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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Buffon's Juventus host sprightly Barcelona with Italian football at crossroads

Champions League fixture important for Turin side as Italy's best players struggle with failure to make 2018 World Cup

Having retired from international football, Gianluigi Buffon will now focus on winning Juventus titles. Marco Luzzani / Getty Images
Having retired from international football, Gianluigi Buffon will now focus on winning Juventus titles. Marco Luzzani / Getty Images

The grave news of Italy’s failure to reach the next World Cup has had a week to sink in.

The gloom will linger a long time yet. It is a shortcoming that had not hit the Azzurri for 60 years, so there was bound to be a long period of contagion, especially at Juventus.

The standard-bearers for Italian football, the club defending six successive league titles and with two Uefa Champions League finals in the past three years to their name, go into Wednesday night’s meeting with Barcelona in Turin with a shell-shocked appearance.

Juve have for the best part of a decade provided the symbols of strength and stability to the Italian game.

So when Gigi Buffon, captain of Juventus - and until last week of the national team - and veteran colleague Andrea Barzagli were rested for the weekend’s Serie A trip to Sampdoria, it was because they were suffering from the trauma of Italy’s lost play-off against Sweden.

Their club manager, Massimiliano Allegri diagnosed it explicitly. “They had used up a lot of energy, mentally,” he said.

So it seemed.

When Sampdoria teed up their second and third goals against a limp Juve, Giorgio Chiellini - stalwart of club and country but poorly positioned as Juventus - suffered the uncomfortable sensation of going 2-0 and 3-0 down.

In injury time they recovered two goals but had galvanised too late to avoid a second league defeat of the campaign.

Juventus, like Italy, are drifting.

They lag behind Napoli and Inter Milan in the league. In Europe, a defeat to Group D leaders Barcelona could leave them perilously tied on points, with one match to go - with Portugal’s Sporting - should the Lisbon club beat bottom-placed Olympiakos.

“We are conceding far too many goals,” Allegri said.

Almost twice as many as usual, in fact. His Juve have let in 14 goals in 13 Serie A matches so far. Their average over a 38-match campaign for the past six years of title successes is 23 conceded.

Granted, they lost the services of Leonardo Bonucci, long time central defensive partner for Barzagli and Chiellini, to AC Milan in the summer.

But Bonucci alone did not cement the famously robust wall, buttressed by Buffon, that has been modern Juventus’s strength.

Buffon has had a tough six month, his chief persecutors not Sweden, nor domestic opponents but those from Spain. Since Juve handsomely eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League last spring, Real Madrid walloped them 4-1 in the final.

It was a 3-0 defeat by Spain in Madrid in September that consigned Buffon’s Italy to their fateful play-off cul-de-sac in World Cup qualifying.

When Juventus went to Barcelona on the opening day of Group D in the Champions League, Buffon shipped another three goals, Juve losing 3-0 to Barca as the Primera Liga’s leaders set about commanding a tricky group.

Barcelona are already through but have a desire tonight to confirm top place, and maintain an unbeaten run in Liga and Champions League.

“The Barcelona match is crucial for us,” Barzagli said. “If we can settle the Champions League situation, then we can be concentrate calmly on the league.”

For Chiellini, “Serie A is our priority.”

And for Buffon, who turns 40 in January? He has hinted otherwise.

Having been denied, heart-breakingly, the chance to go to a record sixth World Cup last week, he retired from international football.

His aim, before retiring from the club game, is to win the European Cup, after three silver medals in finals across his admired, decorated career.

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His Juventus teammates, those who have a World Cup in Russia to look forward to, like the Moroccan defender Medhi Benatia, the Germany midfielder Sami Khedira, and the Croatian striker, Mario Mandzukic, have each promised to “win the Champions League for Gigi".

Italian football needs that sort of endorsement of its status, and in a Champions League where English clubs have so far set the pace, this is a crossroads night for Italy, facing its nemesis: Spain.

Meanwhile Roma - who lead a group including Chelsea by a point - are at Atletico Madrid, who know that only a victory will realistically keep them in the hunt for a place in the knockouts.