Peerless Pirlo poised to join 100 Club
Rio de Janeiro: Fittingly, for a man who owns a vineyard, the enduring brilliance of Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo continues to prove the old adage that some things get better with age.
The 34-year-old is expected to make his 100th international appearance against Mexico at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and with each game, he gives AC Milan fresh reason to regret letting him go in 2011.
Pirlo accumulated a sizeable trophy haul at San Siro, including two Serie A crowns and Champions League titles in 2003 and 2007, but the club elected not to offer him a new contract.
It was thus with extra determination that Pirlo crossed northern Italy to Juventus two years ago, and in his time in Turin he has confirmed his reputation as one of the pre-eminent midfielders of his generation.
Pirlo was crowned Serie A Player of the Year after Juve romped to the title unbeaten in his first season and he was every bit as influential as Antonio Conte`s side repeated the feat in 2012-13.
Having bowed out at Milan with a Scudetto success in 2011, it means Pirlo will be targeting a fourth successive league title when next season`s Italian championship gets under way later this year.
According to Juve and Italy team-mate Gianluigi Buffon, one of four players to have already reached the 100-cap mark for Italy, the Old Lady`s acquisition of Pirlo was "the buy of the century".
Pirlo announced last month that he will bring the curtain down on his storied international career after next year`s World Cup in Brazil.
Having made his international debut against Azerbaijan in September 2002, he was a key figure in Italy`s 2006 World Cup triumph in Germany.
His cunningly disguised reverse pass teed up Fabio Grosso for the opening goal in a hard-fought semi-final win over the hosts and he also netted a penalty in the shoot-out victory over France in the final.
His performances at Euro 2012 last year helped secure his legacy, with regal displays of passing capped by an ice-cool panenka spot-kick in the Azzurri`s penalty shoot-out win against England in the quarter-finals.
"You try to keep Pirlo in check, but a player of that quality will always find a way around it when you put players on him," said rueful England manager Roy Hodgson.
Pirlo is perhaps the foremost example of what Italians call a `regista`: a cultured midfield player who sits in front of the back four and organises his team`s play.
He began his career as a more classic playmaker, or `trequartista`, but while on loan at formative club Brescia from Inter Milan in 2001, coach Carlo Mazzone moved him into a withdrawn role. It proved a masterstroke.
"He`s an attacker who plays a few metres back, but with all the qualities of a number 10," said then Italy manager Giovanni Trapattoni of Pirlo`s reinvention.
"He is like Zico or (Gianni) Rivera at their time when they made the move back to midfield. It`s a new and interesting role."
Allied to his pinpoint passing and elegance in possession, Pirlo is also a menace from set-pieces and recently scored a picture-perfect 25-yard free-kick in a 4-0 World Cup qualifying win against San Marino.
Bearded, tanned, and with an artfully tousled mane of dark hair, he manages to maintain an air of unhurried sophistication despite playing in the most turbulent area of the pitch.
A consummate performer is nothing without a suitable stage, and in Rio de Janeiro`s mythical Maracana on Sunday, he will find an appropriately stylish venue for his 100th cap.