Four Heroes, Four Stories

Buffon – The Veteran’s Revenge

“The Superman is here. Just sit and watch.”

Neuer – De Gea – Courtois: this is what goalkeepers’ Holy Trinity looks like today. However, back in the first years of 21st century, it was different. The list went: Buffon – Casillas – Cech – with the Italian being the oldest of the three. More than a decade later, a lot has changed. Casillas, upon suffering long spells on Real Madrid’s bench and getting humiliated in the 2014 World Cup, fell behind so severely that 58% of Los Blancos’ fans polled by Marca expressed their willingness to get ‘San Iker’ out of the club. Meanwhile, after ten excellent years at Chelsea, Cech fell victim to Thibaut Courtois’ ultimatum, in which the Belgian agreed to join The Blues only if he were to be named the undisputed #1 in the team’s goal. Petr, far from being the weakest link in Jose Mourinho’s eleven, had no choice but to accept his role of a substitute – and thus, yet another illustrious career has virtually come to an end.

Meanwhile, in Turin, Gigi Buffon, three years older than Iker and four years older than Cech, continued his winning ways. While his famous colleagues ran into trouble, he has penned yet another contract deal in November 2014, extending his spell at Zebrette until 2017. Offering new deal to a 37-years old club legend whose career is coming to an end is usually a sign of respect to the man and his fans. Not in this case, however: prior to extending his now-fourteen years long presence in the club, Buffon has been instrumental to Juventus’ success in current campaign, keeping clean sheets in important away games against Milan and Lazio. Once the deal was done and he’s been confirmed to remain Juve’s Numero Uno, Gigi had another run of formidable performances, ranging from 0-0 to Fiorentina in December to the Champions League rematch against Real Madrid in May.

 

And now, he’s in the final – the same stage he’s already been to twelve years ago. Buffon surely does not cherish old memories. Back then, at Old Trafford, it was him who Juve depended on when a goalless game with AC Milan went to penalties. He stepped up to the task and saved two rosso-neri strikes – but it wasn’t enough. Somehow, the referee Markus Merk has allowed Milan’s goalie Dida to move far up from the goal-line before Zebrette’s penalties were executed – and the Brazilian saved three of them. Such thing is unlikely to repeat – but there are other similarities already. Just like in 2003, Juventus have freshly defeated Real Madrid and have high hopes should the final proceed to the last, deciding shootout. Buffon, as resilient to ageing as Dino Zoff used to be, should have the edge over Ter-Stegen if the battle goes so far; but will also need to impress to get Juve there.

 

Arturo Vidal – Win or Die Trying

“It’s okay. Leave the big game to me.”

“He is like a player from Boca Juniors who fights and has great courage from the minute he puts on the jersey.” If those words came from some anonymous football fan, nobody would’ve noticed. But in this case, it was Diego Maradona himself, who addressed Vidal with praise upon being asked about Chile’s chances in 2015 Copa America. Alas, before we get there, a lot of things are going to happen. Some of them already are history: such as Arturo’s two powerful performances against Real Madrid and his name being famous enough to get on Beyonce’s lips when she used it to communicate with Chilean journalists. The things yet to come shall involve: potential first ever Champions League win for a Chilean footballer; a very likely yellow card for him in Berlin; enormous effort at tackling and pressurizing Sergio Busquets; and finally – Vidal’s huge summer transfer to England.

At the moment, Santiago-born midfielder is, without a doubt, the finest asset Zebrette have in their arsenal. Giorgio Chiellini will occasionally slip and save himself with an improvised handball – but Vidal won’t. Paul Pogba can have one game in which he goes missing after one game in which he excelled – but Vidal can’t. Álvaro Morata shall finish good chances and do nothing else – but Vidal shan’t, as he cannot afford to do that. Deployed close to the frontline, his task is to undermine the opposition before they can even carry the ball to the dangerous areas. In other words, his duty is quite bitter: when he succeeds, few people notice that because some other Juve player wins the possession eventually. However, when he fails – Italian champions are getting dominated by their opponents. And now, the opponents are called Barcelona – arguably the best passers in the world.

 

 

I grew up watching Juventus with Edgar Davids bossing their midfield right and left. I grew up watching defensive midfielders being always deployed in front of their back fours so that they could form a three-man deadlock in front of their own goal. Vidal defies that tactical logic, but there’s something in his style, something in his attitude and determination that reminds me of Oranje’s tireless DM. For the Chilean has a rare quality of improving their performance whenever his teammates’ play starts to fall apart. Against Barcelona, this scenario is even more likely than it was on Santiago Bernabeu, where Juventus luckily dodged a bullet. Vidal will either push his team to a historic victory or he’ll die trying. And afterwards? A two-year long soap opera involving him, his agent Andrea D’Amico and JFC Director General Giuseppe Marotta will come to an end.

