Vintage Pirlo plunders points for Juve, but brilliant Buffon proves he's not done yet
It was a difficult choice for Juventus players at the end of their hard-fought victory at Genoa: run to congratulate Andrea Pirlo, who had scored the late winner and only goal of the game with a sublime free-kick, or Gianluigi Buffon, who'd kept the contest goalless in the final 20 minutes with a penalty save?
In the end they did both, milling around the Luigi Ferraris tunnel to offer hugs and back-slaps to both stalwarts, with a couple of Genoa players also paying their respects to the two players who have epitomised Juve’s dominance over the last three years.
Classy and resilient would best sum up both veterans. At nearly 35, Pirlo still delivers the panache and off-the-cuff skill to turn a match, as he demonstrated with his stunning set-piece in the dying moments of Sunday evening's clash - his 41st goal from a free-kick overall, and 25th in Serie A.
Buffon is the towering physical presence, Juve's bedrock who provides steel at the back. Up until he parried Emanuele Calaio’s spot-kick, the Italian legend had only been called into action once to make a block from Andrea Bertolacci’s firmly struck but central effort.
Tale of two ends
Antonio Conte’s league leaders arrived into the Ferraris cauldron on the back of a draining Europa League tie with Fiorentina, from which the 1-1 home draw leaves their Viola rivals holding a slight advantage going into next Thursday's return (and Juve without the injured Carlos Tevez, too). With Andrea Barzagli also unfit to start, a testing evening was expected against Gian Piero Gasperini’s resurgent Genoa side who'd lost just one of their last five matches and had the chance to move into the top 10.
Buffon's opposite number, Mattia Perin, may offer a glimpse into the future when Gigi finally steps down. Tall and not yet fully filled out, the 21-year-old is only in his second full season in the top flight but is developing into a commanding figure in the penalty area. By being called up for the recent friendly with Spain alongside Buffon and No.2 Salvatore Sirigu, the youngster reinforced his claims for grabbing the third-choice spot (usually reserved for a future star) in Cesare Prandelli’s World Cup squad.
Questions have been asked as to how much longer Juventus can rely on the 36-year-old Buffon, but Sunday's performance served as a timely reminder to all that there are plenty of miles still left on the clock. Perin will have witnessed once again at close hand what it takes to make it to the top and then stay there. It takes special concentration to remain quiet for long periods, as the Juve No.1 did, and then spring into action in a split second.
In Italian football, There are two positions that are constantly under the microscope: the striker, and the goalkeeper. Mario Balotelli is finding that out at present, and seems to be buckling under the weight of expectations. Then again, Buffon has had his fair share of criticism in recent years whenever he has made a mistake, with the added pressure that each slip-up casts doubts over his continued selection for the national team.
Buffon's agent recently told the press that his client would still be Italy's goalkeeper at the 2016 European Championship, and that he believed the Juve man was still in the sort of physical condition to play on until he was 40 (through to the 2018 World Cup).
Another Juventus great was still active in his 40th year - Dino Zoff, who Buffon joined as the club’s fifth all-time appearance maker at the weekend. The unflappable Zoff also turned out for the Old Lady on 476 occasions and captained Italy to World Cup glory in 1982.
Buffon has the opportunity to repeat that feat this summer when he leads the Azzurri in Brazil. But before he steps on the plane for South America, he'll likely overtake Roberto Bettega (482) in the appearance stakes. Further ahead are Giuseppe Furino (528), Gaetano Scirea (552) and the greatest Bianconeri of them all, Alessandro Del Piero, who played 705 times for the club in 19 years.
He may not catch Del Piero, but if his agent is correct then it is not beyond Gigi's powers of endurance to end his career as number two in the Turin giants' appearance list. He's already Italy’s all-time cap holder on 138.
Buffon has been at Juventus for 13 years, and despite two serious injuries, his desire to remain head and shoulders above the rest has never wavered. This season, once again wearing the captain’s armband, he has been Juve's calming influence on the pitch alongside Pirlo, which he demonstrated to outstanding effect against Fiorentina last week when he pulled Arturo Vidal aside and warned the midfielder not to pick up a booking which would have ruled him out of the return leg.
However, it's been actions rather than words that have defined Buffon, and in diving to block Calaio’s tame effort he made his 11th penalty save of his club career (his last came against good friend Francesco Totti in 2011) - although he claimed it was just part of a No.1's job. He even admitted he didn't feel worthy being compared with the majestic Zoff, but it's such humility that has kept the Juventus and Italy goal in safe hands for so long, and no doubt will do in years to come.