Zambrotta at peak of powers

AP

Barcelona will be hoping Zambrotta hits top form going into the new year as they lie second in the Primera Liga and face 2005 European Cup winners Liverpool in the Champions League last 16, writes Neale Graham.

Gianluca Zambrotta's career was given the seal of enduring excellence it deserved when he was part of Italy's World Cup-winning side last summer.

A silky, tenacious and versatile footballer, Zambrotta demonstrated he was the best attacking full-back on the planet with a series of outstanding displays in Germany.

In a team that, for much of Zambrotta's career, had been hamstrung by caution in big tournaments, Marcello Lippi's side was, by Italian standards at least, adventurous and attack-minded.

He might have thought that the chance of starring in a major final had passed him by when he sat out the Euro 2000 decider against France after being sent off in the semi-final against Holland.

That tournament had come a little over a year after his international debut when he had caught the eye of the then Italy coach Dino Zoff.

Zambrotta had made the breakthrough for hometown club Como in 1994 and after three years in the lower divisions, Serie A outfit Bari snapped him up.

As his development continued, so his suitors took greater interest and it was no surprise that midway through the 1998-99 season, Juventus came in with an offer Bari could not refuse.

Joining Serie A's premier club proved to be the key decision he would make in his career as with the Old Lady would come greater international recognition and, as expected, trophies.

Perhaps, though, he did not win as many as he might have expected, with medals for the 2001-02 and 2002-03 league titles the only ones he can boast of.

A Champions League final was reached in 2003 which AC Milan won on penalties, and two more championships were claimed, in 2004-05 and 2005-06, but both `scudetti' were stripped as Juve were found guilty of match-fixing.

Zambrotta, though, remained a consistent presence throughout, maintaining his high standards despite dropping back into defence to accommodate the emergence of Mauro Camoranesi for club and country.

The former Juve coach Carlo Ancelotti was even moved to say that at the top level Zambrotta "has the ability to play anywhere."

A disappointing big-tournament performance, this time at Euro 2004, put Italy not among the obvious candidates to lift the 2006 World Cup.

The reality was, though, that after their traditional sluggish start, the azzurri proved to be the most complete side in the competition, beating France on spot-kicks in the final.

Zambrotta scored one of his two goals for the national team en route to the ultimate prize in world football, and looked the class act he is.

Italy's success on the international stage was in stark contrast to the problems dogging the domestic game and when Juve were relegated to Serie B as punishment, Zambrotta joined the mass exodus.

He was transferred to Barcelona in a joint GBP13 million deal with France centre-back Lilian Thuram, but he has not been able to quite translate his trademark buccaneering style to the Spanish team just yet.

It may simply be a question of adjusting to a different country and league before his vintage form returns. And Zambrotta, who turns 30 in February, is happy to be with the reigning European champions.

"I feel wonderful, because there are people here who can do what they want with the ball, players with unquestionable class," he said.

"I am very satisfied with my work. We are a united group and one of the strongest teams in the world."

Barca will be hoping Zambrotta hits top form going into the new year as they lie second in the Primera Liga and face 2005 European Cup winners Liverpool in the Champions League last 16.

Expect the Catalans to see the very best from one of the very best soon.

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