On Tuesday, Gigi Buffon said it was time for him to “take away the distraction” of media speculation about his future, confirming that he would leave Juventus at the end of this campaign. On Wednesday, he went between the sticks and kept their season alive.
Crushed 3-0 by Milan at the weekend, the Bianconeri went to Sassuolo knowing Champions League qualification was out of their hands. Dropped to fifth in the table, all they could do was try to win every game and hope someone ahead of them slipped up. Conceding a penalty after 15 minutes was not the ideal way to start.
The sequence of events leading up to the spot-kick was indicative of the crisis of confidence at a club whose unwavering self-belief had been a defining trait of the previous nine years. Alex Sandro had enough time to choose a better option than passing to Adrien Rabiot on the edge of his own box but even after that, trouble could still have been avoided if the Frenchman had acted decisively.
Instead, he dithered, got trapped between two opponents, turned back on himself and went to ground while jabbing the ball straight to Sassuolo’s Giacomo Raspadori. The striker accepted possession and made his move beyond Leonardo Bonucci, who lunged in clumsily and fouled him.
A goal would have been just reward for the Neroverdi, who had created several opportunities already in an enterprising start, but Buffon denied them, plunging to parry Domenico Berardi’s penalty. Add one more record to the list: at 43 years, three months and 14 days old, the Juventus keeper had become the oldest player ever to save a spot-kick in the Italian top-flight.
His intervention changed the course of the game. Instead of falling behind, Juventus went ahead, Rabiot drilling a left-foot finish in off the right-hand post. Buffon delivered another sharp stop to deny Pedro Obiang, before Cristiano Ronaldo made it 2-0. The game eventually finished 3-1, with the Portuguese forward and Paulo Dybala each bringing up a personal century of goals for the club.
Buffon could draw a measure of vindication from both his performance and the result. The notion that uncertainty over his future was anything more than a drop in the ocean of unresolved issues at Juventus was absurd, yet the suggestion still stung him. At full-time he reflected that: “I have always tried to serve everyone [at Juventus] as though I was the last wheel on the cart.”
If anything, some might ask whether Juventus ought to have used him more. They have not lost with Buffon in the side this season – collecting 11 wins and two draws. He started both their most impressive triumphs: a 3-0 rout of Barcelona at the Camp Nou and a 2-1 victory away to Inter in the Coppa Italia.
Buffon may yet walk away from this second stint at the club with one more winners’ medal, should Juventus beat Atalanta in the final of the latter competition next Wednesday. But that would still not make this a happy season for the Bianconeri if they miss out on the top four.
That prospect moved a step closer with all their direct rivals also winning in this midweek round. Napoli thrashed Udinese 5-1, extending a brilliant second half of the season under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan were even more emphatic as they buried Torino 7-0.
Both were astonishing scorelines, but the latter especially so. Torino still have everything to play for, with top-flight survival on the line, and had lost only once in their previous seven games. They were trampled by opponents whose energies have been renewed by a win over Juventus and the sight of the finish line in sight.
Ante Rebic scored a second-half hat-trick, but this was a triumph of Milan’s collective, a reminder that claims of “Ibra-dependence” have always been wide of the mark. Since Zlatan Ibrahimovic limped out of that win against Juventus, Stefano Pioli’s side have played for 114 minutes and found the net nine times.
If they and Atalanta both win this weekend, against Cagliari and Genoa respectively, it will be impossible for Juventus to finish above either of them thanks to head-to-head tie-breakers. Their game against one another on the final weekend would become the most delighted of dead rubbers.
Where Milan’s progress to this point has felt like a rollercoaster, Atalanta have been powering toward their destination with the inevitability of a freight train. Their only defeats since January have come away to Inter in Serie A and against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
On Wednesday they faced a Benevento side that is fighting for its life, 18th in the table, and coached by Pippo Inzaghi, who made his breakthrough as a player at Atalanta when he scored 24 goals for them in one season, 24 years ago.
Italy’s “immutable law of the ex” demanded that he should wound them. In reality, he had no weapons in his arsenal to counter the combination of Ruslan Malinovskiy and Luis Muriel, who combined to open the scoring midway through the first half.
Gazzetta dello Sport had characterised the Ukrainian as Atalanta’s “lockpick”, observing that six of his seven goals this season had served to break a stalemate at 0-0. His assists, though, have been just as impactful. To watch him hold off one defender, step away and dissect two more with the subtlest chip to release his Colombian team-mate was to be put in mind not of some petty theft but a cinematic diamond heist.
Muriel’s goal was his 22nd of this season – bringing him within two of Inzaghi’s record. By curious symmetry, it arrived in the 22nd minute. Mario Pasalic sealed the points for Atalanta when he scored in the exact same minute of the second half.
Perhaps there is some hidden omen in those numbers. The only statistic that matters to Milan and Atalanta now, though, is the one more win that they each need to secure their place in the Champions League.