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Andrea Pirlo still as good as ever

It felt like forever, but finally it came. As it fell from the sky like a gift from God, Roberto Baggio controlled the dropping ball with a typically divine touch and floated past Edwin van der Sar before sending the ball into the back of the empty goal. For lowly Brescia to earn a point away to mighty Juventus in such fashion was in itself something of a miracle, but this match which bore witness to so much more. This goal and -- more significantly -- the incredible pass which led to it, announced the arrival of deep-lying midfield playmaker Andrea Pirlo to a wider audience.

While many in his native Italy may well have been fully aware of the then 21 year old, it was in a very different guise to the one on display that April afternoon in 2001 at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin. Gone was the traditional No. 10 who had played just behind the strikers in a career which already spanned some six years and included spells at Inter and Reggina, as well as a starring role at the European Under-21 Championships in 2000 where he was captain, player of the tournament and top scorer for a victorious Italy side.

Instead here was a player wearing the No. 5 shirt and sitting just in front of the defense. Yet rather than offering protection, he controlled the game, set the tempo and distributed the ball, reinvented in a role which many considered long since forgotten. Luckily for Pirlo -- and subsequently Milan, Juventus and the national team -- his coach at Brescia, Carlo Mazzone, had been around long enough to remember the days that such players regularly ran the show. In some ways the move was forced upon both men, the presence of Baggio meaning Pirlo's usual berth was occupied and a new position needed to be found.

The insight and belief shown by Carlo Ancelotti in taking Pirlo and deploying him in the same guise at Milan should also be applauded, a leap of faith which -- while not as inspired or original as when Mazzone first made the switch -- was never the less just as vital to the emergence of the player we know today. Since those early games in Lombardia, the soccer world could not fail to notice his development as he matured from being Baggio's young apprentice into a thoroughly accomplished midfielder who went on to set the tone for two Champions League wins with the San Siro outfit as well as Italy's 2006 World Cup win.

That tournament in Germany, perhaps more than any other period in his career, marked him out as one of this generation's true greats as he played better than ever, even managing to break the Azzurri tradition of starting World Cups slowly as he scored a wonderful long range goal In their opening game, a 2-0 win over Ghana where he was named man of the match. He would win the same accolade in the epic semifinal victory over the hosts as well as the final when he was once again brilliant, a performance often forgotten amid the drama of the penalty shootout and Zinedine Zidane's shocking dismissal.

Five years later, along the way having inspired Milan's revenge over Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League Final, it still came as something of a surprise when, despite a couple of injury-hit seasons, the Rossoneri chose not to offer him a new contract last summer. The decision was taken by Milan Vice-President Adriano Galliani after listening to both the advice of Jean-Pierre Meersemann -- head of the clubs famous MilanLab medical facility -- and coach Massimiliano Allegri. Having seen Roberto Donadoni's Italy eliminated from Euro 2008 by Spain when a suspended Pirlo missed the quarterfinal, and Marcello Lippi being utterly humiliated at the 2010 World Cup -- where injury restricted the midfielder to a mere 34-minute cameo in the third Group game -- Allegri's opinion carried much weight as he became perhaps the first coach to find a way to win without Pirlo.

During Milan's run to the Scudetto in 2010-11 the player managed just 12 starts, his lowest total since his first season at San Siro and usually found himself stuck out on the left side of midfield as the new coach looked to reinvigorate that area of the team. Abandoning the inventiveness and creativity of Pirlo in favor of more traditional "stoppers" like Marc van Bommel and the energy of Kevin-Prince Boateng, Milan had, in the words of Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola "lost a fantastic player."

Few believed that, at the highest level at least, the midfielder was still capable of being as important as Guardiola -- who actually replaced Pirlo at Brescia when he moved to Milan -- still believed him to be. Further concerns arose after he signed for Juventus -- which had once again overhauled its playing staff -- as to how Antonio Conte could incorporate such a player into his system.

But Conte did more than make room for Pirlo, he followed the lead of Mazzone, Ancelotti and Lippi by making his newest acquisition the focal point of the side where he could once again live up to his nickname, "The Architect." Flanked by willing runners like Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio and Simone Pepe, it worked immediately. In Juve's opening game of the season, a 4-1 demolition of Parma, Pirlo created two goals and completed a remarkable 110 passes, much to the delight of Gigi Buffon who told La Repubblica; "It's the bargain of the century for us. Seeing him play in front of my back line, it made me realize that God does exist."

He has carried that form through the first 35 games of the season, registering three goals, 13 assists and, perhaps more tellingly, created over 100 clear scoring opportunities for a team which has sadly wasted so many of those chances. He has completed 2643 passes -- over 500 more than any other player in Serie A and a total only topped anywhere in Barcelona's Xavi -- all at a metronomic 86.8 percent.

Yet to reduce a player of such ability to mere statistics is to strip away everything which makes him great; the style, grace and effortless nature which define not only his playing style but also the man himself. Often spoken of as the one true champion in a young and hungry Juventus squad, he is exactly as Lippi famously described him when he said; "Pirlo is a silent leader. He speaks with his feet."

Those same feet were praised back in 2007 by another iconic figure, Johan Cruyff -- the man perhaps most responsible for the Barcelona we see today, a team which embraces the same characteristics seen in the Italian's play -- as he told the press at a UEFA conference "Pirlo can make his feet do whatever he wants. He's a genius." Watching him stroke the ball around with consummate ease, even under the heaviest pressure it is hard to argue with such an assessment, and seeing him use his ability to read the game to both set up teammates and disrupt the play of opponents is to witness a once-a-generation level of talent.

That he is held in such esteem by the Dutch maestro is very telling as the player seems to thrive under those who know what the game is like after playing similar roles themselves. It is no secret Ancelotti won back-to-back European Cups at the heart of those incredible Milan teams of the late 1980s and early 90s, while even Lippi enjoyed a modest playing career in Sampdoria's midfield. Perhaps then Conte's past as a Champions League winning midfielder is his greatest asset when dealing with Pirlo, surely giving him insight and understanding what his new charge needs to be at his best.

Constantly finding that balance is vital to Juventus if it is to eventually succeed in wrestling the league title from his former club Milan, although whether it happens this season or in the future remains to be seen. That belief was stated most pointedly by a man who knows something about delivering silverware to Turin's Old Lady, Michel Platini. As the man Bianconeri fans dubbed Il Re ('The King') told La Stampa; "if Pirlo is on song, everything else falls into place."

That was true back in 2001 when his assist to Baggio took the title away from Juventus and into the hands of that year's eventual champion Roma, and it remains so today, as history comes full circle. Now he is the one wearing the famous black and white stripes and his new club hope some more of those incredible passes can lead them back to the promised land.

Adam Digby is a Turin-based freelance writer covering Italian soccer and is the co-founder of JuventiKnows.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @adz77.

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