Andrea Pirlo: Chess not checkers

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As Juventus made their return to the latter stages of the Champions League this season, much was made of their lack of experience at the highest level. Questions were asked about their ability to compete with the continent’s best sides, a view that wins over Borussia Dortmund and AS Monaco did little to suppress in the eyes of a wider audience. The German club’s lacklustre domestic campaign seemed to remove any value from the emphatic victory the Bianconeri enjoyed at the Westfalenstadion, while the Ligue Un side – despite an impressive win over Arsenal – were never given much hope.

Earning a place in the Semi Finals for the first time since 2003, the Old Lady were seen as the outsiders alongside Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, a trio rightly viewed as the three best teams in Europe. Drawn against the latter, Max Allegri’s men would finally see their credentials tested against undeniably high calibre opposition, with very few members of his squad having progressed this far in the competition before.

Of those who had, Gigi Buffon and Carlos Tevez continue to show their worth, the goalkeeper still playing much like he did when a penalty save thwarted the same opponents at this stage some twelve years earlier. Likewise, the Argentinean striker had shrugged off a well-documented scoring drought in UEFA’s elite competition to net six times in ten outings this term, his impact allowing the Turin side to dream of glory against the odds.

The final man in those famous black and white stripes to have serious Champions League pedigree is of course Andrea Pirlo, the bearded genius at the heart of midfield for the reigning Italian champions. Now 35, he has been viewed as something of a problem for a number of years, with questions asked about his continued ability to hold down a central role against the very best teams. It was a viewpoint reinforced by that win over Dortmund, where the Bianconeri looked better without him after he had struggled in the face of Jürgen Klopp’s high-octane pressing.

Yet to anyone who watched the tie with AS Monaco closely, Pirlo had displayed another facet to his game, and it would be on display once again as the first leg against Real Madrid got underway. Juventus emerged 2-1 winners, holding a narrow advantage before the return encounter at the Bernabéu next week. Tevez and his strike partner Álvaro Morata were rightly showered with praise for their impact in attack, but in the aftermath of the game an interesting stat concerning the distance covered by Pirlo came to light.

As seen above, his 11.89km trailed only Arturo Vidal (11.96km) when the final whistle blew, a figure whichPirlo-wine is staggering considering very few living humans have ever seen Pirlo actually run. More likely to be seen reclining in a vineyard enjoying a glass of Montepulciano, the numbers hinted at the obvious fact the midfielder’s ability to constantly find space requires him to move around the pitch in search of it.

On television, much was made of the attention paid to Pirlo by Gareth Bale, the Welshman picking his pocket early in the game which lead to a free-kick that Cristiano Ronaldo would inevitably smash into the wall after much preening and posturing. However, what followed was not commented upon to anywhere near the same degree as Pirlo drifted deeper and wider, not in order to shake his marker but to disrupt Real Madrid’s approach by continually dragging the €91 million man out of position.

Bale stuck to his task diligently, which in turn negated his own attacking impact, while only Marcelo (86) had more touches of the ball than Pirlo’s 81. As usual he turned those into meaningful possession for his side with the incredible array of passing that has long been his trademark, connecting with 62 of his 75 pass attempts. That included 11 of 13 long balls, quickly turning defence into attack as Juve looked to pick Madrid off on the counter, a ploy which eventually led to the penalty Tevez converted to seal the win.

Pirlo was equally disruptive without the ball, winning one tackle, making one interception and recovering the ball on no fewer than six occasions, again denying Carlo Ancelotti’s men any real flow to their search for an equaliser. He had done just the same against AS Monaco in the previous round, wandering from tight marking and looking for a place to cause maximum impact, popping up on the left flank to make a wonderful pass to Morata.

It led to the spot kick which eventually separated the two sides thanks to Vidal, with Pirlo’s role once again going largely unnoticed despite creating the only goal across 180 minutes of action. His contributions don’t always grab the attention, but watching him in person, seemingly nonplussed by the game going on around him but constantly scheming ways in which to influence it. His appears to know in advance where every player on the field is and intends to move to, viewing the game three steps ahead of everyone else and able to move or pass accordingly.

Andrea Pirlo is – to paraphrase Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Training Day – almost certainly playing chess not checkers.

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Aaron West

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