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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Emotional week for Leonardo Bonucci to climax with return to Juventus with AC Milan

Bonucci returns to face the club he left in the summer having captained Italy in midweek

AC Milan's Leonardo Bonucci will face a tough test of emotions on Saturday when he goes up against his former club Juventus. Matteo Bazzi / ANSA via AP
AC Milan's Leonardo Bonucci will face a tough test of emotions on Saturday when he goes up against his former club Juventus. Matteo Bazzi / ANSA via AP

Leonardo Bonucci has had an emotional week already, by his own admission.

He captained Italy at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday night, took the honour conferred by the skipper’s armband to heart but acknowledged that leading his country at a fabled venue carried bittersweet feelings.

For the home side, Italy’s 1-1 draw with England was a useful World Cup preparation. For the Azzurri it was a session in shadow boxing.

“It will hit us in the summer that we are not part of the World Cup,” said Bonucci, one of a number of world-class footballers from a great football nation who can still scarcely believe they failed to reach Russia 2018.

This weekend, the Bonucci soul will be touched again by the sorts of forces his tough mask may struggle to conceal. Bonucci, six times an Italian champion in the colours of Juventus, will lead the opposition into the field at the Juventus stadium in a high-stakes Serie A collision.

It will seem eerie to be there in the colours of AC Milan, up against Juve on their own turf as a member, a figurehead of the club who in many respects are Juve’s fiercest domestic rivals.

Bonucci has thought about this fixture, this return to Turin a great deal since he took the decision, last summer, to move from Juventus to Milan, accept the challenge of leading a new-look rossoneri into a bold, ambitious new era and risk the opprobrium of Juventus supporters and indeed the mild surprise of long-term colleagues.

Juve collected a handsome €42 million (Dh190m) for the transfer of a defender already into his 31st year, a player whose accomplishments are spread thick across a broad skill-set: rugged stopper, tackler and man-marker as well as calm, precise passer out from the back.

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Last season, Bonucci occasionally had the impression his coach at Juventus, Max Allegri, held those qualities as slightly diminished. The pair had fallouts last season, and being drooped to the bench for an Uefa Champions League last-16 tie marked a turning point for Bonucci.

He sensed he wanted to move even after, restored to the team, he played in his second European Cup final in two years for Juve, and collected his sixth scudetto on the trot.

He always knew he would be judged at Milan according to precedents. The list of footballers who have crossed the electrified fence between the two most successful Italian clubs of Bonucci’s lifetime has some distinguished names on it.

He himself cited Andrea Pirlo’s switch. Pirlo left Milan, where he had won two European Cups, in 2011, released. Juve snapped him up, and there he answered emphatically any perception that he, at 32, had passed his peak. Pirlo had left Milan as a Serie A champion; at Juve he won the same title for the next four years.

Leonardo Bonucci captained Italy on Tuesday against England. Carl Recine / Action Images via Reuters
Leonardo Bonucci captained Italy on Tuesday against England. Carl Recine / Action Images via Reuters

Allegri himself was the last Milan coach to guide them to the league title. He now chases his fourth title as Juve’s mastermind, and, should he succeed, this may well rank as the toughest of them.

The champions have trailed a captivating Napoli for the majority of the campaign, but gleefully, ominously leapfrogged the challengers from the south earlier this month.

Bonucci has fortified himself. “From a personal point of view, Saturday will be unlike any game I have played before or may play in the future,” he said to reporters in London while on Italy duty.

“I spent seven great years at Juventus, won a lot with them and went through joy with and sometimes suffered with great colleagues who are still there. It will leave me with strong emotions, in head and heart. It will be intense.”

He will hear some scorn from the crowd, no doubt, and probably some generous acknowledgement of his Juve legacy. There are aspects of Bonucci’s authority the club miss, although Milan will have to scratch very hard to find frailities in Juve’s post-Bonucci defence.

The champions head towards April yet to concede a Serie A goal in all of 2018. Their clean sheet now spreads over 14 consecutive hours of football. Only something special, or perhaps just lucky, will pierce it.