Italy need not have worried. There was a hint of panic in the peninsula on Saturday when news broke that Gianluigi Buffon would not be fit to face England.
Fans of the Azzurri remembered all too well what had happened the last time they played a World Cup game without the Juventus goalkeeper, their team losing 3-2 to Slovakia as they crashed out of the 2010 tournament at the group stage.
Federico Marchetti was the man who played keeper that day, and his performance left a lot to be desired.
It would be another three years before the national team even called him up for another practice session. He did not make the squad for Brazil, having been overtaken in the meantime by both Mattia Perin and Salvatore Sirigu.
Neither of those two, however, had played in Italy's qualifying campaign.
Perin only made his first Italy appearance in an unofficial warm-up game against Brazilian club side Fluminense earlier this month. He conceded three goals that day, including one from Carlinhos that may soon find its way onto goalkeeping blooper reels.
There was relief in the Italy camp when Sirigu, at least, was declared fit to face England, having overcome a minor rib injury.
However, the player himself was a bag of nerves. He had found out that he was starting only on the day of the game and found the whole situation a lot to take on board.
But then he spoke to Buffon.
“He (Buffon) told me that he was pleased it wasn’t a serious injury and also content I was going to be the one replacing him. That reassured me,” recalled Sirigu in the mixed zone after the game to Sky Sport Italia (via Football-Italia).
In quotes from Italian outlet Gazzetta dello Sport, Sirigu said he had been trying to find calmness by talking to his girlfriend and family, but one sentence from Buffon was all it took to reassure him.
Sirigu certainly looked assured as he went about the business of thwarting England at the Arena da Amazonia. The goalkeeper made smart stops to deny Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Ross Barkley, although his own favourite was the one that he made to keep out a late free-kick from Leighton Baines.
Sirigu later explained at a press conference on Monday that he never saw the ball leave Baines' foot (quotes in Italian, via Gazzetta) and that his save was purely a reflex action.
Manager Cesare Prandelli praised Sirigu’s performance afterward, but immediately assured reporters that Buffon would be back in goal for the Costa Rica game (report in Italian via Unione Sarda).
It was a surprising statement. Given how well the back-up had played, would it not have been wiser to make sure that Buffon had recovered fully from his ankle injury first?
With that said, the manager’s comments were designed first and foremost to make clear that nothing had changed in Italy’s goalkeeping hierarchy.
Sirigu is a gifted shot-stopper who has played an important role in helping Paris Saint-Germain to consecutive Ligue 1 titles over the last two seasons, and yet even he knows that he is not ready to replace Buffon on anything like a full-time basis.
“I have never thought about taking his place,” continued Sirigu in his press conference on Monday (via FIFA.com). “I only think about my contribution because one must be realistic. I don't know if I'm even in the top 10 list of goalkeepers and I'm really not interested. My focus is on giving all I have every day. One feels satisfied when he gives the best he has."
The truth is that, even at 36 years old, Buffon remains Italy’s best goalkeeper by some distance. According to The Guardian's James Horncastle, his saves-to-shots ratio was the best in Serie A this season.
However, it would be reductionist to assess his contribution solely in those terms.
What Buffon brings to his teams is something more intangible, a leadership and sense of control. Italy’s defence against England was an inexperienced one, including two players—Matteo Darmian and Gabriel Paletta—who had never before played in a competitive international game.
Both struggled at times in their defensive duties—even if Darmian was excellent going forwards—with Italy’s back four too often pulled out of shape by the rapid movements of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge et al.
The absence of Mattia De Sciglio was a factor, obliging Prandelli to move Giorgio Chiellini out to left-back instead of pairing him with his club team-mate Andrea Barzagli in the middle.
Sirigu did an excellent job of covering up for their mistakes with his saves. But Buffon, who returned to training on Monday, knows better than anyone that the best path to not conceding goals is to prevent your opponents from getting shots off in the first place.
Such a raw and unfamiliar group could only have benefitted from his guidance.
It is a point that Sirigu will surely understand, after drawing so much confidence from those few simple words of encouragement that Buffon gave him before kick-off.
Italy demonstrated against England that they are capable of winning without their captain. However, their prospects of reaching the latter stages of this competition will be a whole lot better with him present.
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