The Italy captain has been tipped to carry on playing for as long as he wants, but signs of wear and tear suggest that it may be time for
It wasn't his fault that Leonardo Bonucci sold him at least five yards short on the backpass which gifted Galatasaray a first-half lead over Juventus on Wednesday night, but one couldn’t help but think that it was something Gianluigi Buffon would have dealt with effortlessly five years ago.
The Bianconeri skipper has never been faultless – no footballer is – but the gaps between Buffon's errors has narrowed significantly over the years. Normally, he deals in one per year. In 2010, it was an awful spill which gifted a goal to Genoa’s Marco Rossi; in 2011 he was sent-off for misjudging David Di Michele’s flick against Lecce and handling outside his box. Last year, Juve’s title party was delayed by four days thanks to a slip which threw away a late lead, also against Lecce.
But when he has been at least partly culpable this year, it has been a different type of mistake. It has not been the very human lapses that even the best shot-stopper will be liable to on occasion; rather, they have been the ones that have shown a fading of the qualities he has boasted throughout his career.
Earlier in the year it was a slow response to David Alaba’s deflected long-range shot that set the tone for Bayern Munich’s 4-0 aggregate win in the Champions League which had some pointing their fingers in the direction of the 35-year-old. Then he parried Marcelo’s shot straight to Fred against Brazil at the Confederations Cup having reacted a split-second too late once more to the original shot. And his inability to react quickly enough to Bonucci’s error has again raised a question.
The difference between the very best goalkeepers and the very good ones is in that ability to be one step ahead of an opposing striker, and whereas once Buffon was the personification of that quality, he is now showing little signs of slipping from his perch.Once the greatest goalkeeper in the game, he remains the best there is when it comes to organisation and authority of crowded goalmouths, but his great sense of anticipation has been compromised by his slowing body. Likewise, he is taking that millisecond longer to get down to some shots than has been his custom for years.
It has long been suggested, not least by this writer, that Buffon could end up matching the feat of Dino Zoff by captaining Italy to a World Cup win at the age of 40, but while he remains the Azzurri’s undisputed number one heading to Brazil 2014, by Russia 2018 he may well be just another Italy legend of the past.
Antonio Conte will rightly feel that there is no reason to upset the applecart just yet, but all the same he needs to be thinking beyond Buffon. In just the same way that the club have Paul Pogba lined up as their Andrea Pirlo proxy for the longer term, so they should be creating a hard and fast blueprint for a future without Buffon. He still has a few years in him, but maybe not at the level that Juve will need if they want to be challenging for Champions League titles three years from now.
Currently they have 36-year-old Marco Storari and 31-year-old Rubinho backing up the 136-cap first choice, with youngster Nicola Leali out on loan at Spezia. But with each month racked up between the sticks by Buffon, Juventus edge closer to the day when they have to think long and hard about what comes next.
Whether that means bringing back Leali to have him learn the Juve way under their watchful eye or spending some serious cash on a ready-made replacement, a decision may need to be made sooner rather than later. Because if the Old Lady are serious about being at the top of their game over a significant period, they may just have to start looking beyond the legend.