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Oct 1, 2011

The man behind the curtain

They were searching for a champion.

Half-cleared, the ball comes under control. He moves across the edge of the box, seemingly in an incredible amount of space, almost alone despite having the eyes of millions upon him. And then he sees it. Before anyone else is even aware of the angle, when the gap is barely there, he slips the pass through with consummate ease while looking in a different direction. As usual, the recipient has no need to control it for the weight is perfect: Fabio Grosso simply strikes across goal and into the far side of the net.

As he had done countless times before, Andrea Pirlo saw and was able to execute the perfect assist. That one put Italy into the 2006 World Cup final and, despite being at the very top of European football for the best part of a decade, he can still constantly find those pockets of space, that split-second, again and again.

"Pirlo is our silent leader. He lets his feet talk on his behalf" - Marcello Lippi

When eventually the final went to penalties, those involved dealt with the pressure and emotion of that situation in very different ways. Marcello Lippi took his glasses off and wiped his eyes; most of the other players held on to each other, unable to look away. Pirlo hid, as he had from the moment he scored the first kick of the shootout, standing behind Fabio Cannavaro and trying not to watch the drama unfold.

It is almost the perfect metaphor to highlight the career of a player who has come to represent the recent history of Italian football perhaps as well as anyone over the last decade. Having put in a stellar performance in the final, picking up his third Man of the Match award of the tournament as well as his third assist, he was undeniably the architect behind the Azzurri's fourth triumph. From his opening goal in the first match of the tournament until his penalty at the end of 120 minutes, he had, in his very understated and unassuming style, led Italy to their fourth World Cup victory.

They were searching for a champion.

Less than 12 months later, once again on the biggest stage, Milan had earned their shot at redemption. Two years on from that infamous and inexplicable collapse in Istanbul, the Rossoneri were face-to-face once again with Liverpool, looking to put that catastrophic defeat behind them forever. As a tense first half drew to a close, Milan were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous area and, despite the stellar cast of set-piece specialists on show, only one man was ever going to take responsibility.

Pirlo, as he had done countless times before, connected perfectly with the ball only to see his shot take a wicked deflection off the shoulder of Pippo Inzaghi to leave Pepe Reina stranded. The striker of course took off on one of his crazed celebrations, reacting as though he had beaten six players on a slaloming run. He would add a second after the interval and become the hero of that Milan win, with Pirlo once again playing the most crucial of roles, but almost unseen - the man behind the curtain.

It is how he has spent his entire career, even as far back as his time as captain, top scorer and player of the tournament at the Under-21 European Championships in 2000. When Inter loaned him back to his hometown club, Brescia, in 2001 it presented coach Carlo Mazzone with a problem as, until that point, Pirlo had been a No. 10, an attacking playmaker at his best just behind the main striker. However, Brescia were already blessed with the presence of Roberto Baggio in that very same role, so the tactician deployed him in front of the back four, with instructions to sit and invent from deep, bringing the most out of his wonderfully accurate long-range passing and giving the side two sources of creativity.

They were searching for a champion.

Milan, having seen enough of his ability in this new position, bought him from their city rivals. Carlo Ancelotti made Pirlo the centrepiece of a superb team that would win honours almost every season over the next decade. It would be easy to simply list his personal medal haul, littered as it is with league titles, Champions League victories and of course the 2006 World Cup, and he has arguably been the most influential midfielder in the world over the last ten years. Allied to his other skills is a tactical intelligence few others posses. Because of this rare blend, it came as a huge shock, even in light of his struggles last term, to see Milan and their maestro cut all ties at the end of the season.

"I've spent ten wonderful years here. It's been a fantastic adventure with Milan" - Pirlo

Massimiliano Allegri replaced Ancelotti and had very different ideas on how the Rossoneri midfield should be constructed, preferring athletes and runners to craftsmen like Pirlo. Even so, for Milan, a club synonymous with keeping players until they are nearer 40, to allow a player of such quality to leave on a free transfer seemed odd. Many observers noted that, if any club's medical staff would know the physical condition of a player, it would be the men behind the much-lauded MilanLab. The general consensus was that they must have known something outsiders didn't.

They were searching for a champion.

After last year's complete overhaul of the squad, Juventus director general Beppe Marotta promised the fans that the summer of 2011 would be about quality not quantity, and that "top players" would be arriving. The day after his departure from Milan was formally announced, Pirlo arrived in Turin, passing a medical and signing for Juventus, making him just the eighth player in history to wear the colours of Italian football's three biggest clubs.

Once again there were questions and doubts. Was he healthy? Could he fit into Antonio Conte's tactics? Why sign Pirlo instead of simply retaining the services of Alberto Aquilani, one of last season's better performers? Again there were others grabbing the limelight - Mirko Vucinic brought his 'Big Game' persona from Roma, Arturo Vidal was snatched from under the noses of Bayern Munich and Eljero Elia was a deadline-day surprise.

"A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free ... I think he was the signing of the century" - Gigi Buffon

Then the season began. A 4-1 demolition of Parma in the new Juventus Stadium saw a typically brilliant Pirlo performance, notching two assists and directing the play throughout. He was central to everything Juventus did well, including the relentless pressing defence - often deep in the opposition half - demanded by Conte. They have continued that form, unbeaten thus far and sitting atop Serie A while other, more fancied, clubs stumble.

Pirlo's passing remains as impressive as ever, behind only Daniele De Rossi in the statistics and hovering around a 90% completion rate. This Sunday, his past and present will collide in what he is sure to find an emotional fixture as Milan visit Turin. He is far from the only one, as Christian Abbiati, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Aquilani, Gianluca Zambrotta, Inzaghi and Alessandro Matri have all played for both sides in this biggest of matches. However, it will be the first time Pirlo has faced his former team-mates in a competitive game.

At a new club, he has shown himself to be as vital as ever - a genuine catalyst for the improvement seen in the first four games of the season. Juventus have found a champion.

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