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With his side 1-0 ahead thanks to an Alex Sandro own goal, it was a senseless foul. Juventus had slowly been fighting their way back into the match and when Sebastián Coates brought down his man at the edge of the box, the Uruguayan defender knew he had handed them a lifeline. After the referee had marched the wall back ten yards, two men stood over the ball, each offering a very different threat to Rui Patricio’s net.
The infringement occurred just outside the box, slightly to the left and Paulo Dybala – who had been in irrepressible form in the preceding weeks – would’ve loved to have taken on this set piece. Yet the man beside him was equally confident, carefully spotting the ball on the grass in just the right place before marking out his run up slowly and deliberately.
He tapped the toes of his right boot into the turf to push it back on his foot, the entire routine familiar to supporters who packed the Curva Sud and were eagerly awaiting the referee’s whistle. The official eventually blew and Dybala backed away, leaving the way clear for Miralem Pjanić who despatched his shot cleanly, a powerful effort that arced over the way and struck its target perfectly after only narrowly missing Patricio’s right hand post.
Knowing he was beaten, the goalkeeper barely moved and Pjanić wheeled away in delight and the entire stadium erupted. It was a magnificent goal, one that showcased just how effective the Bosnian midfielder is in such situations and that he has truly mastered the lessons learned while serving as an apprentice to free kick maestro Juninho Pernambucano.
Pjanić had already spent four years with Metz when he joined Lyon in 2008, working closely with the Brazilian in his debut campaign and, after inheriting the No.8 shirt 12 months later, he has never looked back. After four seasons at the Stade Gerland he would head to Italy with Roma, quickly developing into a talented midfielder coveted by the world’s best clubs.
His final campaign with the Giallorossi came in 2015/16 and, having scored four times directly from set pieces by late October, his former mentor was quick to lavish praise upon him. “It's difficult to compare him to me, because I don't like talking about myself too much,” Juninho would tell L’Equipe. “But Mire has incredible quality. He's maybe the best free-kick taker in the world today… no I'm sure of it; he is the best!”
By the end of that season he had scored ten goals in 33 league appearances, his tally of 12 assists making him the only midfielder in double figures for both. Yet despite five years of excellent performances in the Italian capital he had nothing to show for it, Roma never lifting a trophy during his entire stint with the club.
He wanted more, and his agent began to make enquires about moving on. That desire was helped by a relatively low buyout clause in Pjanić’s contract, negotiated after the Giallorossi allowed his previous deal to almost expire.
Holding all the cards, the midfielder drew interest from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Real Madrid but, following the stipulations in his contract to the letter, he wrote to Roma and informed them he would in fact be moving to Juventus.
It was a switch that stunned both supporters and officials at the club, President James Pallotta admitting in an interview with SiriusXM FC that “I wasn't happy we lost him, but there was nothing we could do about it.”
But while they were powerless to prevent the move going through as Juve paid the buyout fee in full, others in Rome were not as gracious as their American owner. “My whole team is better than Pjanić,” boss Luciano Spalletti told Bosnian newspaper Oslobodjenje.
“At this moment, everyone is better than him, including our kit man. I’m not angry at him, but I am Roma's coach and every player that is at Roma I find better than him.” Fellow midfielder Radja Nainggolan went even further, perhaps only half-joking when he told reporters that “if he goes to Juve, he can’t talk to me anymore!”
Yet Pjanić did go, struggling at first as new boss Max Allegri worked out how best to slot him into the side. He tested the 27-year-old in a variety of positions, but – much like the whole team – things began to click when the coach opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation shortly after the winter break.
No longer able to hide in a three-man midfield, Pjanić thrived on the extra responsibility thrust upon him by the new system, his passing becoming a major weapon as Juve clinched a Serie A and Coppa Italia double while reaching the Champions League final in Cardiff.
As the 2017/18 campaign got underway, Allegri again changed his approach, reverting to a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 set up depending on who he fielded in attack. But Pjanić simply continued to deliver performances of the highest calibre. The aforementioned strike against Sporting is one of four he has bagged so far this term, also chipping in with six assists while creating an average of 2.7 chances chances per 90 minutes.
Only four Serie A players – all playing in much more advanced roles – can better that figure, while his passing has given a sharpness and purpose to Juve’s play, connecting with 90 per cent of his 62.3 attempts per game.
Yet rather than the raw numbers, it is the natural grace of ease to his play that is most noticeable, Pjanić looking calm and controlled even in matches of the highest tempo, always able to find time to deliver the right pass to the right team-mate at the right moment; an artist at work amongst the chaos.
“I feel responsibility on my shoulders at Juventus, because Allegri asks me to make the team tick,” the man himself told Italian magazine Undici recently. “If he gets angry with me, it’s because he wants me to get nothing wrong, to be one of the best.
“He believes in me and that is motivating. When I arrived at Juve, Allegri said that he saw me playing in front of the defence. I put myself at his disposal and now I’m happy in a role where I can really help the team.
Averaging 2.2 interceptions per 90 minutes, he has diligently filled the defensive requirements of that new role, but is clearly much happier with the ball at his feet. “I want my name to be remembered,” he continued in that same interview. “I have made real steps forward since I came to Juve and there’s a long career ahead of me, so I want to keep getting better.”
He has done just that, leaving Roma, Real Madrid and those English suitors lamenting the absence of a player who can deliver goals and assists while dictating play from the heart of midfield. Pjanić can do it all.