By Michael Harrold
Alessandro Del Piero and Raúl González may have won the UEFA Champions League four times between them, but both will still feel they have something to prove when Juventus FC and Real Madrid CF meet tonight.
The two illustrious captains are the symbols of two of Europe's greatest sides, and both sets of supporters will be looking to their talisman to provide the moment of magic that decides the tie at the Stadio delle Alpi. For Juve fans, Del Piero's return to the starting lineup goes some way to making up for the loss of Pavel Nedved to injury. In contrast to Raúl's untouchable status at Madrid, they have had to get used to the sight of their hero on the bench since Fabio Capello's arrival as coach.
Capello has insisted it is for Del Piero's own good as the striker eases his way back from the tendinitis that has hampered his season. And it is hard to argue with the coach who has already coaxed nine Serie A goals from the veteran this season. Best of all was the cheeky back-heel which opened the scoring in Juve's 3-0 victory against AC Siena on 27 February.
It was the first of Del Piero's two goals, announcing perhaps the return to full fitness and form of the Bianconeri's beloved fantasista. "I'm very pleased with my performance," he said. "It was a very good sign ahead of the key match of our season against Madrid. We started with three attackers and everything went well. I don't know if we'll repeat this experiment, but I can say I feel in good condition. It's up to Capello to decide. I have never questioned the decisions of the coach."
When fit, David Trezeguet and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have led the line for Juve, and Del Piero has had to adapt to forge a role in the side. In Nedved's absence he has played as a third striker, or as support behind the front two. In training last week, in anticipation of Trezeguet's return, Del Piero was even asked to play out on the left wing.
Raúl's game too has evolved to suit the needs of his side, though the thought of leaving him out will not have entered the mind of coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo. The striker may not provide the goals he did in seasons gone by, but his importance to Madrid is undiminished. As defender Míchel Salgado says: "
Raúl is the soul of the team." There was a fleeting moment in the first leg of the Raúl of old, when he powered past his marker to meet Roberto Carlos's left-wing cross and fire a shot on to the crossbar.
Poacher turned provider
But the poacher these days has turned provider and that selflessness is seen week in, week out for Madrid. Ronaldo, Michael Owen and David Beckham have all benefited from the space Raúl creates as he drops deep or drags a defender out to the wing to give his team-mates room to run into.
Record can wait
When Raúl does finally get the goal he needs to surpass Alfredo Di Stéfano's record of 49 in European Champion Clubs' Cup matches, what will matter most to him is its value to the team, not personal glory. For Raúl, as long as there is another Champions League game to play, the half-century can wait. Del Piero will just want to make sure the celebrations are put on hold a bit longer - to next season at the earliest.
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