Pirlo's Last Dance: Final Chance For Italian Wizard Before His Exit
Andrea Pirlo placed the ball on the penalty spot and took a quick look around. It could have been a Sunday morning kick-about in the park for all the nerves he showed.
In fact, it was the quarter final of Euro 2012 and Italy was trailing on penalties 2-1 to England. The pressure must have been immense.
One more look at the goalkeeper and a couple of steps to the ball. Then the most delicate of little chips into the middle of the goal.
Had Joe Hart stayed where he was it would have been the simplest of catches, but he was floundering on the floor watching helplessly as the ball floated past him into the empty net.
It was one of the most sublime, audacious plays I have ever seen and it is one reason I believe Juventus will upset Barcelona and win Saturday's Champion's League Final in Berlin.
That penalty was the dagger in the heart of England, who went on to lose the shoot-out (again!).
Now Pirlo's back center stage again, maybe for the last time in such exalted company, and you can be certain he will not be overawed by the occasion.
At his very best, his game is the closest football gets to perfection.
Nothing bothers Pirlo. He could be playing against 11 Lionel Messis and he would still be strolling around the middle of the park, prodding and testing, dancing to his own tune even as he draws his teammates into the orchestra with short notes and long, the timing exquisite.
He's 36 now and off to semi-retirement with New York City FC this summer but you sense that unlike other elite exiles to the US - Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, for instance - Pirlo has the ability to slow the game down so much that he could go on until his forties. The old engine rarely seems to misfire.
Of course, Barcelona has Messi, Neyma and Suarez, a fearsome trio if ever there was one, and on their day they are unstoppable. But all three can easily be frustrated and Juve has the players to frustrate them.
With the likes of Georgio Chiellini and Patrice Evra covering the left-side threat of Barca, and with Paul Pogba linking up on the same left side with Carlos Tevez, the underdogs have much better tools to stifle the Spanish champions than Bayern Munich.
But, in my view, it all still comes back to Pirlo. If the Italian midfield general bosses the game with the arrogant insouciance we all know he's capable of, then Messi will get less of the ball and when that happens even the best player in the world has a tendency to fade away from the action.
As one former opponent put it, "To pass the ball to Pirlo is like to hide it in a safe."
After Pirlo helped take Real Madrid apart and hasten the exit of manager Carlo Ancelotti in the second leg of the semi-final, the Bernabau rose as one to give him a standing ovation as he was substituted in the 79th minute.
This is the same crowd that happily boos its own stars if they're having a bad day.
It was one of those moments when the pure love of the game overcomes the tribalism that often dominates the big ocassions. Pirlo is that kind of player. He exemplifies that Italian effortless style on and off the pitch.
Born in Fiero, Italy on May 19, 1979, he showed his colors from an early age and was playing for Brescia in Serie A at the age of 16. In the subsequent 20 years he won pretty much everything going in Milan before moving to Juventus, as well as a World Cup winners medal with his country.
After learning of his most recent move, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon wrote: "When Andrea told me he was joining us, the first thing I thought was, 'God exists!' A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century."
It hasn't all been plain sailing. He missed a penalty in AC Milan's disastrous Europeans Champions League final against Liverpool when the English team pulled back from 3-0 down to win on spot kicks. He felt so bad afterwards he considered quitting the sport.
He'd been sold from Inter to AC Milan after failing to live up to his billing only to be reborn as a deep lying midfield playmaker before such a position was commonplace only to be labelled a has-been and moved on to Juventus on a free transfer despite his huge achievements with the Rossoneri.
Ensconced at Juventus he turned around the rollercoaster fortunes of the club almost single-handedly.
Whatever the outcome on Saturday, it appears Juventus's loss is New York's gain, according to reports in England and Spain - and the expansion team could certainly do with the help.
NYCFC is winless in its last 11 matches and has only won once - in its first game at Yankee Stadium.
With Lampard and the other designated $6 million-a-year player David Villa, Pirlo will undoubetedly maka a difference. He always does.
But he won't be thinking about that now. He still has a point to prove. He wants Barcelona's superstars dancing to his tune.
And one thing is for certain...Saturday's final won't be over until the Old Lady sings.