Gigi Buffon's last shot at Champions League glory
It's fair to say that Gianluigi Buffon has a strong claim to be called the greatest goalkeeper of all time. Lev Yashin has often been given this title, but the U.S.S.R. icon didn't enjoy as illustrious a career; fellow Italian Dino Zoff was also hailed as the greatest, but Buffon recently overtook him for national and club appearances.
The Juventus legend is certainly the best of the 21st century: during the earliest parts, Iker Casillas and Buffon were locked in a battle for superiority but while the Italian has continued performing incredibly well for his club and country at the age of 40, Casillas's career has tailed off, and he's been usurped for Spain by David de Gea and plays at a lower club level with Porto in Portugal.
Buffon's individual achievements are enormous and much too long to list, but a few highlights include being named IFFHS Best goalkeeper of the past 25 years in 2012, and holds the record for the longest streak without conceding a goal in Serie A history (974 consecutive minutes in 2015/2016). His collective trophy cabinet, too, is unsurprisingly well-stocked, with 10 Serie A league titles to his name and that famous World Cup triumph with Italy in 2006. His career would be the envy of most other footballers but one title has still eluded the great man: the Champions League, European club football's highest honour.
Buffon has come very close to winning it, however, but has missed out each time. Firstly, in 2003 Juventus lost out on penalties in a dull final to league rivals AC Milan; Buffon did, to his merit, save 2 penalties but his team lost 3-2 overall. 2 rather more resounding defeats followed, in 2015 against Barcelona (3-1) and in last year's final against Real Madrid (4-1).
After both Buffon could be seen emotionally overcome and any neutral fan would have felt nothing but sympathy. Many great players have missed out on lifting the trophy, noticeably Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but perhaps Buffon missing out would be the biggest shock. It also has to be said that Buffon never let his side down in any of the 3 finals, something to take pride in but it will count for little to the player.
Juventus performed well in this season's group stage, finishing 2nd behind Barcelona while only conceding 5 goals. They'll need this form to continue in the knockout stages if Buffon is to stand a chance of finally winning. First up for the Turin side are England's Tottenham, with the first-leg at home this week. It's a remarkably tricky tie for the last-16 round, but Juventus' vast experience at this level of football should count in the outcome.
Buffon turned 40 in January and has shared league duties equally with understudy Wojciech Szczesny, but he started 5 of the 6 Champions League games so far and will likely be in goals against Tottenham; with 113 appearances in the competition, Buffon's experience will prove mightily important.
The contenders to win the competition looks its strongest in years, with the new threat from England: when once they dominated the Champions League later stages, Premier League clubs have been noticeably missing in recent seasons but Pep Guardiola has Manchester City playing some of the finest football in Europe, and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United knows how to succeed at this level. Where once Juventus only had to truly worry about the threat from Spain's 'big 2' and Bayern Munich, there's a larger playing field now, including their challengers Tottenham.
While his performances for Juventus this season wouldn't necessarily mean retirement, the player himself has stated that this will be his last in professional football, unless he wins the Champions League this season.
One would think Buffon would be a man of his word, so 2017/2018 definitely feels like the last chance saloon for him. There can't be many football fans who wouldn't want to see the legendary goalkeeper lifting the big trophy come May; it would simply be the icing on the cake for an incredible footballer.