For the best part of his career, Maicon was revered as one of the best right-backs in the world. But then two meetings with Tottenham Hotspur completely changed perceptions of a 76-cap Brazil international who had lifted the Champions League title with Inter Milan just twelve months prior.
Outthought, outmuscled, outpaced, twisted and toiled by young prodigy Gareth Bale, Maicon’s seeming invulnerability as arguably the best No.2 in the business evaporated as the Welshman’s dynamic brilliance down the left-hand side lead to a second-half hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat at the San Siro and then created all three goals in a shock Tottenham win over the reigning European champions.
‘Taxi for Maicon’ went viral and national papers from across Europe, from Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy to Marca in Spain and France’s L’Equipe and Germany’s Kicker to Sweden’s Aftonbladet, dedicated column inches to two performances that appeared to destroy one career at top level and announce the start of another. Bale had confirmed himself as one of Europe’s lead attacking talents, at a cost of signalling the end of Maicon’s hayday.
“The young Welshman crushed, tortured, humiliated and toyed with Maicon.”
“Inter’s right-back Maicon was up against the towering Bale – who hit a flawless hat-trick in the game in Milan – and was hopelessly stretched. The Welshman ran past the Brazilian international with ease time after time”
“He was absolutely brilliant … he devoured Maicon.”
The Welshman simply started where he had left off at San Siro, making asphalt of Maicon. Bale went past him in a thousand different ways, and then delivered his crosses, which always landed on Crouch’s head. The two last goals came from his assists and he dominated the left flank, destroying Maicon.”
Gazzetta dello Sport
But in truth, there were no mystical forces at work during the San Siro comeback and one of White Hart Lane’s most famous European nights. In October and November 2010, Maicon was coming to the end of his peak aged 29, and Inter Milan were amid Rafa Benitez’s shortlived attempt to follow up Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning season. Bale, meanwhile, had turned 21 that summer and two years later would sign for Real Madrid in world-record transfer. This was the transition stage of his career, transforming from a promising young player into a world superstar.
Opposing trajectories of their respective careers crossed at the opportune moment to create a perfect storm, highlighting the relentlessly expanding prodigiousness of one and the ageing, declining greatness of another. But such a changing of the guard could have taken place at any time within the following few years and could have involved many elite wingers; because Bale was so young and so exceptionally talented though, Maicon’s inability to keep up appeared particularly devastating.
As Tottenham prepare to face Juventus this evening, one feels obliged to ponder whether history will go some way to repeating itself against another Italian opponent in the Champions League. Spurs no longer boast the ferocious penetrative threat of Gareth Bale, but Mauricio Pochettino’s cast is awash with some of the best young attacking players in Europe.
After two Premier League title bids and a stunning win over reigning European champions Real Madrid in this season’s Group Stages, it’s easy to forget how young they actually are. But the most experienced member is Christian Eriksen, who turns only 26 tomorrow, the youngest, Dele Alli, is just 21, and the most talented member, striker Harry Kane, is a mere 24. It feels as if they’ve come of age already, but by the traditional laws of development, all are only on the cusp of their peaks.
Compare that to a Juventus side with an average age of 29, that still relies on a 33-year-old Giorginio Chiellini, a 30-year-old Medhi Benatia, and a 36-year-old Andrea Barzagli at the heart of defence, and a 40-year-old Gianluigi Buffon just behind them. Many of the greats go onto their late 30s in Serie A, but if there’s another opportunity to signal another changing of the guard at the top end of European football, between an ageing Juventus side lacking the star quality of yesteryear and a young Tottenham team itching recognise its exponential progress under Pochettino with silverware, it is surely tonight in Turin.
After all, Chiellini and Buffon particularly are still recognised as amongst the best in the world, but Tottenham’s attacking midfielders and forwards are already on the peripheries of that status at the very least and in some cases, namely Kane’s, they’ve already taken a segment of centre-stage. And while Bale was still something of a relative unknown in 2010, at least outside of the Premier League, it’s much easier to imagine Kane – who Transfermarkt value at £108million – Alli or Eriksen producing a devastating performance that mimics the torturous display Bale once dished out to Maicon in Italy.
From the perspective of those in England at least, who don’t watch Juventus every week and only see Chiellini, Barzagli and Buffon in fits and spurts for Italy or in the Champions League, that would inevitably change the extent of which the Azzurri icons are presently revered, signalling their inevitable declines in the eyes of many.
That’s an incredibly romantic and fanciful notion, but how realistic is it? What are the chances of a Tottenham win tonight and more pertinently, one of Tottenham’s young world-beaters putting the Old Lady’s old guard to the sword?
Well, it’s certainly true that Juventus aren’t the dominant force they once were; they’re currently second in Serie A, and their performances in the Champions League this season particularly have lacked ruthlessness. The Group Stages saw them lose 3-0 to an equally declining Barcelona, draw with an unspectacular Sporting Lisbon team and manage only a 2-0 win over Olympiacos. They still finished a comfortable second, but their qualification to the knockout rounds didn’t exactly convince of substantial progression in this year’s tournament.
Tottenham, in contrast, have saved their best performances this season for the biggest occasions, the only exception being a humbling defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, not least including a draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and a win over the European champions at Wembley. During the last week alone, they’ve beaten Manchester United and Arsenal at Wembley, and left Anfield with a point from a thrilling draw. More than simply a collection of footballers travelling down opposing trajectories, to some extent both clubs are as well.
For all involved, tonight’s game in Turin could well be a watershed moment. Another Tottenham player could confirm himself as a superstar, and another of Italian football’s leading entities may suffer as a consequence.