You could be forgiven for having thought that Juventus’ name was on the trophy when Gianluigi Buffon made his dramatic double save to deny both Nikola Maksimovic and Elif Elmas in stoppage time of the Coppa Italia final.
The 42-year-old had been in fine form throughout the night in Rome on Wednesday – frustrating each of Lorenzo Insigne, Diego Demme, Nikola Maksimovic and Elif Elmas – but it was his opposite number and someone little over half his age, Alex Meret, who ended up the victorious goalkeeper.
Meret himself had made some fine contributions throughout the 90 minutes, primarily to thwart Cristiano Ronaldo’s attempts to deliver Juventus’ first trophy of the season.
Jose Callejon forced his teammate into some unexpected early work when he gifted possession to Paulo Dybala in Napoli’s own box just five minutes after kickoff before the Argentine teed up Cristiano Ronaldo for a low strike that Meret did very well to get down and push away.
Just how alert the 23-year-old was, and how quickly his reactions were, was perhaps all the more clear given the circumstances.
The truth is that Meret never should have been playing in Rome. The game was his first in the Coppa Italia this season, a competition that has seen David Ospina used as Gennaro Gattuso’s first choice goalkeeper.
Even beyond the Coppa Italia, Gattuso’s early decisions at the Stadio San Paolo had suggested that Ospina was the goalkeeper he trusted most, with Meret seemingly paying the price for Napoli’s early-season struggles by finding himself acting as the Colombian’s backup.
That decision to favour the 31-year-old looked to be one that Gattuso might regret on Saturday though.
Opsina, in stark contrast with Meret on Wednesday, suffered early misfortune in the second leg of Napoli’s semi-final against Inter as he let a Christian Eriksen corner curl straight into his goal, passing through his legs en route to compound the misery and humiliation.
To his credit though, he recovered. As improbable as it would have seemed after three minutes at the Stadio San Paolo, without Ospina Napoli never would have made it to Rome to meet Juventus as he made a number of saves, and even started the move from which they scored, to keep Inter out after his early mishap.
A 79th minute booking meant that suspension ruled him out at the Olimpico and Meret took full advantage of the opportunity he was afforded.
He was quick to sniff out and intercept a ball that would have seen Cristiano Ronaldo score later in the first half, and he produced a top save to deny Paulo Dybala with Juventus’ first penalty in the shootout.
Given the excellence displayed on the biggest stage he’s taken to, Meret will undoubtedly be expecting to continue as No.1 under Gattuso going forward.
Not even Gianluigi Buffon, who appeared to have travelled ten years back in time, was able to outshine the 23-year-old, who couldn’t have been more deserving of his first taste of top-level silverware.
Unwanted trends for Juventus
Cristiano Ronaldo will be painfully aware of the ‘record’ he set on Wednesday. By coming up short against Napoli he has now lost consecutive finals for the first time in his career, having been beaten by Lazio in the Supercoppa Italiana back in December.
That the Old Lady lost on penalties probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though, given they’ve now lost four of the last five finals they’ve had settled in a shootout, last winning one against AC Milan back in 2003, again in the Supercoppa.
As soon as the final whistle sounded, though, it was probably only going to end in a Napoli win. The only other time the Coppa Italia went to a shootout after a scoreless draw was in 1979/80, when Roma edged Juventus’ neighbours Torino.