The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
'A monument' in Italy's goal: Gianluigi Buffon set to match Fabio Cannavaro with his 136th cap
ROME - When it comes to defining the record-breaking career of Gianluigi Buffon, Bulgaria coach Luboslav Penev may have put it best.
"Italy has a monument in goal," Penev said after watching the 35-year-old Buffon deny his squad with three highlight-reel saves in the Azzurri's 1-0 win Friday.
The most impressive of the three saves came three minutes into the second half, when Buffon left his feet anticipating a shot to his right. Still airborne, with his 1.92-meter (6-foot-4) frame laid out across the goal line horizontally, Buffon somehow managed to swipe away a close-range effort from Ivelin Popov with his glove just as the ball was going to cross the line.
"To be honest," Buffon said afterward. "I really thought it was in already."
The commentator on Italy's RAI state TV likened the save to some of the best efforts of Buffon's career.
That's saying a lot.
Because on Tuesday, Buffon is scheduled to match Fabio Cannavaro for Italy's all-time appearance record with his 136th appearance.
And this isn't just some friendly set up for a record-breaking night. If Italy beats the Czech Republic at the Juventus Stadium in Turin, where Buffon plays his club football, the Azzurri will have qualified for next year's World Cup with two matches to spare.
It would be the fifth World Cup of Buffon's career and his fourth as a starter.
"It's a nice goal to achieve, although somewhat expected considering that I started playing with the national team at such a young age," said Buffon, who made his Italy debut at 19 on a snowy field in Moscow when he replaced the injured Gianluca Pagliuca midway through the first leg of a crucial qualifying playoff with Russia to reach the 1998 World Cup.
"It's been 16 beautiful years," Buffon said. "There have been some injuries but I think I did well to get myself back in shape each time."
Buffon was one of the keys to Italy's 2006 World Cup victory, allowing no goals from opposition players during the normal course of play over seven matches. The only goals he did allow in Germany were an own-goal from Cristian Zaccardo against the United States and a penalty from Zinedine Zidane in the final against France.
A back injury limited his play at the 2010 World Cup and Italy was promptly eliminated after the first round. But Buffon battled back and regained his form to help lead the Azzurri to the final of the 2012 European Championship, saving a decisive penalty from Ashley Cole in the shootout win over England in the quarterfinals.
With Juventus, Buffon weathered the Calciopoli scandal and helped the Turin club win Serie B in 2006-07. While all of the other pre-scandal Juve players moved on, Buffon stayed around to witness the return to prowess of the Turin squad, which won Serie A the past two seasons.
One of the only major trophies missing from Buffon's cabinet is the Champions League, and Juve is mounting a determined bid to win the European title this season.
Still, the appearance record comes amid periodical questions over Buffon's form.
During a Serie A match in January against Sampdoria, Buffon was blamed for two goals. Then in the Champions League quarterfinals against eventual champion Bayern Munich, Buffon looked unprepared as David Alaba scored only 25 seconds into the first leg from far beyond the area.
After Alaba's goal, former Bayern great Franz Beckenbauer said Buffon looked like a retiree, and Buffon didn't do much in the second leg either, allowing Claudio Pizarro to score through his legs to conclude a 4-0 win on aggregate.
Buffon came in for criticism again when he failed to adequately protect his post — essentially a rookie's error — on a free kick goal from Brazil standout Neymar, as Italy conceded eight goals over its three group matches at this year's Confederations Cup.
Buffon bounced back with a superb performance in the shootout loss to Spain in the semifinals, then stopped three penalties in a shootout win over Uruguay in the third-place match.
"Last season I played 60 matches and erred in three: against Sampdoria, Bayern and Brazil," Buffon said last week, decrying the criticism goalkeepers face for mistakes. "Can you allow me that? If so, then let's move forward, otherwise it all becomes much more difficult."
What is also difficult is imagining Italy's goal without Buffon, as there is no obvious replacement looming.
Federico Marchetti of Lazio has been mentioned as a possible successor and when Lazio faced Juventus in the Italian Super Cup last month the game was billed as a matchup between current and future Italy keepers.
But Juventus and Buffon won 4-0.
Another option is Salvatore Sirigu, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain. At 26, Sirigu is four years younger than Marchetti and thus has more time for improvement.
Morgan De Sanctis of Roma might be Italy's best 'keeper after Buffon at the moment. But he's a year older than Buffon and so doesn't have much of a chance of taking over.
"Sometimes I feel bad or I'm even embarrassed because so many other great goalkeepers haven't gotten much of a chance over these 16 years," Buffon said. "I'm sorry about that."
Fortunately for Italy, Buffon isn't ready to bid goodbye just yet.
"When the time comes that I'm no longer called up, that's when I'll say goodbye," he said. "But not responding to a call-up would be an act of desertion."
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