The opening game of Group C between Spain and Italy was the most eagerly anticipated encounter of the entire group stage. Four years ago, Spain knocked Italy out at the quarter-final stage as they went on to win the 2008 European Championships, and whilst the core of Spanish squad remains unchanged, Cesare Prandelli’s Italy is almost unrecognisable. The mouth watering encounter finally saw three of the finest passers of the 21st century grace the turf at the same time for the first time ever: Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez of Spain; and Andrea Pirlo of Italy.
All three players were, unsurprisingly, in the top five for most completed passes this season across the top five European leagues and Pirlo was top of that list with 2788 at Juventus, with Xavi a close second having made 2688 successful passes at Barcelona. There is not much between the top two, but when you consider that Xavi’s playing style - whilst still breathtaking to watch - is based more on a series of sharp short passes as he is deployed further up the pitch than Pirlo, who creates from a deeper position, the Italian's feat is made even more remarkable.
And considering that the Spaniard has done so in the best side in world football – a side he has played in his entire career – whilst his Italian counterpart did it in his first season at a rebuilt side with a new coach, it makes for much more impressive reading.
The game itself was a compelling tactical battle, seemingly played out on a chessboard rather than a football pitch, yet a moment of inspiration was needed to break the deadlock - and it was Pirlo who provided it right on the hour mark with the standout move of the game. Picking the ball up in the centre circle, he showed a burst of pace which belied his advancing years to dance past Sergio Busquets before playing a delightfully weighted pass in to the path of Antonio Di Natale, who clinically curled the ball beyond an onrushing Iker Casillas to put the Azzurri ahead.
The mouth watering encounter finally saw three of the finest passers of the 21st century grace the turf at the same time for the first time ever: Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez of Spain; and Andrea Pirlo of Italy
Pirlo’s resplendent performance against Spain typified the magnificent season he’s had - a season that has seen his career revitalised since move from Milan last summer. It seems unfathomable that, eighteen months ago, the future of the preeminent regista (that’s a deep-lying playmaker for the lay people out there) in world football was in such a precarious position, yet with his contract expiring that summer, his physical condition seemingly on the wane, and his place at the heart of the Milan side no longer guaranteed, Pirlo’s career was at a crossroads.
Injuries plagued his final season at Milan, but even when he was fit, he was not guaranteed a starting place. Max Allegri often overlooked him in favour of more mobile, hard-working midfielders which allowed him to accommodate Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho in the side - and Pirlo only made 12 league starts as the Rossoneri went on to win their first Scudetto title for seven years. For Milan, a club synonymous for retaining their iconic players until the end of their playing careers, to dispense of Pirlo’s services in such an unceremonious fashion at this stage of his career was a sad, and strange, state of affairs.
Still, Milan’s loss would prove to be Juventus’s gain. As soon as his contract at the San Siro expired the 32-year-old was signed to a three-year deal – a significant risk given his substantial wages and his questionable physical condition – and Pirlo became only the eighth player in history to play for both Milan clubs and Juventus. His signing was met with scepticism from certain quarters - in particular from me, who foolishly declared him to be past his sell by date. Could he stay fit, and even if he could, how would he fit in to Antonio Conte’s side? Then the season started.
The opening game of the season - Juve’s first competitive game in their new stadium - saw Parma travel to Turin. Pirlo lined up in the heart of the Bianconeri midfield with his compatriot Claudio Marchisio and the newly acquired Chilean Arturo Vidal flanking him, and l’architetto produced a masterful display as they thrashed Parma 4-1. It was a sign of what was to come for the rest of the season: Juventus would remain unbeaten in Serie A and eventually win the title for the first time since the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. Pirlo ended the season with more assists than anybody in the league and started all but one of the 38 league games, proving his questionable fitness last season was merely a one off.
For Milan, a club synonymous for retaining their iconic players until the end of their playing careers, to dispense of Pirlo’s services in such an unceremonious fashion at this stage of his career was a sad, and strange, state of affairs.
It should be noted that whilst Pirlo’s idiosyncratic style of play is undeniably captivating, the pace of the game is much quicker than it was a decade ago, and thus, his influence can at times be nullified. In Serie A he is helped by the preference of many sides not to press high up the pitch, but rather drop off and keep their defensive shape, often allowing Pirlo the time and space to dictate the tempo of games. Pace has never been key to his game but, when he is man-marked or constantly closed down by a more mobile player, he can struggle to influence the game in his usual fashion.
At Juventus, his compatriot Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal offer dynamism and tenacity in abundance; they relentlessly press high up the pitch, providing the platform for Pirlo to conduct the orchestra from deep. Pirlo is the quarterback, assessing the field from the pocket hoping his offensive weapons can get separation from their coverage; Vidal and Marchisio are the offensive line, giving Pirlo the time and space in the pocket to call the play; De Ceglie and Lichesteiner are the wide receivers stretching the field vertically; and Vucinic is the tight end, whose intelligent lateral movement between the lines not only offer an alternative pass, but create space for his teammates to move in to.
Such was the success of Juventus last season that Cesare Prandelli decided to go with an identical 3-5-2 formation with Pirlo retaining his place as the creative fulcrum of La Nazionale and, had Andrea Barzagli not got injured just before the tournament started, it is highly likely that seven of the starting eleven against Spain would have been Juve players (Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci, Barzagli, Marchisio, Pirlo and Giaccherini). It is unlikely that Prandelli will make any major changes to this setup, nor should he if the Spain game was anything to go by.
Watching Andrea Pirlo is one of football’s greatest pleasures. At 33 it is unclear how many years he will continue to play for, but it will be a tragedy if he does not grace us with his presence in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which would take him to the end of his current contract at Juventus. His majestic performance against the reigning World and European Champions served as a timely reminder that players of his ilk are an extremely rare commodity, and his value to his club and country have never been higher. Form is temporary; class is permanent.
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