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Gianluigi Buffon's legacy not tarnished by Madrid meltdown

Gianluigi Buffon anticipated it might be like this. Musing about the end of his career while on international duty last March, he smiled and said: "Maybe I'll go out like [Zinedine] Zidane, giving someone a headbutt."

Zizou's presence on the sidelines at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night rendered those words strangely prescient. What a curious twist of fate. Buffon witnessed Zidane plant his head into Marco Materazzi's chest from Italy's goal in the 2006 World Cup final. Flash forward 12 years and the roles have been reversed. Buffon's moment of madness came in what was billed as his last appearance on the Champions League stage.

Buffon likes to say you need sana follia (craziness of the good, healthy kind) in order to achieve great things. To some though, his push on referee Michael Oliver and the extraordinary comments that followed were just crazy. It brought back memories of Buffon's youth, when he had a reputation as an Ultra in gloves and didn't always count to 10 before saying or doing something.

Those days seemed behind him. Over the years, the Juventus and Italy captain has become statesmanlike. He almost always finds the right words and has an acute sense of responsibility; he doesn't go looking for scapegoats. Buffon invariably looks at himself or his team first. Within that context Wednesday's comments seemed out of character.

Alessandro Del Piero, Buffon's predecessor as Juventus captain, said: "When Gigi spoke about the referee... honestly, I found it hard to understand." And he went on to express the opinion that his former teammate would think differently about his comments in the cold light of the coming days.

Regardless of what you make of the controversy, Buffon's emotional response was understandable.

There were two stages of incredulity. The first was that Juventus found themselves on the brink of one of the greatest comebacks ever in this competition -- tied at 3-3 after losing the first leg 3-0. The second stage was that 10 seconds from extra time, it all went up in smoke. Buffon's career in the Champions League looked dead a week ago, then it came back to life. It might have extended to another two or three games had Juve progressed after extra time and with both Spanish sides out -- Juventus' nemeses in 2015 and 2017 -- they maybe would have ended their (and Buffon's) long wait for this trophy.

How well they played against Madrid, and the fact it came in their tormentors' own backyard, left them with the conviction that this team isn't finished. Giorgio Chiellini seems more persuaded than ever that Juventus' time will come. That is why it wouldn't come as a surprise if Buffon were to come back next year.

Backup goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has said he wouldn't have a problem with it, and you can imagine the same debate vis-a-vis Buffon and his international retirement re-emerging in relation to his club career in the next six weeks, the sense he deserves better than to go out like that.

It sounds indulgent, but it's not. One of the remarkable things about his recall for the last round of international friendlies was that Buffon, at 40, was still Italy's best player in their defeat to Argentina. He had a good game in Madrid, too.

Chiellini thought he was in such a state of grace that had Oliver decided not to send him off, he would probably have saved Cristiano Ronaldo's penalty. Up until that point, it had been the perfect night. A flawless performance.

The noise Buffon's comments have made, in some respects, have allowed the focus to shift away from that display. While everyone at Juventus was singing from the same hymn sheet -- just in more diplomatic terms -- you suspect that's the thing he'll probably be most disappointed about after his opinion of Oliver's refereeing.

Juventus' president Andrea Agnelli had already done a very good job in defending not just his club, but also Serie A's other representatives in Europe, raising his concern that UEFA's referee designator Pierluigi Collina is purposely assigning the least experienced referees to games involving Italian teams so as to maintain the appearance of impartiality.

Agnelli pointed to the penalties Roma didn't get at Camp Nou, Danny Welbeck's dive against Milan in the Europa League, and the fact Juan Cuadrado wasn't awarded a spot kick in the first leg for an almost identical foul to the one Lucas Vazquez suffered. His status as head of the European Club Association (ECA) means he is in a better position to influence matters than Buffon.

Not that Buffon should have kept his counsel. Too often we criticise players for not speaking their minds. It would be hypocritical to have a go at Buffon for doing just that, even if he could and should have been more measured.

What happened at the Bernabeu does not tarnish his legacy. For all the comparisons with Zidane it was a push, not a headbutt; it was a Champions League quarterfinal, not a World Cup final, and far from his last big game.

Juventus have a top-of-the-table clash with Napoli to come, the Derby d'Italia, a Coppa Italia final against Milan and a trip to the capital to face Roma in the next six weeks. What anger he still feels needs to be channelled into doing the Double and edging Napoli in the only real title race in Europe's top five leagues.