Giorgio Chiellini: The Juventus 'gladiator' with four broken noses and two degrees relishing Real Madrid test

Charlie Eccleshare
Giorgio Chiellini: The Juventus 'gladiator' with four broken noses and two degrees relishing Real Madrid test 

As Heung-min Son watches the flight of Christian Eriksen’s long diagonal pass fizz though the Wembley air, he glimpses an uninterrupted path to his team-mate Harry Kane. If he can get enough purchase on his attempted pass then Kane will have a tap-in, and Tottenham will surely level their Champions League tie against Juventus.

Son catches the ball perfectly on the volley, but out of nowhere an obstacle arrives. In the time between Son looking at what was inside him and connecting with the ball, Giorgio Chiellini has charged back and slid in front of Kane to clear the ball away.

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon grabs Chiellini by the shoulders. The pair press their foreheads against each other for a split-second and roar at each other in celebration. It's the sort of celebration normally resolved for scoring a last-minute winner. 

Chiellini then fist bumps Andrea Barzagli's hand and claps, before quickly refocusing and telling his team-mates where they need to be to defend the resulting corner.

READ MORE: Gossip - Man Utd set to hand De Gea massive pay rise

READ MORE: Tottenham are on the verge of something big, says Lloris

Fifty minutes later the Italian Chiellini is talking in perfect English to reporters, dissecting how Juventus won the game 2-1 to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals. He explains that Juventus preyed on Spurs’ mental weaknesses, before paying an emotional tribute to the former Fiorentina captain Davide Astori who died just three days earlier.

If ever an hour summed up a player and a man this was it. Bruising, highly effective and expressive on the pitch; gentle, generous and articulate off it.

A month on from that Wembley win, Juventus are preparing for their next Champions League assignment - tonight’s quarter-final first leg against Real Madrid at the Allianz Stadium.

For Chiellini, this season could represent his best chance of finally getting his hands on that elusive Champions League trophy. Aged 33 and twice a losing finalist in the last three years, Chiellini knows time is running out if he is to win the competition.

But some formidable foes stand in Chiellini and Juventus’s way - most notably Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored twice in last year’s Champions League final when Real thumped Juventus 4-1.

If Juve are to exact revenge then Chiellini will almost certainly have to get the better of Ronaldo - the Champions League’s greatest ever goalscorer - irrespective of whether manager Massimiliano Allegri decides to field three or four at the back.

Chiellini is confident. “This year we are more determined than ever to achieve something important,” he said on Sunday after Juve's 3-1 win over AC Milan.

“To lose a final is painful, obviously, but it is very good to play them.”

No-one is owed anything in football, but it would feel like an injustice if Chiellini, arguably the finest defender of his generation and surely one of the game’s brightest minds, ended his career without a Champions League medal.

‘A reference point for everyone’

If Chiellini is ever immortalised in a statue outside the Allianz Stadium, then for accuracy’s sake it must surely include a bloody bandage over his head and a tissue stuffed ungainly up his nose.

An unyieldingly physical defender, Chiellini has broken his nose four times and his constant scrapes and bruises make Terry Butcher and Steve Bruce look almost prissy by comparison.

“I hope that my children take [my wife] Caroline’s nose”, Chiellini once joked.

“It is still four nose breaks at the last count,” he told the Daily Mail in an interview this year. “Until next week anyway! The problem is that if there is the tiniest chance of scoring a goal or stopping a goal, I can't help myself.”

A similarly all-action defender, former Juventus defender Moreno Torricelli told Telegraph Sport that: “Giorgio plays like an Italian-style Gladiator. He is a reference point for everyone. He never lets you down. His diligence is always right at the very top.”

Chiellini’s manager at his first club Livorno Walter Mazzarri described the centre-back as “a force of nature”, while in this country Chiellini's heroics against Tottenham drew gasps of admiration from fellow centre-backs. 

Bournemouth defender Steve Cook told Telegraph Sport that: “We don’t see enough of that never say die attitude in this country. Some say it’s going out the game. But for me it is something that can be copied.”

Jamie Carragher wrote that seeing Chiellini at his defiant best "made me jump out my seat and applaud the television screen". 

Chiellini’s unflinching commitment is paired with a loyalty to Juventus that saw the defender stay in Turin even when the team were relegated to Serie B in 2006 following the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. In total, Chiellini has spent 13 years at Juventus, winning six Serie A titles and making almost 500 appearances.

Gregorio Sorgi, vice-president of the Londra Bianconera, the London Juventus Official Fan Club explains that Chiellini’s fidelity and passion for  Juve means there is a special bond between the player and supporters.

‘The last of a glorious species’

With the Azzurri failing to qualify for their first World Cup in 60 years, there is a feeling in Italy that the national team may need to evolve from the defence-first approach that has long been their calling card.

