As Leonardo Bonucci climbed highest to nod in Andrea Pirlo’s corner early in the second half at the Stadio Renzo Barbera on Saturday, it allowed Juventus to move into first place on the Serie A ladder and provided the zenith to a run of form which has offered the maligned defender a ticket to redemption.
Juve knew they needed a win in Palermo in order to overtake Milan and Bonucci alleviated Bianconeri nerves with his well-taken near-post header. More than the crucial goal, he was superb at the other end as he and cohorts Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli cut-out nearly all of Palermo’s attacking thrusts. Bonucci’s five tackles were a team high, whilst his interceptions and use of the ball as he strode out of defence were also a feature.
Bonucci has recovered from a sending off at Bologna in early March which initially provided fuel for his doubters. Since his return the ex-Bari defender has looked the part, aiding Juve in their 523-minute streak without conceding a goal as they have played and defeated rivals Fiorentina, Inter and Napoli.
Before that red card, Bonucci’s performances ranged from superb to mediocre. His good work would be undone by nerves or a lack of concentration, causing needless errors to be committed. His wayward pass which gave Antonio Nocerino possession and Milan the lead in the huge February showdown elicited collective groans, as did the attempt to clear the ball on the line a week later against Chievo as they equalised – even if not entirely his fault. The detractors were in full voice even earlier as he struggled versus Napoli and Cagliari.
Signed from Bari for €15.5 million before the start of 2010-11, Bonucci showed promise but his baptism of fire alongside Chiellini came during a difficult campaign in Turin as Juve’s central defensive pair were exposed time and again by weaknesses out wide. The relationship between player and club could have been over after just one season.
Luciano Spalletti and Zenit St Petersburg lurked during the summer transfer window, but Antonio Conte thought Bonucci an essential part of his squad and the player also rejected the move. “I was approached by Zenit, but staying in Turin was always my preferred option. Last year I joined Juventus and a new project, and on the eve of a very important season, I would have regretted not being able to continue my contribution.” Now, the club have extended Bonucci’s contract until 2017, underlining his long-term importance.
This season Bonucci’s full range of abilities have been on show, notably his anticipation and reading of the play, as well as his tackling. He is comfortable with the ball, either utilising the central midfielders ahead of him or bringing the wide men into play with long, searching passes. Plus, his versatility aids Conte as he can be deployed in either a marking role in a two-man central defence or a free role in a three-man backline.
With Euro 2012 on the horizon, Bonucci – who featured in five qualifying matches and scored once – is playing himself into form at the right time. Being part of Serie A’s best defence alongside fellow Italian international teammates will help his cause in booking a spot for Poland and Ukraine. For now Bonucci – still only 24 – will look to continue down his current path, one he notes was helped by those who had faith. “I would like to thank all those who have believed in me, from the President to the Coach, including the directors and my teammates.”