Football Football

Buffon set to face next young pretender


WARSAW, Poland, June 27 – Having already seen off one pretender to his throne, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon will face another as the Azzurri tackle Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-finals here on Thursday.

The 34-year-old 2006 World Cup winner had said a couple of years ago that Joe Hart could become the best goalkeeper in the world, the honorifc title most observers would still hang around the veteran Juventus stopper’s neck.

But when those two met on the pitch in Sunday’s quarter-final, it was Buffon who came out on top, proving he is still the best.

Opposite him at the National Stadium on Thursday will be Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer, whose form for Schalke 04 two seasons ago was so impressive that Manchester United were also rumoured to be aongst his suitors before the Bavarians snapped him up.

Neuer is as good as they come as a shot-stopper but has proved more suspect on crosses and positioning. At 26, though, he is still young for a goalkeeper and can continue to learn his trade.

Already he is second only to Buffon on the list of most expensive goalkeepers following his 22 million euro move to Bayern 12 months ago.

He regularly shone when playing for a limited Schalke side, not least in a Champions League defeat to Man United in the 2010/11 season.

But at Bayern and with Germany he is far less tested and so concentration becomes all the more important.

And he could do a lot worse than casting an eye over the master to see how a goalkeeper performs at the highest level.

Buffon is well used to spending large swathes of a game as a spectator, both with Juve and Italy.

But when called upon, he is always ready, as he proved against England.

His instinctive, one-handed, reaction save from Glen Johnson in the first half of the quarters was crucial in a period in which England appeared to be capable of troubling Italy.

He then later showed who was the boss of the box when he took a clattering from England forwards but stil claimed a cross out of the sky.

And most importantly he guessed the right way and got down quickly to clutch Ashley Cole’s spot-kick to give Italy the advantage in the shoot-out.

He wasn’t asked to do much in a game that lasted over two hours by the time penalties had come to a conclusion but he was immaculate in everything he did.

And Buffon’s importance has not been lost on even his most illustrious team-mate, Andrea Pirlo, who revealed the extent of the goalkeeper’s influence on team morale ahead of their shoot-out with England.

“He’s a great player, he’s given us great security over the years,” he said.

“He’s the captain so he feels able to bring something more to the younger players who have more fear.

“We have to thank him for what he did before penalties, he gave us peace of mind and in the end, he was proved right.”

Just as he motivated his team-mates before penalties, Buffon has been keen to keep their feet on the ground, although he insists they can win the whole competition.

“We’re not setting ourselves limits, even though we know we’re not the best, we just hope to be on top of the situation,” he said last week.

“I said before (the competition) I wasn’t thinking of winning it because had I said the opposite I’d have been admitted (to a mental institution).

“It would have been presumptuous considering we’re up against Spain, who are two spans (of a hand) above everyone else, and Germany, who are one span above the others.

“However, that doesn’t mean we would kick-off a beaten team against them.”

With Buffon in the side, there would never be any fear of that. Italy drew with Spain in their opening game, so beating the highly-fancied Germans is far from out of the question.