Fabio Cannavaro had no doubts when he was asked earlier this season who, at the time, was Italy’s best defender. “Andrea Barzagli,” he responded with conviction. “He has experience and he has picked himself up after a difficult spell. I’ve congratulated Juventus President Andrea Agnelli for bringing him back to Italy. That was an excellent move.”
Cannavaro knows Barzagli well. They were teammates at the 2006 World Cup when Andrea, under the guidance of the Italy captain, played his part in the Azzurri’s German triumph following injury to Alessandro Nesta and suspension to Marco Materazzi.
Barzagli had just turned 25 and was widely considered as an international regular of the future. Things didn’t quite turn out as anticipated. In 2008 he decided to leave Palermo and was expected to move on to a bigger club which could match his ambitions. Instead he ended up at Wolfsburg in Germany.
“After four years at Palermo it was time to go,” the centre-back recalled. “There was an agreement between myself and the Rosanero that we would part company. I was waiting for a big club to come in for me, but they all had excellent defenders already. Wolfsburg offered me a good contract and I decided to sign for them.”
The Bundesliga switch may have benefitted him financially and saw him win a League title, but it came at a cost in his homeland. The longer he remained abroad, the more forgettable he became. He then disappeared from the international scene completely after a pretty shaky performance in Italy’s unconvincing 2-1 win against Cyprus back in September 2008.
It wasn’t until this time last year that Barzagli entered Italian football’s consciousness again. With a contract coming to its end, Juventus opted to net him for €300,000 – less than three years after Wolfsburg agreed to pay almost €12m. He was initially signed on a contract until 2013 as a squad player, but today he’s one of the cornerstones on which the Old Lady’s Scudetto bid is built.
So far this season under Antonio Conte he’s been an untouchable in the team. He’s played in every second of the side’s Serie A campaign, totalling 1,618 minutes of action – a stat only matched by right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner. He also featured in the 120 minutes that it took his team to dispose of Bologna in the Coppa Italia.
“It’s down to hard work,” Barzagli says of his rejuvenation. “As a player, there are seasons which go well. Saying that, joining a club like Juventus is the maximum for anyone. I just do what I need to do on a daily basis to make sure that I deserve to wear this shirt.”
Barzagli may not have great speed or even the technical ability of current centre-back partner Leonardo Bonucci, but what he does have over his younger colleague is focus, positional sense, as well as an understanding and reading of the game which he has acquired over the years. He’s also disciplined given that his last booking came in May last season in the game against Napoli.
As it stands, Juventus have the second best defence in the land with 11 goals against – just one more than Udinese. They’ve kept a clean sheet in their last three Serie A games and six from their last eight. The last goal they conceded was against Roma in Week 15 – 355 minutes ago – when Arturo Vidal miserably failed to clear a Daniele De Rossi effort. Not bad stats from a team whose defence was viewed as their Achilles’ heel at the start of the season.
“We all have to stay alert and concentrated,” the 30-year-old says. “As soon as the defenders lose focus for an instant then things can get complicated. But Coach Conte is always stimulating us and that is important for a defender like myself. We have a great midfield, a great attack and if we at the back don’t concede then one of our strikers will put the ball in sooner or later.”
Barzagli’s form hasn’t been lost on Italy boss Cesare Prandelli either. Dealing with a shortage of quality stoppers, an area that the Italian game once excelled at, the former Under-21 international returned to the international stage in October 2011 to win his 26th and 27th caps. “I didn’t think that my Azzurri career was a closed book, but I admit that I did stop thinking about it…”
Euro 2012 now awaits, as does a possible Scudetto and a probable new contract.