Juventus at a crossroads entering Champions League group stage
Reuters / Albert Gea

Leo Messi is running out of time.

At 30 years old, the Argentinian still has a good few seasons left in which to win trophies and scrap with Cristiano Ronaldo for the Ballon d'Or. But two games against Juventus in the group stage of the Champions League might be the last chance he ever gets to achieve something he has failed to do thus far in his career: score a goal past Gigi Buffon.

The greatest outfield player of his generation, taking on the greatest goalkeeper that ever lived? Only the first of those descriptions is up for debate. Messi has competition from Ronaldo for his title, whereas Buffon pulled away from the field long ago.

It is not just his talent, but his longevity that sets him apart. This is a man who has been playing professionally for 22 years and representing the Italian national team for 20 of those. He played the 1,000th game of his career in the spring.

Even the greatest must bow out eventually, though, and Buffon has made his position on retirement clear. If Juventus wins the Champions League this season, then he will hang around for one more to compete in the European Super Cup and Club World Cup. Otherwise, he will walk away at the end of the campaign.

Buffon knows the latter scenario is the most likely. He put the probability of this being his last season at "99.9 percent." This despite the fact that Juventus has reached the final of the Champions League in two out of the past three years.

Is he a pessimist, then, or simply a realist? Has Juve's window of opportunity in this competition already closed? Or was it perhaps never open in the first place? A lopsided 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in May's final could lead you to conclude the club never truly stood a chance.

(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

And yet, the Old Lady had previously beaten Messi's Barcelona 3-0 in the quarter-finals. So if not Juventus, then who? Buffon conceded just three goals in the entire tournament before that mauling in Cardiff. At no point prior to the final did any opponent threaten to knock them out.

So why should things be any different this year? What has changed in the months since? Dani Alves is gone, as is Leonardo Bonucci. The centre-back’s sale to Milan, in particular, was one of the most surprising moves of this summer. It deprives Juventus of its best distributor from the back, a man whose accurate long passing was a weapon in turning defence into attack.

Perhaps more poignantly, his exit meant the end of an iconic three-man partnership: Juventus' BBC of Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini. That group has been together since the summer of 2011. It is no coincidence that they have won the Serie A title in every year since.

Juventus has proven adept at refreshing the squad in recent seasons: It is enough to think that Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez, and Andrea Pirlo were in the starting lineup when they reached the final in 2015, but all had moved on by the time they returned back in May. Benedikt Howedes was signed to help fill the void left by Bonucci, while Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi were added to the forward line.

But the BBC, together with Buffon, remained steady up till now. Between formation changes and injuries, they were not always on the pitch together (though they were more often than not), but they were always the backbone of this team.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

"Bonucci was a friend in everything," Chiellini reflected after the transfer was announced this summer. "Over the past seven years I've seen him, Buffon, and Barzagli more than anybody - my family included. On a human level, I'll miss him a great deal… honestly, the tactical side (of replacing him) worries me less."

Domestically, Juventus has coped fine without Bonucci in the early part of this season, winning all three league games to date. But the opposition - Cagliari, Genoa, and Chievo - has not been anything close to Barcelona's caliber. Tuesday's game at the Camp Nou will be an important test.

In any case, there is a sense that we are closing in on the end of an era. Bonucci's exit was a first step, and Buffon's retirement would be an even more significant second. Barzagli, now 36 years old, said in April that he was not yet thinking about retirement, but his role in the side has diminished as his athleticism fades.

The club will not crumble without these players. Juventus has done an impressive job of building commercial revenue streams and re-establishing itself as one of the most marketable brands in world football since moving into its new stadium six years ago. It will find a new identity, perhaps built around its forward line and the prodigiously talented Paulo Dybala.

Juventus will be a different team, though, to the one that has dominated Italian football for the greatest part of this decade so far. Messi may not get another chance to score a goal past Buffon after this group stage is over. Just as wretched, for those of us watching from the sidelines, is the reality that we would never have another chance to see him try.

Juventus at a crossroads entering Champions League group stage
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