By Paolo Menicucci
When Gianluigi Buffon arrived at Juventus FC in July 2001, he carried the weight of expectation that only a transfer fee of the magnitude of €46m, a world record figure for a goalkeeper, can bring.
But after a nervous start to his Bianconeri career, the 25-year-old has certainly delivered, winning two Serie A titles in two seasons with Juve. And individual acclaim has gone hand in hand with team triumph, with Buffon this week crowned the UEFA Champions League Most Valuable Player 2002/2003 at UEFA's European Football Awards in Monaco.
The award represents the apex of a steady curve of success since Buffon burst on to the scene making his debut for Parma AC in November 1995 against an AC Milan side who had won the Scudetto just a few months earlier. But the Carrara-born teenager delivered, holding the Rossoneri at bay with several stunning saves in a 0-0 draw.
Six successful seasons, including a UEFA Cup triumph in the 1998/99 season, with Parma followed, while he won the first of his 38 Italy caps in October 1997 aged just 20. While startlingly successful domestically and internationally, further European silverware has so far eluded Buffon.
Champions League final
However, the colourful keeper could hardly have done more as Juventus lost out on penalties to Milan in last season's UEFA Champions League final in Manchester, making one excellent stop from Filippo Inzaghi and saving two spot-kicks in Juve's penalty shoot-out defeat.
Revenge for Juve
Buffon welcomed his European Football Awards nomination as recognition of his side's progress in last season's competition, but he feels Juventus will be even stronger this term. They have already earned a small measure of revenge on Milan by winning the Italian Super Cup in New Jersey on penalties, with Buffon hitting the headlines in the American press for a series of fine saves.
Wait and see
He told uefa.com: "
Watching our pre-season, yes, we look even stronger than last season. But pre-season is not that important. I think we will have to wait almost a month to have important indications as to our real strength."
Praise for new recruits
However, Buffon has welcomed the arrival of new recruits Nicola Legrottaglie, Stephen Appiah and Fabrizio Miccoli during the summer. "They have adapted extremely well to their new team," he said. "They all have already proved that they have both the technical and mental qualities to play a key role and to find places in the team next season."
But Buffon knows that the competition in the UEFA Champions League will again be fierce in 2003/04. He said: "
In my opinion all the big teams in Europe are more or less at the same level as they were last year. It is really balanced. I think that small things and episodes will make the difference again as happens every season."
Buffon again expects Italian clubs to figure prominently after the renaissance last season that produced the first all-Italian final. He said: "It will be really difficult for the Italian teams to repeat last year's success as we had three Italian teams in the semi-finals. It was an incredible result. However, I think that all the Italian teams will be in with a chance of winning the competition this season."
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