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Tears and cheers for the nearly man

The curtain fell on one of the modern greats of European football with the departure of Juventus from the Champions League on Tuesday night.

The curtain fell on one of the modern greats of European football with the departure of Juventus from the Champions League on Tuesday night. Sadly for him, he lasted a mere unlucky 13 of the 90 minutes, and, poignantly for him, this sort of premature exit maintained the strange, unfulfilled character of Pavel Nedved's relationship with the world's most prestigious club competition. Nedved, a former European Footballer of the Year, will retire at the end of the season never having played in the final of a Champions League. He has had some epic campaigns in the tournament, but too often left the stage early.

In the first leg of Chelsea versus Juventus, itself a minor epic, Nedved nearly scored a goal at Stamford Bridge that would have changed the dynamic of the tie. His shot, almost the last kick of the match, whistled just wide of his Czech compatriot Peter Cech's goal. About half an hour later, Nedved announced that if Chelsea eliminated Juve from the competition, the top stage would never be seeing his mop of blond hair again. At 36-years-old, he confirmed, he was ready to finish his career at the end of the season.

The European swansong was messy, brave and brief. At the Stadio Olimpico, Nedved took a blow to the head after four minutes, colliding with one of the sturdiest thighs in football, that of Michael Essien. He wandered to the touchline with an icepack on top of his trademark 1970s hairstyle. He returned to the action, only to take another battering, from Nicolas Anelka, after eight minutes that left him clutching his midriff. He exited again, although he refused the offer of a mobile stretcher carriage. And for second time, he re-entered the action. The match had hardly begun and Nedved already resembled one of those all-action movie heroes who are badly hurt in film battles and still come back for more. But after his 13 minutes it was clear courage could not overcome injury. He appeared on the edge of tears when the Juve coach Claudio Ranieri replaced him. The fans had paid their own tributes, with dedicated banners to a footballer who has served Juve for eight years, including the one when he stuck with them in Serie B. They knew it might be The Czech Fury's final European night in black and white stripes. They will miss him, as Juventus missed him for the last 77 minutes of the 2-2 draw against Chelsea.

"Losing Nedved was a blow to us," sighed Ranieri afterwards. What Serie A will lose at the end of the season is Nedved's amazing energy. A former Juventus head coach, Marcello Lippi once said of him: "I think he runs even in his sleep." Nedved has been running almost non-stop since the early 1990s. He was a losing finalist with the Czech Republic at the European Championship in 1996. He scored the winning goal for Lazio in the 1999 European Cup-Winners Cup final. But, in the Champions League, he has been a nearly man. In 2003, the year he was chosen for the Balon D'Or, he missed playing for Juve in the final after a yellow card in the semi-final against Real Madrid. In Juventus's last two campaigns, he has left early, sent off against Arsenal in 2006, injured against Chelsea in 2009.

Those yellow and red cards were not entirely out of character. Aggression has always been a feature of his game. So has delicacy in delivering passes. This thoroughly modern footballer, industrious and inventive, sustained his high standards right into his 37th year. Word is Juventus have earmarked him for a coaching role if he wants it. He will be a fine example to younger footballers. Famous for his dedication and hard work, Nedved always recoiled from the trappings of stardom. Fashions passed him by, his haircut never altered.


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