Casillas vs. Buffon - the centurions prepare for combat
When the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) were tasked with establishing the best goalkeeper of the 21st century, Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas could not be split. Choosing between two all-time greats that have won pretty much everything there is to win is no easy task. Buffon eventually edged it, but a Spanish win on Sunday would certainly tip the scales in favour of Casillas.
Captains of club and country, they will shake hands for the second time this tournament on Sunday with their legacies already assured, regardless of the eventual outcome. Casillas, calm, assured and athletic, was a Champions League winner and first capped by his country at 19. By the age of 27, he had exceeded the record for Spanish caps and is set to earn his 137th against Italy. He made his 600th appearance for Real Madrid in January and has won everything on offer both internationally and domestically, barring the Europa League.
Buffon, an imposing, passionate presence, has been Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year a record eight times and he stuck by Juventus when they were controversially relegated to the second tier in 2006, winning the World Cup in the same summer. They have both enjoyed a memorable domestic season, with Madrid winning La Liga and Juventus topping Serie A, in an unbeaten league campaign, while making a significant contribution en route to the European Championship final.
Spain lined up without a recognised striker in their opening Group C encounter, with Fabregas employed as a false nine, tasked with nullifying the threat of Andrea Pirlo. As a result, Buffon was a spectator for large periods with Casillas the busier of the two, as Italy exceeded expectations and took the game to their fierce rivals in a pulsating 1-1 stalemate. Against the Republic of Ireland, Spain enjoyed 78% of possession and Casillas enjoyed a particularly quiet night, while Buffon was left with no chance for Mario Mandzukic’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Croatia.
With everything still to play for going in to the final round of group games, Casillas made a world class, point-blank save from an Ivan Rakitic header early in the second half, that kept their game with Croatia goalless, before Spain snatched a late 1-0 win. Italy eased past Ireland to set up a quarter-final with England, where Buffon was the hero, saving an Ashley Cole penalty in the shootout. After conquering an insipid French side, Casillas matched Buffon’s heroics, by keeping out a Joao Moutinho spot-kick as Spain edged Portugal on penalties in the first semi-final. Buffon, operating behind an inspired back four, featuring three fellow Juventus regulars, repelled the threat of Germany to secure passage to the final and a reunion with Casillas.
Spain are likely to be unchanged from their first encounter with Italy, where Antonio Di Natale’s strike was the only goal they have conceded thus far. Italy’s formidable task is to breach a defence that has not conceded a goal in the knockout stages of major tournaments for nine games, spanning three competitions. With defences marshalled by two of the greatest goalkeepers ever, the contest is destined to be closely contested with chances at a premium and will conclude with either Gianluigi Buffon or Iker Casillas holding the trophy aloft, another major trophy secured.
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