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In 2013-14, Antonio Conte’s Juventus became the first team in Italy to have cracked the 100 point barrier. Built on the foundation of a mean defense, and a new found lethal attacking duo in Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, the team etched their names into Italian football history. The key component though, you would have to say, was the mighty midfield that the Turin giants possessed. With the silky touch and guile of Andrea Pirlo, the combative warrior might of Arturo Vidal and the all action game changing brilliance of the new star on the scene, Paul Pogba, Juventus boasted a midfield most teams in the world would die to have, and hated to face.

Which brings us to the almost forgotten man: Claudio Marchisio. The Turin native, fondly called Il Principino (or The Little Prince) had a not memorable season, with the emergence of Pogba and a series of niggling injuries relegating him to first choice from the bench. Add to that the questionable yet critical red card in Italy’s final group game at the 2014 World Cup, which they lost to Uruguay and bowed out in the group stage for the second edition running, and the 2014-15 season could not start soon enough for Marchisio. For the first time in a few seasons though, he had to really fight for his place in this Juventus team. A man massively underrated by most of the world next to his illustrious teammates, Il Principino was due to give the world a reminder that La Vecchia Signora possessed four world class midfielders, not just three.

So much can change in a year can’t it?

On March 18th, the Old Lady traveled to Dortmund, to play a crucial Champions League Round of 16 second leg, at one of the most daunting stadiums in Europe, keen to prove that Italian football is far from breathing its dying breaths. Within the half hour mark however, star midfielder Paul Pogba collapsed to the ground in clear pain. In tears, the youngster who is currently the most sought after midfielder on the planet, with transfer values rivaling the record amounts spent on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, had to be carried off the pitch. The game was 1-0 in favour of the Bianconeri. As a Juventus supporter, it was undeniably a nightmare scenario. Pogba would go on to be condemned to the treatment table for a likely 6-8 weeks with a muscle strain. Yet, fast forward nine days to March 27th, and the Juventus faithful were left reeling in shock, feeling like it was THE worst nightmare situation, when Claudio Marchisio pulled up during warmup while on national team duty, and the doctors diagnosed him with an ACL tear and a likely recovery period of 6-8 months.

The forgotten man had become the heartbeat and driving force for a rejuvenated Juventus side. Rewind back to that Champions League second leg against Borussia Dortmund, and stats themselves will tell you Claudio Marchisio recorded a mind boggling 10 interceptions, 3 clearances, had the most touches of any man on the pitch with 82 and boasted a passing accuracy in excess of 86%. Yet, as any Juventus fan will tell you, the brilliance of Marchisio lies in all the things you don’t normally see; the off the ball details. With Andrea Pirlo having frequent injury troubles and Arturo Vidal looking like a shadow of his usual self and lacking his typical tenacious sharpness, Il Principino has been the leader of this Juventus side in 2014-15. Carlos Tevez will undoubtedly claim the accolade of best player so far, but for me, no other player (perhaps with the exception of Leonardo Bonucci) has stood up and embodied the grinta of the team and lead on the pitch the way Marchisio has.

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Borussia Dortmund had a torrid evening against Juventus, as he was completely neutralized by Marchisio

 

With an early injury to Pirlo throwing a spanner into the works of new coach Max Allegri’s plans, Marchisio was the man who stepped into the regista role, and over the course of the season he has revolutionized it to the point where I personally think that the team is in good hands once Pirlo leaves, and Max can afford to start phasing the bearded wonder out of the team. Last year, especially on the European stage, it was evident that the team was too reliant on Pirlo and his ability to conjure something out of nothing. His lack of pace and weakness against tight pressing was also a cause for concern. This year, Marchisio seems to have revolutionized the regista role completely. While he may lack the vision of Pirlo (who doesn’t?), his tidy and quick transitions from the defensive to the offensive phase lent the team a speed that is crucial, particularly on the European front. Safe on the ball, boasting immense tactical and positional awareness and sure in the pass, he speeds up the team’s build up play significantly, a fact that helps make maximum use of the speed and dribbling abilities of the likes of Pereyra, Tevez and Morata. This is most evident if you watch the second goal, scored by Morata against Dortmund in the second leg. Playing at the base of the midfield diamond, Marchisio exchanged a number of quick passes with the defenders and midfielders, before releasing Tevez with a gem of a ball over the top to set up Morata. The execution was flawless, and it shows that Il Principino has been taking more than just beard grooming tips from Il Maestro. He pulled off a number of calm flicks and turns to get out of tight spots throughout the game that had Pirlo written all over them.

