‘Architect’ inspiring a nation

It was, as Edmund Blackadder would say, the worst mistake since the Vikings ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside.

It was an error that determined the immediate present, and in all likelihood the future of Italian football over the next five years.

And finally, it put paid to England’s chances of emerging from an Italian shadow cast over them by a man who stands at just 5ft 9in tall but makes those around him seem like Lilliputians.

Now, basking in the glow of his sumptuous performance in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday night, it is hard to believe that Andrea Pirlo was written off just a year ago.

Thought to be too old and too slow, his name shall be written on AC Milan coach Massimilano Allegri’s gravestone; ‘Here lies the man who sold The Architect’.

For it was Allegri who made the call that shaped his and England’s future. Somehow, astonishingly, the San Siro boss decided that he wanted Mark van Bommel to anchor his midfield for another year, and that Pirlo was bound for the scrapheap.

Unwanted, Pirlo looked for a new challenge and found it with Juventus. It appeared a bold move by Antonio Conte, coach of the Bianconeri. Now, 12 months on, it appears inspired after a Serie A title and an unbeaten league campaign.

The Architect, as Pirlo is known, structured a Juventus side that had himself as its beating heart, conducting and orchestrating from the base of midfield.

Like a whirlpool in full effect, the ball is drawn inexorably towards Pirlo, unable to escape his clutches. Against England we saw exactly what he can do when afforded time and space. The statistics are delicious; the manner in which they were collated, sumptuous.

Pirlo was in possession of the ball for four minutes and 28 seconds — two minutes and eight seconds more than England’s central midfield of Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker combined. He also made 131 passes, almost double that of England’s duo.

Yet it was the style and elegance that will linger. Virtually every chance came from one of his passes, every moment of danger from his prompting.

Moving to Turin has changed his and Italy’s fortunes. The season before he left the San Siro, Pirlo made 12 Serie A starts for Milan. Last season he made 37. It has been quite a transformation, one that shows why raging against the dying of the light can be quite joyous. “I wanted to win and I did,” said Pirlo after Juventus reclaimed the title he had won with Milan the previous year. “I left Milan because I needed more motivation in my career, so I chose Juve and bought into their project. I believed I was number one and I believe I have demonstrated it again this season.”

He certainly has. Only a man with the arrogant self-belief of Pirlo could have considered the impudent Panenka penalty that was a dagger to English hearts on Sunday. The admission afterwards that scoring was not enough, that he intended to put off England’s next penalty taker by chipping Joe Hart in such audacious fashion, proves why the footballing schools of AC Milan, Juventus and Inter still take precedence over the heart, passion and desire that seem key attributes to any English School of Excellence.

“Joe Hart was doing some strange movements, so when he dived I decided to take it like that and it went well,” said Pirlo after the game.

“It put a bit of pressure on their takers and in fact Ashley Young missed his penalty after that.”

Daniele De Rossi put it well when he said: “If I had to choose a lasting image from the game, I’d say Pirlo’s penalty.

“I’d not seen such a crazy shot as that since the days of Francesco Totti.”

Yet can a move between clubs really reinvigorate a player to this extent? In the case of Pirlo, the answer is yes. Last season he averaged 86 passes per game, despite being 33-years-old, and his total of 125 ‘key’ passes, to go with his 13 assists, was the most in Europe.

Now he has to set his mind to a battle of wits with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil in the German midfield in Thursday’s semi-final. They will not allow him as much freedom as England did.

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