Andrea Pirlo is finally getting into his elegant stride for Juventus, just in time for the match which is likely to determine whether or not they progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
After successive 1-0 defeats away to Atletico Madrid and Olympiakos in Group A, Serie A leaders Juve host the Greek side on Tuesday knowing another slipup could lead to a second successive group stage elimination.
Although Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal give Juventus plenty of options in midfield, they are not quite the same without an on-form Pirlo, who has guided them to three successive Serie A titles since his move from AC Milan in 2011.
The 35-year-old playmaker has struggled to get going after missing the first six weeks of this season with injury but a much-improved performance against Empoli, including his first goal of the season from a trademark free kick, has given his team cause for optimism.
“I’m improving, I’m working a lot during the week and that is the most important thing,” Pirlo told reporters after Saturday’s 2-0 win sent Juventus three points clear at the top of Serie A.
“I feel better with every game and I hope to be in top form soon.” Coach Massimiliano Allegri agreed.
“I think that Andrea is getting back to being the player he has always been, he needs to play and he played a very good 65 minutes,” he said after the Empoli game.
“Andrea played at the World Cup, suffered an injury, he was out for 40 days,” he added. “Pirlo broke his duck and I think that is also a psychological breakthrough after performances that were not up to his usual standards. He can make the difference at set pieces.”
Allegri was in charge when Pirlo left Milan for Juventus and the coach’s arrival at Juve in July inevitably prompted some speculation about their relationship.
But the phlegmatic coach feels he was the scapegoat when Pirlo left Milan after an indifferent season.
“They continue saying that I was the one who sent Pirlo from Milan, they have made me look like a hatchet man, but somebody needed to take the blame,” he said.
Juventus, who finished third behind Real Madrid and Galatasaray in the group stage last season, have three points while Atletico and Olympiakos each have six.
Ideally, Juventus need to win by two goals to make sure they have a better head-to-head record than the Greek champions, who lost 7-0 on their last visit to Turin in 2003.
“It’s as if it were a final, we have to play knowing that there is only one result which is any good for us, which is a win,” said Pirlo.
Olympiakos are second in the Greek league after they were held to a goalless draw on Saturday at Asteras Tripolis, who played the entire second half with 10 men.