Juventus Legend Gigi Buffon Set to Go Head-to-Head with Torino's Joe Hart

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistDecember 10, 2016

A combination of pictures made on June 21, 2012 shows Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon on June 18, 2012 at the Municipal Stadium in Poznan and English goalkeeper Joe Hart (R) on June 11, 2012 at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk during the Euro 2012 football championships. England will face Italy for the Euro 2012 football championships quarter-finals on June 24, 2012.     AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN - FILIPPO MONTEFORTE        (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/GettyImages)
AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Stadio Olimpico in Turin sees the latest instalment of the city's underappreciated derby clash. Known as the Derby della Mole, it is not named after a small mammal with bad eyesight or a benign growth on the skin but instead a major landmark in the former Italian capital city.

La Mole Antonelliana takes its name from the architect who built it, Alessandro Antonelli, and stands tall above its surroundings with a unique spire that dominates the skyline. In the Italian language, the word "mole" literally means "size" and is often used to denote a building of immense proportions.

Having spent recent decades in the shadows of Rome (Lazio and AS Roma), then Inter Milan and AC Milan, this particular encounter was often seen as a symbol of the nation's class divide in the years before the Second World War.

Looking at results of their 234 encounters to date, Juventus will head into this latest meeting seeking their 100th victory, while there have also been 62 draws and 73 wins for Torino. The Granata have, of course, enjoyed their spells of dominance, particularly before the 1949 Superga tragedy that robbed the club of their all-conquering side and sent them into freefall.

Il Toro also went on a five-year unbeaten run against their crosstown rivals during the 1970s, however, but have won just once since 1995, a Matteo Darmian goal handing the Bianconeri a rare defeat in April 2015.

The fixture had become somewhat forgotten outside of the city, but last season saw two huge moments catapult it back to prominence. The first came on October 31, with Juventus languishing in the bottom half of the table and looking in desperate trouble after a woeful start to the campaign.

Yet in the final minute of injury time, Paul Pogba and Alex Sandro would combine to create a scruffy finish from Juan Cuadrado that would spark a spectacular revival. That 2-1 win marked the first of a record-breaking run, with the Bianconeri going undefeated over the rest of 2015/16 and eventually clinching a fifth-consecutive Scudetto.

"It's the most important goal of my career so far," Cuadrado told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t FourFourTwo). "I've never been able to do something decisive like that at the last minute. It's a really good feeling. ... God helped us a little, because it was tough against a team like Torino, but I think we deserved the result."

Yet if that game at Juventus Stadium put the hosts on course for the title, the reverse fixture would seal another record for the club captain that underlined the role he had played in their march to success.

Heading across town to the Stadio Olimpico in March, Gigi Buffon needed to go just four minutes unbeaten to break the Serie A record for minutes without conceding. He would do so, although he was eventually beaten by a penalty from Andrea Belotti, but the crowd put their rivalry aside to acknowledge his accomplishment.

Speaking after the full-time whistle, Buffon discussed the achievement with Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia), explaining he felt unwell that morning but went on to share credit with those playing alongside him:

I am happy to play in this team and the record belongs to Juventus, not me. I was also fortunate to achieve it, because my teammates stopped the opposition from creating chances. They worked their socks off to block every avenue and protect me.

[...]

In all honesty, I didn't think about individual records, as I always saw myself as a team man, but then I realised it's wonderful too. It's a reward because the more you think about the team, the more you are likely to get rewarded as an individual.

He would keep 21 clean sheets in 35 appearances by the end of the season, but the Italy skipper has not been quite so fortunate this term. Buffon has hardly been overworked—ESPN FC statistics show he has made just 19 saves in 13 league appearances so far—but he has just three shutouts to his name in that same period.

The derby is likely to see a much sterner test for the Italy legend, with issues for both teams set to impact his importance. Defenders Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves are sidelined with injury, while Giorgio Chiellini has made just one start since the end of October due to ongoing fitness problems of his own.

Furthermore, Torino's tally of 31 goals scored is the third-highest mark in Serie A, ranking behind only AS Roma (35) and Juve (32) thus far. Belotti has been in stunning form, bagging 10 goals in just 13 appearances, with Iago Falque and Adem Ljajic netting seven and five, respectively, in support.

While the trio also have three assists each to their name, midfielders Daniele Baselli and Marco Benassi have scored four times apiece, with coach Sinisa Mihajlovic shaping them into a wonderful free-scoring side.

Juventus boast a formidable attack of their own, with Paulo Dybala now healthy again and ready to feature alongside Gonzalo Higuain in what promises to be a deadly pairing. The importance of the younger Argentina international is simply immeasurable, with this previous post discussing the significance of his return in further detail.

Looking to keep them at bay will be Torino's own impressive goalkeeper, Joe Hart. He made the surprising move to join the Granata on loan from Manchester City this past summer, cast aside by Pep Guardiola who had already brought in Claudio Bravo—deemed a much better passer than the England No. 1—to replace him.

Hart instantly became the first choice for Mihajlovic and has repaid that faith with some impressive displays. Like Buffon, he has three clean sheets in 13 appearances but has been far busier than the Juve icon, with only 10 teams conceding more than Torino's tally of 19 goals before this latest round of fixtures.

According to Fox Soccer statistics, Hart has made 38 saves from the 53 shots he has faced. Yet despite being beaten 15 times, various outlets including Tuttosport (h/t Football Italia) believe Torino will look to keep the 29-year-old longer than their current season-long loan arrangement with Manchester City.

"The manager isn't here to play around," Hart said in a recent interview with Johnny Phillips of Sky Sports. "He wants the UEFA Europa League spot for us, and that will be a really good achievement as there's only three UEFA Champions League spots in Serie A."

They sit in seventh place, three points and two spots away from a spot in continental competition, with this tricky rivalry standing in their immediate path as they look to climb the table.

"The derby is always a great occasion, and it's the kind of fixture that I prefer, one that gets the fans' hearts racing," Bianconeri midfielder Stefano Sturaro told Sky Italia (h/t Juve's official website). "Even as a supporter, I loved the feeling of excitement before a big game, and now that I'm a player, I feel it more intensely."

Buffon will know that feeling all too well, while Hart—a veteran of clashes for Manchester City against Manchester United—is set for his first taste of it.

Their respective performances are likely to be key in deciding the outcome, but it should be a wonderful showcase of goalkeeping ability from two of Serie A's finest.