Casillas and Buffon's era-defining rivalry

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The sporting world sat back in awe last month, events at the Australian Open catching the attention of even the most casual of tennis fans. Rodger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus and Serena Williams all reached the finals of the tournament, rolling back the years and giving themselves a chance to add to their incredible collections of Grand Slam titles.

Much to the delight of watching fans, the Swiss master and the younger of the two American sisters lifted the respective trophies and in doing so once again defeated their closest rival for the title of greatest player of their generation.

When Wednesday evening’s Champions League clash between FC Porto and Juventus gets underway, two genuine greats of a different game will go head-to- head yet again at the Estádio do Dragão.

Debate has raged for well over a decade about whether Iker Casillas or Gigi Buffon can claim to be the best of the best, and over the years the legendary goalkeepers have faced off against each other almost as often as their tennis counterparts.

As a result their careers are inextricably linked, with the two clearly aware of the connection they share. “When Buffon retires, I will too,” Casillas told La Gazzetta dello Sport back in June, a  statement that hinted not only at the bond they have built between them but also acknowledging that for both men, the end is drawing close.

The Italian was the first to break through, catapulted into the spotlight when he was thrown into action at the age of just 17 for Parma, his 1995 debut seeing him keep a clean sheet against the all-conquering AC Milan at San Siro. Six years later he would join Juventus for a fee that remains the highest ever paid for a goalkeeper, yet even that looks like a bargain given the longevity and sheer brilliance he has displayed ever since.

Casillas also exploded onto the scene as a teenager for Real Madrid, becoming the youngest starting goalkeeper ever to win the Champions League as a 19-year- old in the 1999-00 campaign.

He would clinch a second triumph in the same competition two seasons later, and just 12 months after that the Spanish youngster would face off against Buffon in a big match for the very first time.

Having dispatched Barcelona in the quarter-finals, Juventus were drawn against Real Madrid in the last four of the 2002-03 Champions League and it would provide both goalkeepers a chance to prove their worth. A free kick from Zinedine Zidane – who just a few months earlier had left the Turin giants for the Spanish capital – drew the first great save, Buffon denying the former Juve idol with a brilliant one-handed stop.

A number of routine saves would follow as the visitors left the Bernabeu trailing 2-1, but Casillas needed to be at his best early in the second leg to deny Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved.

Juve eventually took the lead, only to then concede a penalty. Determined to progress, Buffon denied Luis Figo with a brilliant diving effort, before Nedved promptly bagging a winner – darting over the running track to celebrate under the jubilant Curva Sud.

While the two clubs were drawn together in earlier stages of the competition over the following years, the next time they faced off in a showpiece clash it was Casillas who stood tallest. The Euro 2008 quarter-final pitted Italy against Spain and, despite Buffon keeping out Daniel Güiza’s spot-kick in the shootout, his opposite number denied both Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale to eliminate the Azzurri.

That win would spark a golden era for Spain, who won that competition and then the World Cup two years later before setting up a rematch against Italy in the final of Euro 2012. This time La Furia Roja did not need penalties, sweeping their opponents aside in a comprehensive 4-0 victory.

Three years later, another Champions League semi-final saw another victory for Buffon, and by the time their national teams next went head-to- head, Casillas was no longer involved.

A 2-0 Azzurri win at Euro 2016 came with David De Gea in goal and with his predecessor now representing Porto at club level, their latest meeting will have a very strange air. They have still enjoyed fine campaigns until this point, a 35-year- old Casillas performing much better in his second season at the Dragão than he did last term, while Buffon continues to deliver miracles for Juventus even after his 39th birthday.

A meeting between them in 2017 seemed highly unlikely but football, like tennis, retains the capacity to surprise even the most hardened of fans. When Casillas and Gigi Buffon share their customary embrace either before kick off or shortly after the final whistle, it will be difficult not to smile as two of the greatest ever write another chapter in history of the game together.

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