Buffon not ready to walk away as Italy look to the future

Fans in Manchester were denied an audience with Lionel Messi but got to witness another of the modern greats in Gianluigi Buffon.

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon   -  Getty Images

Luigi Di Biagio could yet helm Italy's re-building job or simply be a man passing through.

Nevertheless, the interim Azzurri boss – stepping up from his role as Under-21 coach – was in no mood to varnish truths after Friday's 2-0 friendly defeat to a Lionel Messi-less Argentina in Manchester.

An unfamiliar Italy line-up were in the ascendancy, until the array of second-half substitutions that habitually reduce international friendlies to a soup of nonsense fell in favour of Jorge Sampaoli's side.

"We mustn't change our attitude, we must continue the way we are and realise this is a difficult moment for the team," Di Biagio said, the memories of last November's World Cup play-off calamity against Sweden still raw.

"We'll ask everyone to be patient and never to forget that we have a young team there. We've got young players with perhaps two or three international games under their belt."

After failures on the scale of the one spawned by Gian Piero Ventura's haphazard tenure, talk of youth and renewal are inevitable as veterans fade away. But Italy boast a notable exception – a World Cup winner of unparalleled experience, unable to drag himself away from duty.

"I'm not here to showcase, to show myself off," Gianluigi Buffon glowered at a pre-match news conference, dismissing any suggestion he is indulging in some sort of vainglorious farewell tour having rowed back on retirement.

"I can still be useful. I might be 40 but I'm the goalkeeper of Juventus. I don't know if my last match will be with Juventus or an international but it will be low key and sober. Normal."

A half-empty stadium, with those in attendance deflated by the news Messi was having the night off, certainly ticked the boxes marked "low key" and "sober" as kick-off approached.

But from the moment the teams emerged on the occasion of his 176th cap – Italy wearing shirts baring the name and number of the late Davide Astori in a moving tribute – you did not need to look too hard to see how much this still means to Buffon.

As the unmistakable opening bars of Il Canto degli Italiani struck up, the captain's eyes closed and his face tightened in anticipation of belting out the first line.

Argentina were the better team in a low-key first half but ran into an uncompromising Buffon whenever they appeared set to breakthrough.

In the 17th minute he plunged to his right to deny Manchester City centre-back Nicolas Otamendi a goal on home turf and cajoled a back four without his old allies Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli.

Cracks appeared as the interval approached and Buffon blocked from Nicolas Tagliafico before a stunning one-against-one stop, when he instinctively jammed down a left hand to thwart Gonzalo Higuain.

The Argentina striker walked off for half-time arm in arm with his club-mate, giving the overwhelming impression such a duel has been played out that way in training more times than he would care to remember.

Before the action resumed, the crowd behind and around Buffon's goal rose in acclaim as he trotted into position. Nothing is ever completely low key when the greats are around, whatever they might wish.

Early in the second period, an Italy attack featuring Fiorentina winger Federico Chiesa – Buffon played alongside his father Enrico for Parma and the Azzurri – clicked into gear.

Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne are quicksilver footballers who can illuminate Italy's long, dark night, even if the Napoli forward was guilty of a glaring 48th-minute miss.

It meant that when Ever Banega – the Sevilla playmaker who is making a habit of enjoying himself in Manchester – arrowed a shot through Leonardo Bonucci's sliding attempted block to leave Buffon rooted, he scored a 75th-minute opener.

Italy's number one thrust out a boot to brilliantly deny substitute Diego Perotti, by which point all before him was disjointed. Manuel Lanzini lashing into the roof of the net underscored why one of these teams is heading to Russia and the other is not.

Buffon lamented those late slips. Still ready for however many of the hard yards he can endure; still not ready to let go.

The scores of disappointed youngsters who chanted, "Messi! Messi! Messi!" in vain throughout the second half will one day reflect warmly upon the night they got to watch Gianluigi Buffon – another giant of this or any era.

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