Buffon wants Italy to restore pride lost at World Cup
There are striking similarities between tomorrow's goalkeepers. The fashionable short sleeves, the calming but confident attitude they exude to defenders, and match-winning shot-stopping ability rivalled only by the Spain captain, Iker Casillas.
The intrigue in England's quarter-final against Italy at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev is strictly tactical, one for the purists. Importance placed upon defensive set-ups is particularly prevalent, as are the roles Joe Hart and Gianluigi Buffon have to play. It is not often that so much talk is generated around goalkeepers ahead of a game, but these are two of the best in the world.
England supporters have not enjoyed such a sense of security in their No 1 since David Seaman's heyday during Euro'96, but Hart has a long way to go if he wants to surpass Buffon's career. Italy's captain, depending on who you talk to, has been the world's best for the past decade.
You only have to look at his record over the years to understand why he is such a great. When barely 20, Buffon dislodged the great Gianluca Pagliuca between the sticks for Italy. He was a World Cup winner in 2006 and has been an Azzurri stalwart amid dressing-room fallouts and poor performances.
Hart has clearly tailored his traits to follow the same path as the keeper he calls a "legend". Now speaking as an elder statesman, Buffon knows what an impact he has had on the younger generation coming through – the likes of Hart and Germany's Manuel Neuer – and is tipping them to fill his and Casillas' gloves.
"Hart, along with Neuer and [Italy's third-choice, Salvatore] Sirigu, can leave their mark on an era in international football," he said yesterday.
At the last European Championship, Buffon saved a penalty from Romania's Adrian Mutu that kept them in the competition before beating away Daniel Guiza's kick in a quarter-final shootout against eventual winners Spain. The reliance on his services is immense.
Tomorrow's game, as Hart has admitted, may go down to penalties. Buffon agreed that due to the way Cesare Prandelli's side play, it could go to the lottery both these countries want to avoid, given their unenviable records at major tournaments.
"Italy have the ability to make every game balanced so it is then decided by incidents. I think it is a very balanced game, totally equal. I don't see any favourite," he said.
"It would definitely be better to try to close out the match beforehand but if it goes to penalties so be it. I haven't prepared for them yet, but tonight I and my team-mates will try to study them on video."
Buffon also spoke of the Italians' desire, much like their opponents, to cure the hurt of a dismal 2010 World Cup, when the holders finished bottom of a group containing New Zealand. "When we started this journey two years ago, the idea was to make up for South Africa," he said. "Our objective was to make ourselves and our fans proud.
"Both Italy and England are looking to recapture the prestige that has been lost in recent years."
In trying desperately not to rely on the reflex abilities of the goalkeepers at the bitter end, Buffon believes that the role of the mavericks, Wayne Rooney and Antonio Cassano, will play a huge part.
"Rooney has charisma and is a leader, dragging the team along with him," he said. "I like Cassano's extravagant way of expressing himself. He has leadership skills and at times that aspect is underestimated."
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