MU? Arsenal? Real Madrid? Or maybe… one more year in Black and White stripes?

 

Dani Alves – Exit Through the Cup Shot

“Before I leave, let me win the CL again.”

Some players stay, some players go. In the shade of Jordi Alba’s contract extension to 2020 and Xavi’s lengthy farewell ceremonies, Dani Alves has been preparing his departure from Catalonia for over six months already, when his contract talks first started to go downhill. Up until the spring, it was mostly his ex-wife and agent, Dinorah Santa Ana, who revealed the trouble with a new deal. However, ten days ago, the player himself virtually confirmed his departure by dropping few harsh words on Barcelona’s management, who supposedly “did not show him enough respect” and “underestimated his value for the team”. To mix it up even further, the Brazilian refused to openly admit that he’s gone already. Instead of setting the matters straight, he scheduled his next press conference for June 7th, announcing that he’ll make the final decision after the Champions League finale.

From a distance, it looks like a classic case of an ageing player who refuses to scale down his enormous salary despite the decline of his play. Not exactly the omnipresent all-around footballer anymore, Alves failed to strike fear into hearts of oppositions’ defenders this season, concentrating mostly on being solid at the back – which wasn’t his biggest strength in the past. Now 32 and paid £120,000 a week, he has the leverage of becoming a free agent this summer. This means that his new club will be able to spend the money saved on his transfer fee to further boost his monthly earnings. Especially since the team most intensely linked with Barcelona’s wing-back – Manchester United – will be offloading the massive £280.000 wage of Radamel Falcao very soon, so the needed funds shall become available regardless of any other circumstances.

 

However, the end of his seven-year spell at Camp Nou is not to be taken lightly. First of all, when it mattered, the lad really worked his socks off this season – and Real Madrid, PSG or Bayern Munich could all vouch for that. Despite not scoring a single goal in 2014-15 season, Alves managed to produce twelve assists already – of which two came in a recent Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. As I said – firs of all, his skills are still fine. Second of all: if he’s gone, who is going to replace him? Héctor Bellerín from Arsenal? Matteo Darmian from Torino? Yet another Sevillista in line – Aleix Vidal? Each of these three players has been very promising so far, but a first-team role in arguably the biggest club in the world might be too much for them to handle. In a year from now, Barcelona might seriously regret letting Dani Alves go – and I can see CL final only confirming this suspicion.

 

Luis Suárez – Racing With Kun

“Human flesh is disgusting; serve me goals, instead.”

Everybody knew he was something else; something special. Everybody knew that average Joes do not score 31 Premier League goals in a single season; that average Joes also do not get into so much disciplinary trouble they eventually get suspended for five months. But nobody knew if he was the best fit for FC Barcelona’s centre-forward. At the time, there was one other option available: Sergio Agüero from Manchester City. The Citizens’ striker was a year younger than his Uruguayan colleague and had the recommendation from Leo Messi himself, who’s been known to be his friend. Alas, Barcelona could not sign Kun. At the time, the MC striker was not bitter; he was not disappointed with a Premier League failure; he was not being reminded that his hard effort is being wasted by his teammates. Luis Suárez, however, was. Liverpool has failed him – but wouldn’t he fail Blaugrana in turn?

 

As it turns out – no. He has already succeeded. Forget the biting incidents, forget the doubts I had over whether he is or isn’t a better player than Alexis Sánchez – it doesn’t matter anymore. Ever since he came back from the suspension, the Uruguayan provided 24 goals and 20 assists in 44 appearances in FCB’s shirt. In the meantime, his great footwork and finish against Casillas has secured Barca’s 2-1 over Real Madrid in March; his four deadly strikes sunk the oil-rich ships of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League; his hat-trick helped the team to tie their record of biggest away win ever scored in La Liga (8-0 over Cordoba)… It’s been, by all means, the best year of his remarkable career in Europe – a career that started slowly in FC Groningen. Back then, in 2007, Luis was so upset with his slumping form, he even contemplated quitting football for good. And now…

…now he is set to prove himself again. Wildly determined to keep up the pace with Messi and Neymar in a run for the supremacy in Barcelona’s attacking trident, Suárez has brought to the table something we did not quite see in the past from the likes of Patrick Kluivert, Samuel Eto’o or David Villa. Unlike those players, the Uruguayan is not just a penalty-area threat: he can attack from the deep and dribble past his man if it’s needed. His positioning, his movements are now nearly interchangeable with Messi’s, who eventually learned to appreciate his new teammate’s skills and never used the name “Agüero” again. At the same time, Kun, tormented with the injuries has won Premier League Golden Boot with 27 goals. Suárez already eliminated him in a direct encounter – but for his supremacy to be complete, he needs to beat Juventus on Saturday.

Then – his life will be complete.

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