As Italy touch down in Yerevan ahead of their qualifier against Armenia, Alex Mott looks at why Andrea Pirlo should call it a day for the Azzurri.
Shakhtar Donetsk boss Mircea Lucescu perhaps put it best. “I am convinced that, with all he has done last year in the League and for Italy, he deserves to win the Ballon d'Or.” Calcio fans have been banging on about it for years, but 2011-12 was the season that Andrea Pirlo showed the wider world he was utterly irresistible.
Vision, pin-point passing and a mastery of set-pieces, the Juventus man owned Serie A last season – contributing 13 assists to the Bianconeri's unbeaten campaign, and bagging three vital goals along the way. Antonio Conte made him the fulcrum of the side and reaped the rewards. Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli followed the same model at Euro 2012, and was equally blessed with a run all the way to the Final.
The 33-year-old was arguably player of the tournament at Poland and Ukraine, demonstrating to fans across Europe he was the game's ultimate puppet-master, the creative hub, the key cog in the Azzurri's machine. Why then, is it time for him to be ousted from the national side?
Age is a funny thing in football. One minute you're deemed a veteran of the side – reliable and with a been-around-the-block assurance. The next, you're past it with a sorry glint in your eye and a slow limp to the pundits' chair.
It seems almost blasphemous to say it about one of the best players of this generation, but Pirlo is well on his way to the ex-pro retirement home. A double-shift of Champions League and Scudetto commitments seemed to have taken it out of the former Milan maestro, and his performances this term have been the proof in a soggy, bitter pudding.
Cesare Prandelli has given his unbridled commitment to the Lombardy-born regista as they try to qualify for Brazil 2014, but perhaps the former Fiorentina boss should take some advice from Carlo Ancelotti. “Italy can relax for the next World Cup,” he told Corriere dello Sport. “As they already have an alternative to Pirlo and his name is Marco Verratti.”
The 19-year-old has been stunning for Paris Saint-Germain so far this season. His unexpected rise to prominence for Les Parisien has been surprising to say the least, but the former Pescara man has shown just why the Ligue 1 side splashed €12m on a relatively unknown midfielder. Assured on the ball, instinctive in possession and clinical with his pass, the teenager has shown, in just three months for his new side, what all the fuss was about.
Thiago Motta has lavished praise on the youngster. The greats of the Italian game have eulogised about this guy's talent. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic thinks he's pretty good.
The Azzurri boss has waxed lyrical since the Euros about trusting young talent, blooding in inexperienced players ahead of the World Cup. Antonio Cassano has been dropped for the games against Armenia and Denmark, with goal-less Mattia Destro in his place. Emanuele Giaccherini has been picked despite not playing for Juventus. These players, rightly or wrongly, are getting their chance. Now is the time for Pirlo to step aside and let PSG's young starlet shine.
If you're good enough, you're young enough. Marco Verratti is 19 – and very, very good.