The game was never really going to matter.
Yes, a win over already-relegated Hellas Verona would make the margin of victory in the league a little nicer from a cosmetic standpoint. It would also bring the team to 95 points, the second most in team history after Antonio Conte’s last team claimed 102 in the 2013-14 season.
But none of that really held a candle to the big story of the season’s final game. This was the day Juventus fans everywhere said goodbye to Gianluigi Buffon.
Buffon announced on Thursday that this would be the end. He has yet decide to whether he will retire or keep playing, but one way or the other, this farewell was handled far better than that of Alessandro Del Piero, the last icon to leave the club. Every fan in the stadium and watching on television was preparing for the moment. Even the post-game trophy presentation was relegated to secondary status.
The feels were already hitting everyone as he took the field to hear the Serie A anthem played for the final time at Allianz Stadium this season. By the end of the 2-1 Juve victory, what was going on on the field was very much secondary to Buffon’s victory lap.
Massimiliano Allegri had two other departing players to consider. Disappointingly, Kwadwo Asamoah didn’t get to have an on-field sendoff, but Stephan Lichtsteiner started at right-back for the last time in a Juve shirt. Andrea Barzagli, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro completed the defense in front of Buffon. Claudio Marchisio, Miralem Pjanic, and Stefano Sturaro made up the midfield, and Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic, and Douglas Costa formed the front line of an attack that seemed to fluctuate between a 4-3-3 and 4-3-2-1.
Verona came out looking to go back to Serie B with their heads held high. Fabio Pecchia sent out a 4-4-2, with Nicolas in goal anchoring a defense of Alex Ferrari, Samuel Souprayen, Antonio Caracciolo, and Mohamed Fares. Romulo, Marco Fossati, Andrea Danzi, and Rolando Aarons formed the midfield, and Alessio Cerci was joined by Ryder Matos in the strike pair.
The first half had a hot start, with Costa earning a corner off a great cross less than a minute into the game. The team took a training ground play on the corner and found Dybala at the top of the box, but he skied it over. Sturaro put a ball in from a bit closer two minutes later.
In the 16th minute, Fares took a simple pass and skipped his way through the right side of Juve’s defense, getting himself into position to unleash a shot. Buffon was ready and dove to his left to make a good save. As the game played out, it would prove to be the last save he would ever make for Juventus.
Juve got their first shot on target in the 25th minute, when Mandzukic met a Costa cross, but the big Croatian couldn’t get any power to it and Nicolas saved easily. Two minutes after the half our Costa tested his fellow Brazilian himself, flying through the defense only to be denied by the keeper’s foot. The ball was recovered immediately and cycled back to Dybala in the middle. The No. 10 flipped a delicious lob over the defender to Mandzukic a few feet away, and Mandzu met it with a hell of a volley that stayed just central enough for Nicolas to palm it over.
Five minutes before the half, Dybala nearly scored the goal of the season. Sturaro headed a cross back across the box, then Pjanic found Dybala, who tried an audacious chipped shot to the far post that looked destined for the far top corner but ended up smacking the crossbar. Sturaro raced to the rebound, but was beaten to it by Fares and the two of them clashed heads hard. Sturaro was down for a few minutes and was replaced before the half by Rodrigo Bentancur to hedge against a concussion. He immediately got himself into a good position near the penalty spot but couldn’t get turned to shoot.
The teams went into the half goalless. Halftime was probably spent by the team contemplating how bad it would look if Buffon’s last game turned out to be a goalless draw, because it took them less than four minutes to break the deadlock when they came out for the second period. Pjanic took a free kick quickly to Costa. It caught the Verona defense flat-footed, and Costa picked his way into the box for a shot. Nicolas met it, but spilled it right to Rugani, who easily tapped it into an open net for his second goal of the year.
It was 2-0 three minutes later, when Pjanic stroked a gorgeous free kick into the net, leaving Nicolas stock-still in his goal. Dybala had another try from a bit more of a central position six minutes after that, but this free kick was right at the keeper and saved easily.
In the 59th minute Gigi saw his last action when Matos got into the box and tried to round him. The 25-year-old collided with the keeper and threw his hands up to appeal for a penalty, but he had put the ball far too far away from himself —not to mention it would probably have taken Buffon publicly murdering him to get a call out of the ref given the occasion.
Five minutes later, the moment we all knew was coming arrived.
It was tough to tell if you were watching on television, because you didn’t see any shots of his replacement warming up. But as Verona was making a substitution, the camera zoomed in on Buffon with an arm around Barzagli. He then hugged his longtime teammate and kissed him repeatedly on the cheek. Every Juventus player then came to bid farewell to their captain. Upon reaching Marchisio, Gigi reached down into his sock and produced a fresh captain’s armband for the midfielder, then pulled him into an embrace that lingered for some time. After receiving the respects of Romulo — who spent the 2014-15 season on loan at Juve) and Cerci (a frequent teammate with the national team — Buffon finally arrived at the sideline, where the substitutes, coaches, and staff had created an honor guard for him to walk through after he met his replacement for the day, No. 3 keeper Carlo Pinsogli.