Ever since Helenio Herrera’s Inter team popularised the Catenaccio style in the 1960s, Italy has fetishised the art of defending. Part of the reason why Chiellini is so valued - even by some non-Juve fans - is because he offers a link to Italy’s glorious past of World Cup-winning centre-backs like Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea and more recently Fabio Cannavaro

“Chiellini is a typical Italian defender,” says Torricelli, who won the Champions League with Juventus in 1996. “Maybe one of the last of a glorious species.”

Chiellini though is dismissive of the idea that Italy should abandon their defensive principles. In fact he believes that such thinking is what has got the Azzurri into this mess in the first place: “Pep Guardiola spoiled and ruined the Italian defender," Chiellini said earlier this year. 

“He is a fantastic coach with a fantastic mind but Italian trainers have tried to copy him without the same knowledge and then in the last 10 years, we lost our identity.

Chiellini is a typical Italian defender. Maybe one of the last of a glorious species

Former Juventus defender Moreno Torricelli

“We lost our identity of [Paolo] Maldini, [Franco] Baresi, Cannavaro, [Alessandro] Nesta, [Giuseppe] Bergomi, Gentile, Scirea... between 1984 and 1995, we have only [Leonardo] Bonucci. In 10 years, we didn't launch one good defender.”

Two of the key tenets of those Italian centre-backs of yore are an exemplary appreciation of the technical craft of defending, and a mastery - to varying degrees - of football’s “dark arts”.

'One of the all-time great Italian defenders' 

Let's start with the defensive skills. Strip away all the bandages and furious celebrations, and Chiellini is first and foremost a very accomplished defender.

Standing at 6ft 3in with a powerful build, Chiellini also possesses a near super-human anticipation for where the ball is going to drop that makes him one of the best man-markers in the game. Mazzarri once said that Chiellini “can mark three players by himself.”

Chiellini admits: “I put stock in physical one-on-ones and winning individual duels.”

He also puts his success down to “concentration”, which Chiellini believes is the single-most important quality for a defender. 

Toricelli puts him in the same bracket as Scirea and Gentile, and says he must be in the top 10 all-time great Italian defenders. 

But even those Juventus legends never managed six straight Serie A scudetti, as Chiellini did between 2012 and 2017 when he, Bonucci and Barzagli formed the fabled “BBC” back three upon which Juve's success was built.

Chiellini said wistfully of the trio this year: “When we had [Leonardo] Bonucci, [Andrea] Barzagli, myself and Gigi Buffon at the back, what we had was special. It is not just technical...it is a feeling, emotion, a level of experience.”

Bonucci has now left, and at 36 Barzagli is used sparingly, but Chiellini remains the cornerstone of a defence that has conceded a staggeringly low four goals in 15 matches this year.  Juventus will almost certainly win a seventh straight Serie A in May, and the paltry 16 goals they have conceded in 30 matches is a major reason why. 

It has also been striking how Chiellini has evolved this season, with the ball-playing Bonucci’s departure to AC Milan forcing him to take on a more creative and less purely destructive role. That said, Chiellini is still the subject of light teasing from Juventus supporters for his relative lack of technical skills (it's surprising to learn that he played as a winger and central midfielder in his younger years).

With Bonucci gone and Barzagli more peripheral, vice-captain Chiellini has also had to assume more responsibility this season. Perhaps Chiellini is preparing himself for the moment when Buffon does finally retire, and he will at last step forward Prince Charles-like from the role of heir-apparent to anointed leader.

“I was never the best in my age group,” Chiellini says of his ongoing development. “I was like the Ugly Duckling because I am not beautiful to see but I always improved. That is my best skill. I am 33 but I am having my best ever season. There is no secret; just passion and work.”

‘It's like being put in a cage with a gorilla’

As well as a master of the art of defending, Chiellini is effective at playing right on the edge of what is legal.

When Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata was asked last year about his toughest opponent, his response was instant: “Chiellini”.

“It's like being put in a cage with a gorilla and you have to steal his food,” Morata said. “I think the few times I've managed to score against him it's been in the area.

“It's impossible to win a duel with Chiellini if it's one-on-one in the box or he's holding you."

Many other strikers would agree with the characterisation of Chiellini as a “gorilla” (which incidentally is how Chiellini illustrates himself on his official website).  

In one fiery Derby d'Italiabetween Juventus and Inter 11 years ago, Chiellini made it his mission to stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic at all costs.

Over the course of a ferocious 90 minutes Chiellini shoved, eyeballed and trash-talked his more talented opponent into a subdued and goalless performance. There is a moment during the match that looks like something from a horror movie as Chiellini slowly emerges into shot with a haunted Zlatan looking on into the distance. 

