Champions League: Alessandro Del Pieros last hurrah

Alessandro Del Piero likes to describe how he learnt to be so clever with his free kicks. His father, Gino, used to park the family car next to the back garden of their Treviso home and turn on the headlights so that little Alex could carry on after dark his private, endless practice, landing a ball precisely on a chosen spot. His techniques have altered a little in nearly 30 years since but those hours, he tells, gave him the basis.

The renaissance of Del Piero may not be quite the right term for what has been an extended Indian summer to his career. He never started winding down, though he did voluntarily depart the big stage for a while. He was Juventus captain when, in the summer of 2006, the club he had served for 13 years were relegated to Serie B, Italy’s second division.

A few days earlier, he had won the World Cup with Italy. Two months earlier he and Juve had celebrated what they thought was a 29th league championship. It was not. Revelations that senior directors had been in frequent and improper contact with referees led to two of Juve’s titles being confiscated and to their demotion.

Most of the better players – Fabio Cannavaro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Patrick Vieira – left. The skipper stayed aboard, a decision that would burnish an already strong image of dedication that surrounds probably the most iconic Italian footballer of his generation.
The image is carefully managed, it is profitable and it gains Del Piero considerable sway at Juventus. Now 34, he is not beyond pulling the odd long face when the head coach makes a decision he thinks incorrect and he has had his disagreements with bosses such as Marcello Lippi, for whom he scored important goals in the World Cup semi-final and in the penalty shoot-out that won the Berlin final, and with Fabio Capello.

There have been moments of tension, too, with Claudio Ranieri, his current coach at Juventus, not least when, on being replaced earlier this month, he threw to the ground a jacket offered him as he took his seat on the bench. Typically, he explained his feistiness with a moment of delicate humour. The jacket offered him, he later smiled, was not in his size.

Last season, Del Piero scored more goals than anybody else in Serie A, for a team who finished third in the table the year after promotion. Last November, he was given a standing ovation by spectators, including Diego Maradona, at the Bernabeu for the two goals that earned Juventus a second win in the space of a month over Madrid in the Champions League.

Just after the new year, he converted his sixth direct free kick of the campaign, a figure that puts him, on form, ahead of the many specialists in this area, the Ronaldos and Beckhams. “Is it six already?” asked Ranieri, apparently not keeping count of Del Piero’s dead-ball expertise.

The Juventus head coach also played the innocent to the suggestion that this sort of precision from set-pieces might be precisely the trick that undoes Chelsea, whom Juventus visit on Wednesday in the last 16 of the European Cup, a Chelsea who have looked unusually vulnerable to manoeuvres from a dead ball.

“So Chelsea have problems at set-pieces?” smiled Ranieri. “Aha! That’s good to know.” We should not, said Ranieri, be distracted just by his captain’s expertise at curling a ball around a defensive wall. “Del Piero is amazing on the pitch everywhere, a fantastic player,” beams his head coach. “I think everybody in the world knows Alessandro Del Piero the man because he is such a good example. He’s a fantastically hard worker, in every training session he wants to be the best. That is important. It means that up here, in his head, he’s still a young player, as young as the rest. That’s central to his ability to keep improving.”

Searching for comparisons in English football, Ranieri thought not only of Ryan Giggs’ longevity but also of Gianfranco Zola’s extended excellence. Del Piero works in the league of evergreens. Francesco Totti, the Roma captain, was Serie A’s leading scorer, into his 30s, the season before Del Piero. Paolo Maldini, the Milan captain, is six years his senior and another four Milan regulars are Del Piero’s age or older. Luis Figo, 36, may get a run out for Internazionale against Manchester United on Tuesday and the streak of blond mane you will see along the left wing for Juventus at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday belongs to the Czech veteran Pavel Nedved, like Del Piero, a Juventus survivor. These two have lasted so well for a reason. Both spend their evenings not out on the town in Turin but at homes where gyms have been built.

Several of their colleagues, meanwhile, have spent much of the season on the side-lines. Ranieri’s Juventus entered 2008-09 as a squad full of experience. They have achieved their heights – a sustained challenge to Inter’s leadership that only faltered in the past fortnight, the victories over Madrid – with a back-up of half a dozen younger men supported by Nedved and Del Piero. Many of the veterans are now back in training and the coach’s decisions this week will be vital. He must weigh up the fitness of the prolific French goalscorer David Trezeguet; assess the readiness of the Italy winger Mauro Camoranesi; inspect the fragile but combative Cristiano Zanetti’s claims for a place in midfield.

“It’s important in this period to see who is at a high level for the Chelsea game,” says Ranieri. “I have had a lot of injured players. Now we are restarting with many of them and a lot of them are real champions: Camoranesi, Trezeguet, Tiago, Zan-neti, Jonathan Zebina, Giorgio Chiellini. I don’t know if, say, Trezeguet can play 90 minutes. We have to take things carefully.”

So the Tinkerman has some sharp choices to make before Juventus travel to London. But the presence of his totem, young Alex Del Piero, is not expected to prompt any second thoughts.

CHELSEA v JUVENTUS
Wednesday, 7.30pm
Sky Sports Xtra, kick-off 7.45pm

Juventus slipped a long way behind Internazionale in the domestic Italian title race after taking two points from their past four Serie A matches before last night. Claudio Ranieri has managed resourcefully for much of the campaign without half-a-dozen injured players but he hopes that striker David Trezeguet will be match-fit for Stamford Bridge. Italy winger Mauro Camoranesi, France defender Jonathan Zebina and former Chelsea midfielder Tiago make the squad – Ian Hawkey

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