Saturday 17 March 2018

Italian brotherhood highlights game's genuine soul

Giorgio Chiellini arrives at the funeral of Davide Astori on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Giorgio Chiellini arrives at the funeral of Davide Astori on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

One moment in Juventus's passionate defeat of Spurs carried us to the core of the best football can still offer. It glowed with resolve in these days of so much easy, money-drenched self-satisfaction.

It was about the conviction that all the talent in the world means little if it is not accompanied by an unbroken determination to apply the full measure of it - and at all the little turns which might well prove decisive.

The fact that it was created by two players of a combined age of 73 only brought an extra edge of emotion.

When goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, 40, and defender Giorgio Chiellini, 33, hugged they were declaring more than relief that a grave threat to their goal had been averted.

They were saying, it seemed from the depth of their beings, that of all the games they had ever played - and between them they have represented Italy 271 times - this was one they had to win.

Already deeply moved by the death of Fiorentina's 31-year-old captain Davide Astoria - 'Ciao Capitano' was a sentiment which was bannered all the way down from Turin to Palermo - Juve fought as though they shared all the honour and pride at stake with their football nation. And that is how the nation responded.

Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini celebrates after the win over Spurs. Photo: Reuters
Juventus’ Giorgio Chiellini celebrates after the win over Spurs. Photo: Reuters

Juventus, known as the Old Lady of Italian football, were re-anointed as the new Queen of England by one Milan-based newspaper. Tribal prejudice melted away in the time it takes to knock back the morning espresso.

Even for an outsider the sense of renewal was not so hard to understand.

The shocking death of Astoria pushed the national elections out of the headlines (not so surprising when you consider the importance of football to the Italian psyche and the low regard for career politicians) and bore the deepest of impacts - it was one which ultimately seemed all pervasive in Juve's performance at Wembley.

The Argentinian connection - Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala - eventually shattered Tottenham's assumption that they were cruising into the Champions League quarter-finals after their stirring fightback in Turin in the first leg, but it was the passion and commitment of the veterans Buffon and Chiellini which roared most memorably.

They rose above the growing pessimism surrounding both their club's and the Italian national team's immediate prospects.

Juventus are having their hardest time in years defending their near perennial Serie A title, with an impressive Napoli team the main threat.

It is eight years since Internazionale claimed the last of Italy's eight European crowns, 12 since the national team won their fourth World Cup and their absence in Russia later this year is a grievous wound to national pride.

Yet Italian football lived again at Wembley this week. Suddenly, it wasn't so hard to remember the day in Barcelona in 1982 when the Brazilian favourites of Socrates and Zico were overcome and then a week later in Madrid the joyful victory run of the match-winner against the Germans, Marco Tardelli.

And this was after the amiable, pipe-smoking coach Enzo Bearzot had stood in the street and received at his feet the spittle of an angry, disbelieving commentator,

Or Berlin in 2006 when the fourth world title was gathered in, when Buffon - a stripling of 28 was on duty, the captain Fabio Cannavaro defended like a god and Andrea Pirlo had reached the full height of his creative powers.

Buffon and Chiellini last Wednesday night reached back to some of the best of their football nation's history, when no one defended more acutely (or cynically, if you like) or counter-attacked with greater subtlety.

It certainly helped at Wembley that Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri, Antonio Conte's somewhat prickly successor, produced a finely-judged tactical effort which brought a deepening frown to his highly-rated adversary Mauricio Pochettino.

Juve were well directed and motivated, to such an extent that even Harry Kane was wearing a resigned look after the superb strikes of Higuain and Dybala had wiped out the Spurs lead.

Christian Eriksen was made as near anonymous as he will ever be on a football field and when the talented Dele Alli was withdrawn in the last minutes it was clear Allegri had re-announced himself a runner for all of football's top jobs, including the impending vacancy at Arsenal.

For Pochettino and his players it wasn't so much another phase of tactical education as one in the value of fortitude.

With their run of Serie A titles, and two appearances in the last three Champions League finals, Juventus had a superior competitive record - and it showed.

None of this deflects, however, from the fact that this was a victory born in the entrails of the players rather than on any tactical blackboard.

It was a show of fight, glorious fight and hundreds gathered in the Florentine piazza for Astoria's funeral acknowledged this with sustained applause when Chiellini appeared directly from the plane that had carried him from London.

Tears flowed from his eyes but not so many that you couldn't also see the pride, his sense that his national team colleague Astoria, who played 14 times for Italy, had been properly honoured.

Nor was the fallen Astoria the only one to whom this notable triumph of will could be dedicated.

It could also go out to all those players who still nurse their pride along with their talent, who are never obliged to come off the field believing that they could have done more.

Twenty-four hours after PSG, minus Neymar, the world's most expensive footballer, submitted to Real Madrid at the Stade de France with the style and resolution of a ridiculously expensive rabble, Juventus gave the munificent trade of the footballer some re-stated dignity. It was that of a genuine combative rigour.

Nearer home, today we can be confident that Jurgen Klopp will be making his usual plea for such a quality from his Liverpool at Old Trafford and, who knows, Jose Mourino might catch the mood and unleash something more adventurous than he produced in gleaning a nervy draw at Anfield in October.

But then maybe we should be grateful for what we have already received. It's not every week we are reminded that football can still make a magnificent world of its own.

Irish Independent

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