Juventus spirit seems intact. It’s that kind of determination that, hopefully, will bring Buffon back on the right side of technical perfection.

Juventus has had a steady long-term keeper for most of the last 3 decades. Between Zoff, Tacconi, and Peruzzi, Buffon‘s legacy is already assured. His place in the current team however is not. It will be up San Gigi to prove that despite having nearly won it all, he’s still hungry for silverware.
 

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