Another fact that is often overlooked, is the brilliant positional awareness that Marchisio shows while defending. With both Vidal and Pereyra (Pogba before him) drifting wide to help the full-backs Evra and Lichtsteiner neutralize the threat of Marco Reus and Kevin Kampl, Dortmund were often forced to try and attack through the middle through Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian had a disappointing night however as he was unable to find any way past Marchisio, who’s shielding of the central defenders was nothing short of spectacular. Every time Dortmund sought to play through the channels in the middle, Marchisio’s immense early positioning gave them no gaps at all to exploit, as evident by the aforementioned TEN Interceptions he effected. It was a mighty win for the Bianconeri. And while Carlos Tevez rightly received all the applause for his match winning two goals and an assist, it was the man behind the scenes, the unsung hero that is Claudio Marchisio who gave a tactical masterclass on the night. His calm head under immense pressure was vital in helping the team keep a hold of possession and not give it away cheaply. His quick passing also kept things flowing and ticking neatly, and more than ever before, Marchisio adopted the role of team metronome.

Early on March 27th, with Andrea Pirlo having been injured for the best part of three weeks and counting, and Pogba just starting his lengthy recovery, Claudio Marchisio was diagnosed with an ACL tear and a 6-8 month recovery period. Its the sort of injury that has ruined the careers of many footballers, and is notoriously hard to return from. Considering that Marchisio was enjoying his best season since 2011-12, and at the age of 29 is just about peaking, it was a disaster for both club and country, but especially for the player himself. The instant wave of shock and prayers that flooded in was immense. The forgotten man, the silent warrior, the unsung hero had turned into the spine that Juventus could just not afford to lose. And it seems like all those prayers were heard, for in ridiculously stunning circumstances, the Juventus doctors performed a follow up check and discovered that the injury was nothing at all like the one initially diagnosed, and Marchisio would go on to be back on the pitch training by the end of the week.

It was with a massive sigh of relief that the news spread through the Juventus faithful. They had dodged a mighty bullet. Max Allegri’s Juventus is not the well oiled and drilled machine that Antonio Conte’s was. It has become an ever changing beast, tactically astute and boasting a strong mixture of experience, youth, team spirit and winning mentality. A beast that is no longer timid in European competition. The Old Lady now has the best chance she’s had in over a decade to reach the Champions League semi finals and truly make the rest of Europe sit up, notice and ignore Italy no longer. And at the heart of it all, consistently, efficiently and devotedly, has been Claudio Marchisio. Pirlo might be one of the greatest Italian players of all time, Vidal one of the greatest box to box midfielders on the planet, and Pogba the most mature youngster with the highest potential in the world, but Juventus also boast one of the smartest footballing minds in the world in Marchisio, a world class midfielder with an incredibly underrated skill set. The horror of that “OH MY GOD WHAT DO WE DO NOW?” “What Now?” question on March 27th will not be forgotten by myself or any Juventus fan soon.

Marchisio's presence in midfield will be crucial to juventus' chances of ending the season on a high
Marchisio’s presence in midfield will be crucial to juventus’ chances of ending the season on a high

Claudio Marchisio has played as a left winger in Del Neri’s Juventus, as a box to box midfielder, right forward and trequartista for Antonio Conte’s Juventus, and now as a regista for Max Allegri’s Juventus. The team has always come first. This year, we have needed him most though. And this year, the Little Prince has transformed and reinvented himself into a King on the pitch, and as the team heads into a crucial Coppa Italia semi final second leg with Fiorentina, the Champions League quarter finals with Monaco, and the final stretch of the 2014-15 Serie A, they need him, leading from the front more than ever.

Bow to the Prince.