When up against Napoli meanwhile, Chiellini made a habit of hauling Edinson Cavani to the floor by his flowing locks. One of these many running battles famously ended with Luis Suarez biting Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. 

“I am the most aggressive one,” Chiellini said two years ago of his role in the Juventus and Italian defence. “I go hunting for my opponents high up the field.”

Not for nothing did an old friend give Chiellini the nickname “King Kong” as a teenager (Chiellini has since taken ownership of the sobriquet by celebrating scoring goals by beating his chest). 

On the more sneaky side, Chiellini’s habit of making the most of minimal contact means he infuriates many opposition supporters. He also has a knack for committing a clear offence but avoiding punishment by pulling an angelic face that resembles one of a child saying “nothing to see here” after making their younger brother cry. 

One Milan-based correspondent said Chiellini’s ability to play on the very edge of what’s acceptable is up there with the master of skulduggery Marco Materazzi.

Chiellini admits: “On the field, I had to be this way to make it to the top level. I was not born with many technical skills. I had to improve and work. Hundreds of players have physical and technical talents but very few make it. You need that desire.”

Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and whoever else comes between Chiellini and his Champions League dream can expect similar treatment this week and next.

‘Off the pitch I’m more serene, reflective’

What makes Chiellini such a fascinating character is how opposite his on-pitch and off-pitch personas are. In fact the contrast between his rugged approach as a defender and sensitivity away from football make Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde look like kindred spirits.

Those who were hearing Chiellini speak for the first time last month at Wembley may have struggled to compute who this supposed brute was revealing so gently and thoughtfully that he had "cried many times" at Astori’s death.

“Journalists who follow Italy and Juventus will all tell you that Chiellini is always available and polite - more so than his team-mates,” says Simone Stenti, editor of Juventus TV. “No matter what the result, he always speaks well, which is not common for footballers.

“He’s very friendly, a smart guy. He definitely has as a future as a football manager. He is a very intelligent and sensitive. Very friendly. The opposite to what you see on the pitch.”

Numerous other Italian journalists and supporters contacted by Telegraph Sport reiterated that Chiellini is a different person on and off the pitch.

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Chiellini explained the dual sides to his character, “I met Morata’s mum the other day, we had a train journey together, and she said: ‘When I saw you playing I never thought that you would turn out to be so calm and such a sweetie!’

“That has always been my character – on the pitch I have a strong temperament, but off the pitch I’m more serene, reflective. I manage to separate out those two things.”

The dichotomy between Chiellini's two personas makes more sense when you look at his educational background.

The son of an orthopaedic surgeon and an international navigation company’s vice-president, Chiellini hoped as a youngster to study medicine. Realising that the demands of being a professional footballer would make this impossible, he read economics and commerce at under-graduate level instead.  

Chiellini was a model student, scoring 109 out of a possible 110 marks on his thesis – an analysis of Juventus’s balance sheets. He has since been awarded a Masters degree in business administration from the University of Turin, graduating cum laude last year. His final thesis was titled: “The Business Model of Juventus Football Club in an International Context”.

Born and raised in Livorno, Chiellini also possesses a social conscience that is typical for someone from Italy’s most left-wing city (Livorno was where the Italian Communist party was founded in 1921).

Chiellini does a huge amount of community work, and runs a charity that he co-founded for children with multiple disabilities. In Livorno, he supports a theatre company that offers roles to disabled actors, and he once donated €100,000 (£87,582) to The Agency for Research on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

When last year Juan Mata launched his Common Goal charitable project which sees participants donate a portion of their salary to football charities, Chiellini was one of the first footballers to sign up. In his his e-mail expressing his interest, Chiellini wrote: “Hello. I'm Giorgio Chiellini, player of Juventus...I'm not interested in advertising, I want only to support a brilliant project. Sorry for my English. I try to make the best as possible!”

Chiellini has also found the time to write two books - one on the Juventus and Italy great Scirea, and another more generally on defending called The Defender.

On the Netflix documentary First Team: Juventus, young centre-back Daniele Rugani said fondly that if he were getting his team-mates Christmas presents, he would get Chiellini “a nice book. Because I often see him reading and I’m sure he’d appreciate it.”

'The difference between winning and losing will be marginal'

And on to tonight, where Juventus will look for a repeat of last year when they beat Barcelona 3-0 over two legs in the quarter-final.

In both of those matches, Chiellini was masterful, as Juve did what was thought to be impossible and kept out Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar for consecutive matches. Chiellini even found time to score in the first leg. 

Real - Champions League winners in three out of the last four seasons - will start as favourites but Juve know their opponents are vulnerable.  

“The difference between winning and losing will be marginal,” Chiellini said on Monday.  

Deep down he is acutely aware that just like at Wembley, Chiellini could be the man to make that difference.