Every single player and member of the sideline staff received a hug. When he finally got to the bench he sank into his seat and closed his eyes.
The job, 17 years in the making, was done.
Soon after getting to the bench he ducked into the locker room, emerging shortly in a fresh jersey, and began to take the same victory lap around Allianz Stadium that Del Piero was compelled to take by the fans six years ago. He clasped hands with every fan he could reach, young and old alike — most whom more often than not had tears streaming down their faces. He signed things that fans passed to him for a last autograph, and every few yards a fan threw a scarf from their fan group over his neck. Eventually there were so many that one would have been forgiven for wondering how he didn’t start sinking into the ground.
As all this was happening, the players on the field completed the rest of a game that had largely been reduced to the sideshow.
Cerci pulled a goal back for Verona, nipping in ahead of Rugani to flash a Romulo cross into the far corner and ending Juve’s bid to break their own league record for clean sheets in a season.
Marchisio, whose future with the team is uncertain going into the summer, nearly scored twice from long range, the first a cannon shot parried by Nicolas and the second a more subtle shot for the top far corner that bent just too late. With five minutes left Juve was awarded a penalty for a handball on substitute defender Enrico Bearazotti and Lichtsteiner was given the chance to sign off his Juve career with a flourish, but he telegraphed his shot badly and Nicholas dove to his left to parry it away.
He did get a chance to be appreciated by the crowd. Allegri was out of substitutes after having sent on Gonzalo Higuain for Costa, but still instructed the Swiss Express (most likely with the blessing of the referee) to come to the sideline with a minute left in stoppage time, allowing him to get the sendoff he so richly deserved after seven years of dedicated service to the club.
Juve played the last 45 seconds of the game with 10 men, then the celebrations began. The team retreated to the locker room for some fresh kits, then began the traditional one-by-one procession onto the stage as the rain that began mid-game pelted down. As always, the captain came out last, after even Allegri had already made their way out. When the call-and-response that always accompanies a player’s name was performed, the word BUFFON was as loud as it has ever been in this stadium. Even his teammates screamed it along with with the public address announcer, led by Marchisio, who was still a fan in the youth sector when Buffon made his Juventus debut.
For the final time, Buffon hoisted the trophy over his head, and another season officially came to an end. Next year, we will begin the season without him for the first time in nearly two decades — but now, we celebrate him and everything he’s ever given the team and its fans for the last 17 years.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 10*. For everything. Grazie, capitano.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 8*. For the most part sealed off the right side. You wish he’d bagged that penalty. He began his Juve career scoring the first goal of the 2011-12 season. To have scored the final one seven years later to end it would have been really fitting.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. Wasn’t often challenged by Verona’s attackers but locked down the back well.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Could have done better to keep Cerci from getting behind him but led the team in clearances and did well to hold himself onside when he swept his goal home.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Didn’t look good to the naked eye for much of the match, but the numbers tell a different story. Led the team with five tackles, co-led the team in dribbles, and chipped in two key passes as well.
STEFANO STURARO - 5.5. Didn’t make the most of some good positions before being withdrawn for precautionary reasons after his clash of heads with Fares.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8. His free kick was absolutely gorgeous, which was encouraging because he’d been off with those the last few months. Produced three key passes and completed 95.7 percent of his passes.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 7. Hit the target with two of five shots and helped build some good moves playing in his old box-to-box position.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. Credited with four key passes, forced a pair of saves out of Nicolas and barely missed one of the goals of the season when he hit the bar. That chip is even more impressive when you consider he was moving away from the goal—the kind of shot that Del Piero used to make a trademark out of. He’s come alive again for these last two games.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6. Good as a fulcrum in the attack, drawing in Dybala and the supporting midfielders with good one-touch passes. Had a great volley batted away by the keeper.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. Found the target with a pair of shots, one of which led to the opener, and racked up four key passes. Verona became the latest team that simply couldn’t deal with his pace. He’s going to be a key member of this team for a long time.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Solid if relatively quiet in relief of Sturaro.
CARLO PINSOGLIO - 6. Can’t be faulted on the goal, and handled crosses in the box pretty well. Still, an upgrade behind Wojciech Szczesny — someone like Antonio Mirante or Andrea Consigli — would be a nice move.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Forced one save and nearly headed in with one of his first touches but cushioned it over.
* Ratings aggregated across entire service to the club.
What really can be said about a manager’s handling of a dead rubber like this?
What this game was really about was giving the departing players a proper send-off. For Buffon and Lichtsteiner that was done beautifully, although it would have been nice to see Asamoah get some time in his last game. One can only guess whether or not Sturaro’s injury prevented him from getting on in the last change.
A-th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!
Another season is done. There have been ups and there have been downs, and it has been an honor to cover all of them for you here at BWRAO this year. From all of us writers, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.
Stay tuned to us for our off-season analysis and coverage of the team’s summer tour. Until next season, fino alla fine!