Cristiano Ronaldo stands between Buffon and Champions League destiny
Gianluigi Buffon has already stopped Lionel Messi in the Champions League this season, but the next and final test is Cristiano Ronaldo.
The finalists for the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff next month have been confirmed, and if Gianluigi Buffon is to finally lift the trophy that has evaded him throughout his incredible playing career, then the Juventus goalkeeper, captain and much-loved legend is going to have to do it against the very best.
It is fitting that having lost out on Champions League glory in the 2015 final at the age of 37 to a Barcelona side inspired by Lionel Messi, it is now Cristiano Ronaldo that stands between the 39-year old Buffon and the famous trophy. This is surely Buffon's last chance, but having waited so long, there could be no sweeter feeling for the evergreen shot-stopper than to achieve success against the absolute best in the business.
Cristiano Ronaldo has broken records through the current Champions League campaign, and as his Real Madrid side look to become the first club to ever defend the trophy in its current guise, he is the man that can inspire such success. Injuries to Gareth Bale this season have curtailed the influence of the Welsh star, and once again Ronaldo has risen to the challenge, inspired by his long-standing rivalry with nemesis Lionel Messi to prove himself as the very best.
Now 32, Ronaldo will know that his future opportunities in the competition will also be limited, but he has continued to defy the laws of physical science by his dedication and determination to stay at the top of his game. His physical condition and experience now make him the complete package, and he alone will provide Buffon with the ultimate test when the two sides meet.
But Buffon should not fear the influence or the impact of the Portuguese talisman. A consolation goal from Monaco's teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe in the semi-final on Tuesday evening finally brought an end to an incredible defensive run of form that had seen Juventus not concede for almost 700 minutes, Buffon playing in 600 of those. To add to the achievement, included in this run of games were two clean sheets against Barcelona and their forward trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
Buffon is still at his very best, and he plays every game with a desire and motivation to finally lift the trophy that has escaped his grasp throughout his career. If he can inspire his Juventus side to once again keep out the incredible list of attacking talent boasted by Real Madrid, then there will be no more deserving winner than Buffon.
The long road back to redemption
Although Buffon brings brilliance to the Turin club that he clearly and unconditionally loves, he also brings dedication, and it is his emotional connection that only adds to the romance as he reaches the end of his incredible playing career. When Juventus were relegated from Serie A over a decade ago, it was Buffon who shunned lucrative moves away and stayed to play his part in taking the club back to where they belong in the Italian game.
His dedication was that of an amateur footballer playing for the love of his club, and it proved to be an inspiring gesture that would galvanise the club at its lowest ebb. His aim was to restore Juventus to former glory. Juventus last lifted the Champions League trophy in 1996, they were relegated in 2006 and having missed out on completing the return with defeat to Barcelona in the 2015 Champions League final, the stage is surely now set for the Old Lady to finally achieve their desired redemption.
And there is no better leading man than Buffon to represent this return. If he is to be the captain that lifts the trophy in Cardiff next month, it will signify so much more to the Italian champions than just silverware or prestige. It will mean more than the label of European champions. It will mean more to Buffon than a medal or professional achievement. There will be outpourings of emotion. There will be tears. There will be celebrations by those that remember 1996, by those that remember 2006, by those that remember 2015.
Buffon and Juventus also have other Champions League pain to exorcise having lost in the 2003 final to Italian rivals AC Milan following a penalty shoot-out prior to their demise. The side were always destined to eventually return, their status in the world game dictated that they would eventually rise to the top once again, but few could have envisaged that the goalkeeper that stayed loyal to take them out of Serie B would be the man leading them to within one game of ultimate glory.
But to be the best, you have to beat the best. Should Juventus triumph in the Champions League this season it will have come at the expense of both Barcelona and Real Madrid, and more significantly for goalkeeper Buffon, at the expense of Messi and Ronaldo. An inspiration for his actions on and off the field, his dedication to his club and the circumstances that have surrounded his loyalty are special by the scarcity of similar actions in the modern game.
Such commitment is rare, and as the modern game continues to evolve in the direction that finance dictates, such players will eventually become extinct. But for now we have the chance to witness the last chapter in a beautiful story of sporting morality, and finally lifting the Champions League trophy in the twilight of his career will be Buffon's defining moment.