An ode to Andrea Barzagli: Juventus’ unsung hero and greatest signing

​Of all the injustices that the 1980s inflicted, perhaps the worst was reserved for Andrew Ridgeley. He may have been in one of the world’s most successful bands, but beneath the shoulder pads and hairspray the Wham star faced an inescapable reality. No matter how bouffant his hair, no matter how skilfully he slapped the guitar strung gamely around his waist, there was only one man getting all of the plaudits.

As Andrea Barzagli walks out at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night, he might just spare a thought for this particular ‘80s icon. Throughout a startlingly consistent career, the Juventus defender has made a habit of eluding the plaudits, bowing from the shadows as Giorgio Chiellini and Leanardo Bonucci reap praise from the adoring crowds.

Philip Lahm (33) and Xabi Alonso (35) may have called time on their careers, but Barzagli blew out his 36 candles a few weeks ago knowing that Saturday’s game represents his last chance for European glory. It is a journey that started in 2011, with the signature of a man that Juventus president Andrea Agnelli once described as the “best signing we ever made.”

Andrea Barzagli was born in Fiesole on 8 May, 1981. After impressing local scouts with his amateur displays, he signed for Ascoli in 2001, helping them gain promotion to Serie B in his first full season.  It was under Francesco Guidolin at Palermo where he truly made his name, moving to Sicily in 2004 and becoming captain as the Rosanero qualified for the UEFA Cup.

As his game matured, a move to a bigger club was mooted, but a transfer to Fiorentina was blown out of the water when Wolfsburg slapped €10 million on the table. Barzagli joined Cristian Zaccardo on the banks of the Aller River, linking up with Felix Magath for what promised to be a historic year for Die Wolfe.

The Auswanderer statue in Wolfsburg remembers the migrants who came to the city’s sprawling factories throughout the last century in search of work. Thousands made the journey from Italy’s impoverished south, and even today the city boasts one of Germany’s highest Italian migrant populations. Barzagli, it seemed, was just the latest worker coming to do a job.

Edin Dzeko and Grafite get all the plaudits for the famous title win that followed. Less, though, is mentioned about Barzagli’s pristine record at the heart of Felix Magath’s defence. The Italian was solid all year, remaining ever-present on the pitch, but he gradually faded from view as Wolfsburg collapsed in his second season. By January 2011, however, that would change.

Juventus were in crisis. After Didier Deschamps had sifted through the wreckage of Calciopoli scandal, Claudio Ranieri and Alberto Zaccheroni had re-established the club in Serie A. The decision to hire Luigi Delneri for the 2010/11 season had backfired spectacularly, however.  Barzagli, a World Cup winner in 2006 and barely over 30 years old, arrived in the transfer window for a scarcely-believable £300,000.

He would make 15 appearances in his first season, as Juventus limped towards a seventh place finish. Antonio Conte arrived that summer, breathing fire into a melancholic dressing room as shirkers were jettisoned and strivers sanctified.

Juventus, aided by the inspired transfer dealings of General Manager Beppe Marotta, perspired their way to the first of what became six straight titles after the recent victory against Crotone on 21 May.  An unbeaten season in 2011/12, including a new Serie A record for clean sheets, spoke clearly of a new and unforgiving era.Picture

Read ‘Antonio Conte at Juventus: The Anatomy of a Renaissance.’

At the heart of Juventus’ resurgence lay the form of their bargain basement centre-back. Conte had toyed with a four-man defence, but it wasn’t until he made the now-ubiquitous back three a staple that his side truly clicked. Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Barzagli made the Old Lady suitably impregnable, Italy’s own ‘BBC’ regaling audiences with their displays in sharpened monochrome. Any scoundrel lucky enough to find a way past them would be confronted with the not-insignificant prospect of Gigi Buffon in nets.

It’s easy to explain why Andrea Barzagli’s brilliance often goes unnoticed. He is conspicuously absent on social media, and eschews the kind of demonstration popular with his teammates. His is a special strain of brilliance, a mastery of the defensive art that transcends the WhoScored? Rating. Barzagli may lack the grizzle and violence of Chiellini, but only because he doesn’t need it, his astute positioning rendering the utility of a last-minute tackle obsolete.

Nor is Barzagli as refined as Bonucci, but it is no coincidence that the latter looks comforted when paired with his more venerable teammate. “I’ve played with many champions,” noted the former Bari man, “and I try to steal secrets from everybody. But the player I like watching on the pitch the most is Barzagli.”

It hasn’t always been an easy ride, of course. After being sidelined for more than six months of the 2014/15 season with a knee injury, whispers abated that Barzagli’s time with the Turin giants was coming to a close. When he returned against Sassuolo in the March of that season, any doubts were dispelled immediately. It was like he’d never been away.

Indeed, it’s only recently that the Azzurri have grown to appreciate his talents. Barzagli’s complete displays in Sicily had warranted a place in the 2006 World Cup, but he watched mainly from the stands as Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi secured a famous title.He was then omitted from Marcello Lippi’s 2010 World Cup squad, but when Conte was appointed national coach in 2014, the switch to the tactic that had suited Juventus so well was implemented. Barzagli was back in the fold and doing what he did best. He started all of Italy’s games at Euro 2016 last year, marking Nolito and Alvaro Morata out of the game as Italy beat Spain in the Round of 16.

It’s this consistency that sees Barzagli remain such a vital part of a scrupulous Juventus defence.  Monaco have blown holes in all of the top clubs this year, but Mbappe and co. were lucky to squeeze even one past a Juventus defence inspired by its wizened No.15.

Admittedly, Barzagli has been less involved this season, a shoulder injury limiting him to a bit-part role. He can only withstand the challenges of Mehdi Benatia and Daniele Rugani for so long, as his limbs begin to tire and his back stiffens further in refusal.

Two years ago, Juventus went into the Champions League final knowing they were the underdogs. It all felt like it’d come too early. This time around, though, Barzagli and his teammates are ready. Miralem Pjanic, Gonzalo Higuain and Dani Alves in particular look like Champions League-winning pieces of the puzzle. Facing the media ahead of the game, Barzagli chose his words with the kind of simple resolve that has characterised his career:

“We will play the game and then we will see.”

Words by Chris Weir: @chrisw45

​Chris is a Senior Writer at These Football Times and Columnist at World Football Index. He has also featured on FourFourTwo, Huffington Post, In Bed With Maradona and others.