After turning 36 last week, Cristiano Ronaldo felt compelled to remind fans that he cannot go on forever.
“I’m sorry that I can’t promise you 20 more years of this,” said the Juventus star, who looks every inch a man that could quite comfortably play professional football into his mid-fifties. “But what I can promise you, is that as long as I keep going, you’ll never receive less than 100 per cent from me.”
That much would never be in doubt from a man who, blessed with talent as he is, has built an extraordinary career on a foundation of boundless ambition and unyielding endeavour. He brings to mind Brad Pitt’s turn as Achilles in Troy, the war-seeking warrior-hero who wins a skirmish singlehandedly before, abs a-glistening, he proclaims to a prisoner: “I want what all men want. I just want it more.”
Achilles, as this version has it, knew Troy would bring about his death in a blaze of glory. Ronaldo, too, can already sense time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
Which brings us to Gianluigi Buffon.
Juve’s veteran goalkeeper, who celebrated his 43rd birthday less than two weeks ago, has for so long defied convention when it comes to a footballer’s longevity. Even keepers rarely keep playing beyond the age of 40 and certainly not for Europe’s grandest teams.
Buffon is not Juve’s first choice these days, of course, but he remains the cup stand-in for Wojciech Szczesny and he duly kept his spot for Tuesday’s Coppa Italia semi-final second leg with Inter. It was a day to celebrate, too, as a goalless draw earned him club clean sheet number 288 of his Juve career and sent his team into the final 2-1 on aggregate.
20 – Juventus have reached the Coppa Italia Final stage for the 20th time in their history, at least three times more of any other side (AS Roma 17, Inter 13). Steady.#JuveInter #JuventusInter pic.twitter.com/m6k4F9AKx2
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 9, 2021
The game also showed why head coach Andrea Pirlo would do well to consider how much more his old friend has to offer.
A resolute defence meant he only had two saves to make throughout; in fact, the only time Juve looked especially anxious was when Buffon had the ball. There was one pass under pressure that went straight out for a corner, another in the second half that let Lautaro Martinez drive into the box only to foul Buffon after a heavy touch. There were three attempted punches while under pressure from Romelu Lukaku, all of which ended with Buffon clueless as to the ball’s position as he landed, then grateful that it had already bounced away, and another positional mishap on which Martinez really should have capitalised.
The contrast with Samir Handanovic – himself no spring chicken at 36 – was stark. Handanovic made four saves to Buffon’s two, a couple of which were exceptional stops to deny Ronaldo, who could have killed the tie long before full-time in Turin. Commanding in his penalty area, he gave quite a different impression to Buffon, who seemed like a doddering uncle at a family wedding trying desperately to keep up with the dance moves. Indeed, had Inter’s attacking players showed the same level of laser-focus as Handanovic, perhaps they could have rescued this contest.
Pirlo’s Juve have become supremely difficult to beat. They have won 10 of their 12 games in 2021, the sole defeat being a 2-0 Serie A loss to the Nerazzurri. Since that game on January 17, they had won six out of six games before this encounter and conceded only one goal: a close-range strike by Martinez in the first leg that squirmed into the net when Buffon, in game number 1,100 of his club career, was too slow to get to ground.
The Bianconeri are on course for more silverware this season and Buffon will deserve any more medals he can add to his impeccable collection. He may well start the final, too – one more turn in the limelight. But there is no shame in admitting that, in the 26th year of his professional career, the time is approaching when he should graciously step into the wings.
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