Pirlo tons up in Brazil as his heir Verratti rules the Euros
Andrea Pirlo first gave notice that he was set to become one of the all-time greats for Italy back in 2000. When the Azzurrini overcame the Czech Republic 2-1 in the Under-21 European Championships final, it was Pirlo who scored both goals and was named the UEFA Golden Player of the Tournament.
On Sunday evening, the majestic midfielder won his 100th full cap in the most fitting of settings. At the MaracanÃÂ stadium, he produced a stunning free-kick as Mexico were beaten 2-1 in the Confederations Cup opener for Cesare PrandelliÃ¢ÂÂs side.
Prandelli had kept his playmaker on the bench throughout last week's friendly against Haiti, so that Pirlo could enjoy his special moment in RioÃ¢ÂÂs renovated masterpiece.
Having been a World Cup winner in 2006 and left a lasting mark at Euro 2012 Ã¢ÂÂ especially with a fine display against England, rounded off with a cheeky shootout penalty Ã¢ÂÂ Pirlo wanted to make another impression to celebrate his century. He certainly succeeded.
Goalkeeper Jose Corona could have possibly done better with the free-kick that may have been within reach if he had stuck out a hand, but it was something of a return to the Pirlo of old after a dry period from set-pieces at Juventus last season. The intelligent and precise passing was also more in evidence than it had been in the draw in the World Cup 2014 qualifier against Czech Republic a few weeks ago.
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Mario Balotelli also left his mark in his own inimitable way. He used his strength to good effect to hold off two defenders to fire home impressively from close range, but couldn't resist ripping off his shirt to show off those muscles and receive a yellow card. Considering that Balotelli spent most of the game complaining about close marking once again, another booking against either Japan or Brazil could prove costly.
However the evening belonged to regal Pirlo, who at 34 has already announced his international retirement after next summerÃ¢ÂÂs World Cup finals, for which Italy should qualify barring a disastrous autumn campaign.
Pirlo celebrates his goal against Mexico
Pirlo won't catch Fabio CannavaroÃ¢ÂÂs all-time Azzurri record of 136 appearances, although his Juve team-mate Gigi Buffon might: the goalkeeper gained his 128th cap when he captained the side on Sunday, and looks destined to become the new record holder. But Pirlo, fifth in the all-time list behind Paolo Maldini (126) and Dino Zoff (112), is all the more remarkable for being the only cap centurion not to play in the generally more durable positions of defender or goalkeeper.
There is life after Pirlo, and that comes in the shape of Marco Verratti. Along with Alessando Florenzi and Lorenzo Insigne, the PSG player could well have been on the plane to Brazil this month but for a previous engagement in Israel at the U21 Euros.
The Italian Football Federation has put its full weight of support behind U21 coach Devis MangiaÃ¢ÂÂs team in the hope of adding to its proud record of five titles overall Ã¢ÂÂ won within seven tournaments between 1992 and 2004 Ã¢ÂÂ and in a repeat of last summerÃ¢ÂÂs senior tournament the young Italians face Spain in the final on Tuesday.
Italy breezed through the group stage ahead of Norway, the hosts and England but were forced to dig deep against a very impressive Holland side. Fabio Borini scored the only goal of the game with 11 minutes remaining; that could be the perfect lift for the former AS Roma player after an injury-hit season at Liverpool.
Throughout the youth Euros it has been Verratti who has really stood out Ã¢ÂÂ perhaps unsurprisingly, having already played in the Champions League quarter-finals and more than held his own against the Barcelona midfield. Coming into the tournament with a French Ligue 1 title in his first season in France, having only ever played for Pescara in Serie B although he was a member of Zdenek ZemanÃ¢ÂÂs promotion side, the 20-year-old is the answer to the increasingly important question of who can replace the departing Pirlo.
Comfortable on the ball in front of the back four, Verratti has kept everything fizzing around from right to left and then with a subtle turn switching the play through the middle. It has been this manipulation of the ball that brings to mind the way Pirlo has dominated the game over the last eight years or so.
Verratti holds off the opposition
Florenzi has also shown some wonderful touches and sharp moments, nicely roundiong off a season in which the 22-year-old midfielder has made the breakthrough for his hometown club AS Roma. With his non-stop running and never-say-die attitude he has been another stand-out performer.
Insigne played alongside Veratti at Pescara on loan before returning to Napoli to be eased into a side that already boasted a fearsome front line led by Edinson Cavani. Standing at just 5ft 4in, Insigne is a bundle of attacking energy very much in the Sebastian Giovinco style of quick feet, but with a surer eye for goal has he proved with a wonderful free-kick to see off England.
Although the squad is filled with a number of stars in the making, it's not only genuine quality but MangiaÃ¢ÂÂs belief in team spirit that has taken these young Italians all the way. The 38-year-old has had experience at the sharp end of Serie A at Palermo, having also taken Varese to the Serie B play-offs, and he knows the valuable of sound team-work.
They will need to be a tight unit to keep the hot-favourites Spain at bay but for the likes of Verratti, Florenzi and Insigne is it the beginning of a year ahead that will see their international careers really take off as the old maestro Pirlo brings his to a fitting close.
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