The Man in the Middle

Adam Digby reflects on some of Serie A's finest central midfielders of days gone by, and asks if their heir might finally be emerging.

It has always been there. During my time as a Juventus supporter I have been blessed to witness some truly incredible players. Seeing the truly legendary figure of Gaetano Scirea - the one and only true 'il Capitano' - crowned World Champion in both 1982 and 1985, patrolling the defence of club and country with a never to be repeated grace of ease stands amongst the greatest sporting memories I possess.

Being present as a diminutive nineteen-year-old striker scored a frankly meaningless goal against Foggia in 1993 then, fully seventeen years later, watching on at San Siro as that same player scored a goal that not only led Juve to victory over Milan but wrote his name into club history as the all-time leading goalscorer, Alessandro Del Piero's entire career has been a joy to behold.

Others have come and gone, giants of the world game; Michel Platini, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Gigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved. All captured the imagination, all secured a place in the pantheon of legends to have graced the famous Bianconeri shirt. Then there are the tales of former heroes, passed down from wizened fans, most under caps that look decidedly older than the wearer - stories of John Charles, Omar Sivori, Giampiero Boniperti and Roberto Bettega that grow taller with each retelling.

There are also the fearless men who defended the Juve goal as though their life depended upon the opponent never scoring, men to whom conceding a goal was akin to eloping with their wives; Claudio Gentile, Paolo Montero, Edgar Davids. Players whose tenacity and drive was as imposing as the skill of the men they complimented and who's value to a team was every inch as important.

Yet throughout all of this an entirely different type of player has always held a far firmer grip on my attention, my emotion and my attachment to the sport itself. Their story falls firmly between these two stools, not match winners nor headline-grabbing heroes, not warriors whose bone-crunching tackles would become folklore between generations.

The men in neither camp, the men in the middle.

It all started with Beppe Furino. A charismatic leader, a tough and gritty emblem of that spirit of humility la vecchia Signora has always possessed in the more unheralded members of her squads. He was the man whose lungs Platini told a concerned Gianni Agnelli to worry about when l'Avvocato caught the Frenchman smoking a post-match cigarette. Furino did the running, won the ball and passed to the maestro in the number ten shirt, as is always the way for men in his role.

Team mate and fellow midfielder Marco Tardelli called him "the most tactically intelligent player I ever saw" and my far less weighty opinion holds much the same view. Furino retired not long after I began following Juventus and as such he forever holds that place each of us reserves for childhood heroes, alongside Superman and my father sits the man who to this day also holds the record for most Serie A titles won.

My love affair with central midfielders took a back seat for sometime after that, caught up in the hyperbole of first Baggio then Del Piero, the golden boys of '90's Calcio. It would be a full decade later before it was rekindled as Luciano Moggi brought Paulo Sousa to Turin. The Portuguese came from Sporting of Lisbon and was the missing link in Marcello Lippi's midfield, immediately clicking alongside Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte and helping end a nine year Scudetto drought in the first of two trophy-laden season.

That they followed this achievement by winning only the second European Cup in club history assured his place in my personal Hall of Fame, a place which remains untainted by his hand in demolishing Juve's dream of a repeat in the final just twelve months later with his new team Borussia Dortmund or even the heart-wrenching sight of seeing him in Inter's colours.

Again my affection would be shelved as first Lippi then Fabio Capello filled the position with men like Emerson, Davids and Patrick Vieira. Recent years have been even more bereft of talent - could anyone truly love Giuliano Giannichedda, Tiago or Christian Poulsen? The less said about Felipe Melo the better but it the man alongside him who has once again rekindled my passion for a passer.

"I'm like Paulo Sousa? The comparison is a source of pride for me. He was a great player.”

Alberto Aquilani came to Juve a broken man, destroyed by injury and an ill-advised move to the Premier League. He was always a quality player but under Gigi Delneri he has flourished, making many Juventini regret Moggi's decision not to take both him and fellow Roman Daniele De Rossi when Franco Baldini wanted Davids as part of the Capello-era Giallorossi.

But it is a very different Aquilani on show now than we have seen previously, a far more complete midfielder, capable of shielding the defence as well as supplying the attacking players with ammunition. No longer is he a peripheral figure standing on the fringes of games - he is, in-keeping with his predecessors, controlling the play from a dominant central position - winning back the ball and then, rather than a great pass he simply makes the right pass, and I'm a kid again.

It has always been there.

Adam is a regular contributor to IBWM, and can also be found at the excellent Serie A Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Adz77.

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