Del Piero an ace at icing Juventus cake

Alessandro Del Piero has been called many things in his long and distinguished Juventus career. The romantics likened his early artistry to that of the Renaissance painter Pinturicchio.

The late Gianni Agnelli, patron to the club that bought Del Piero in his youth, renamed Del Piero "Godot" because he was always waiting for the inspiration to reappear after midcareer injuries.

Del Piero passed through a phase of being known as the Boy Soldier Millionaire because he was called up for military service when he was Italy's highest-paid player.

And now, to borrow a term from baseball, Del Piero is suited to being called the supreme pinch-hitter of his sport.

On Sunday, he came off the bench to score the decisive goal. It was a masterstroke, a free kick that curled handsomely into the top corner of the net. It atoned for a penalty he missed in the final minute last Wednesday to cost Juventus victory against Parma in Serie A.

The goal on Sunday won the Derby D'Italia. It put the game beyond Internazionale in front of 79,000 mainly Milanese tifosi in the San Siro. It gave first-place Juve a 12-point lead over second-place Inter.

It was a touch of class that left the Inter goalkeeper, Julio César, dumbstruck, and left little doubt that The Old Lady of Turin, as Juventus is known, would retain her crown as champion of Italy.

Del Piero made it look as if he were shelling peas. Juventus - with Lilian Thuram still immovable in defense, with Patrick Vieira and Emerson the beasts of midfield, with Pavel Nedved still running and with David Trezeguet and Zlatan Ibrahimovic lithe and athletic in attack - has a consistency that nobody in Italy, and possibly no one in Europe, can withstand.

The machine composed by Fabio Capello is stern and dependable, hardworking, quick and experienced. Coach Capello is a quieter version of the volcanic man who once breathed such touchline fire, possibly because he is able to trust his men to come up with the result as they have been doing, with 21 victories in 25 games in Serie A.

His serenity is massaged by the knowledge that when the contest is tight, he has the match-winner on the bench behind him.

"Del Piero manages to have an immediate impact," Capello said Sunday. "He doesn't need time to become an important factor in the game. Not many players can do that so effectively, and I am fortunate to have players who accept my decisions because they know they are working for the team."

Managers make their own good fortune. The players are well-ordered, and they know to a man that it is Capello's way, or not at all.

Even Del Piero - or, arguably, especially Del Piero - appreciates that the coach is first and foremost a winner.

It was apposite of Del Piero, the club captain, who so regularly gets a seat among the substitutes, to say after the victory on Sunday that the squad's attitude now must be to keep the foot hard on the pedal until the league championship title is mathematically out of reach of both Inter and AC Milan.

He has scored at least five incontestably winning goals coming off the bench when the pace and frenzy of a match has solidified into stalemate. If he, at 31, lacks the stamina or the hunger for the hour or so of buildup, he has an uncanny ability to end the contest.

He is by no means the daddy of the Juventus team, which on Sunday fielded Thuram, 34, Nedved 33, Fabio Cannavaro 32, with Gianluca Pessotto and Del Piero, both 31, among the subs.

But Del Piero's adolescence was stolen by his career. He was such a prodigy that Padova took him away from his family home at Conelgiano, near Venice, when he was 13. At the time, his mother was a housekeeper, his father was an electrician and his older brother, Stefano, was studying economics.

Alessandro was studious, too, but in Italy when a soccer player is brushed with such obvious precocity, such movement and imagination, the game consumes him.

Above all, Del Piero has the gift to shoot more quickly than other men can

At 31, Del Piero has an uncanny ability to end the contest.

think. The sensitive side of him, the noncombatant, has been mistrusted at times throughout the years, but his class has never been doubted.

There was such a calm about him at the San Siro on Sunday when he lined up the free kick - such expectation, such knowledge that he had been here before, done this so many times.

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