FC Salzburg
Eintracht Frankfurt
Leg 2Aggregate: 1 - 4
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Will Gianluigi Buffon finally get the UCL glory his stellar career deserves?

Maybe it's that infectious enthusiasm: the way Gianluigi Buffon belts out the Italian anthem before international games and greets opposing captains like old friends.

Maybe it's the disarming honesty: those ready confessions to scarfing down too many gummy sweets and brawling with Ultras as a kid.

Maybe it's the fact that he still sounds like a big kid when he talks about sticker albums and Subbuteo.

Or maybe it's just because he has been one of the best goalkeepers on the planet for two decades, and has a strong claim to being the greatest of all time.

Whatever the reason, you would be hard-pressed to find a footballer more universally admired by his peers. Since Juventus qualified for the Champions League final, we have heard a vast chorus of players express the hope that this will be Buffon's year, at last, to lift the big-eared trophy. And perhaps to pick up a Ballon d'Or as well.

Real MadridReal Madrid
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Only one goalkeeper has ever won the latter award: Lev Yashin back in 1963. As Iker Casillas put it during an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport this week: "It reminds me of the moon landing. So much time has passed now that nobody can actually remember it happening."

Yet Xavi believes Buffon deserves this recognition, as does his former Barcelona teammate Gerard Pique. So do Atlético Madrid's Antoine Griezmann and Monaco's Kylian Mbappe. The list goes on, from Edgar Davids right through to Italy's 1982 World Cup-winning keeper, Dino Zoff.

In fact, just about the only dissenting voice on this topic has come from within Juve's own locker room. When ESPN FC asked Giorgio Chiellini at Juve's media day earlier this week whether he believes Buffon would be a deserving Ballon d'Or winner, the defender was measured in his reply.

"I don't think it is right to give someone a Ballon d'Or for the career that they've had, which I've seen some people suggest," said Chiellini. "If Gigi is to earn this honour, it should be for what he does [now], not for the things he has done [in the past].

"I hope he does win it, and that he deserves it, because a Ballon d'Or win for him could only be the consequence of us winning on Saturday. ... He's certainly done some extraordinary things this season. But unfortunately he will need to do some more on Saturday, because it's unthinkable that you would not give up chances to a team like Real [Madrid]."

Buffon's big saves and bold leadership have propelled Juventus to another CL final. Can he finally win?

Equally, it would be naive to think that Juventus could gave gotten this far without their goalkeeper playing his part. How differently might their group stage have unfolded were it not for Buffon saving a penalty kick and then making a breathtaking block to deny a deflected Nabil Fekir effort as 10-man Juventus stole a 1-0 win at Lyon? Might the semifinal against Monaco not also have seemed less straightforward without his stops from Mbappe and Bernardo Silva?

As good as Chiellini and his defensive teammates are, their performances owe something to the keeper behind them. "When you have the fortune to play with someone like Buffon, you always have the possibility that, if you mess up, he will fix the problem for you," former Juventus and Italy full-back Gianluca Zambrotta told ESPN FC. "That gives you confidence to play. Having someone like him lets you sleep better at night."

At Juventus, they can barely remember anything different. Chiellini is the longest-serving outfield player in the first-team squad, having joined in 2005. By that point, Buffon had already been with the Bianconeri for four years and had played in his first Champions League final. If his team had prevailed in that 2003 showpiece against Milan at Old Trafford in Manchester, U.K., perhaps he would not still be playing today. Buffon confessed to Germany's Kicker magazine that he has questioned his desire to keep going on a regular basis over the past few years.

"If I had already won the Champions League, then I would have had this motivation taken away from me," he said. "It spurs me on."


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As it was, Buffon and his teammates lost on penalty kicks in 2003 despite his two saves in the shootout. Juventus had to wait until 2015 to return to the final. That time Buffon made one of the best stops of the season to deny Dani Alves, then with Barcelona, yet Juve fell again.

"Football works in strange ways," he said more recently. "As is true in the rest of life, those who are deserving usually get their just rewards in the end."

The first part of that sentiment is undeniably true. Who would have imagined two years ago that Buffon and Alves would return to this stage as teammates instead of adversaries? Whether they win this Champions League final remains to be seen, but Buffon is not alone in believing he is due.

Paolo Bandini is a writer and broadcaster who contributes to ESPN FC, The Guardian and The Score, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.


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