Evergreen Gigi Buffon needs to roll back the years if he is to celebrate milestone at Russia 2018

Italy goalkeeper, 39, came in for harsh criticism following 3-0 defeat to Spain in Madrid in World Cup qualifying

Italy's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon looks on during the World Cup 2018 qualifier football match Spain vs Italy at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on September 2, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS
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Gigi Buffon has a big birthday coming up in the new year. He will turn 40, the age at which Dino Zoff, his Italian compatriot, lifted a World Cup, back in 1982.

The landmark will be noted, celebrated and carry a few questions with it. Longevity does that to all athletes, and Buffon has been hearing it suggested he might be over the hill a few times since he passed 35.

He always comes back defiantly, expertly from spells of poor form, and the records he has been setting recently are not just to do with his endurance, and the awe-inspiring accumulation of top-level matches and prizes. Last year, he established a record for consecutive unbeaten minutes in Serie A. This calendar year, he was the Juventus goalkeeper who steered his club from the group phase to a place in the Uefa Champions League final through 600 unbroken minutes of clean-sheet football.

Buffon woke up on Sunday, however, to critical media assessments of his performance as the last line of defence in Italy’s 3-0 defeat by Spain at Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium – the venue where Zoff lifted his World Cup – in qualifying for Russia 2018.

"A bad night, or a decline?" asked the Gazzetta  dello Sport across its pink pages. "With the passing of time reflexes and reaction-speeds do change," the newspaper reflected of Buffon, who was deemed to have looked a little sluggish when Isco's excellent free kick whistled past him for Spain's first goal.

Buffon - who conceded four goals in June’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid and three in last month’s Italian Supercoppa loss to Lazio - is by no means the only Italian to have been criticised over the weekend, after a chastening loss which will very likely consign the 2006 world champions to a play-off hurdle in November before they can plan for Russia next summer.

Midfielder Marco Verratti has suffered a severe scolding not just from the press box and TV suites, but even from the Italy manager Gian Piero Ventura.

“The intensity of the game was high and Marco paid a price,” Ventura said. Verratti was booked within the first five minutes for a foul on Sergio Busquets. His evening went downhill from there. Isco even nutmegged the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder in the second half, to great cheers from the audience, as an insipid Italy were outpassed and outmanoeuvred in midfield.

Ventura, who took the job after Antonio Conte had guided the Italians to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, beating Spain at the last-16 stage, will make changes to the side for this evening’s fixture against an Israel who still have a mathematical chance of catching Italy in second place in the Group G table that Spain now lead by three points with three fixtures left.

Leonardo Bonucci, cautioned for the foul which enabled Isco to score his free kick, is suspended, which means Buffon will be missing not one but two of the central defenders he is most used to seeing in front of him. Giorgio Chiellini is injured.

And Buffon is unused to losses like Saturday night’s. Italy had not been beaten in a qualifying match for a World Cup or European Championship in 11 years. Ventura now has the unhappy badge of being the manager who broke a run of 56 unbeaten qualifiers. He will worry about that fact less than the knowledge than in the past two World Cup tournaments Italy have crashed out in the first round. There is a thin spread of talent in key positions; Conte’s squad was widely described as the worst, in terms of natural ability, that Italy had ever sent to a major tournament.

That may be an exaggeration, but Italy lack pizzazz. Apart from a couple of shots from range by Lorenzo Insigne, their attacking players barely troubled Spain’s goalkeeper David de Gea in Madrid. “We are human and Spain are less human,” Ventura said. “It was a damaging loss,” said Bonucci, “and we have no excuses.”

A difficult autumn looms for the manager, and a testing one for Buffon, who now faces the sort of anniversary he was keen to avoid. It was in a World Cup qualifying play-off that he made his Italy debut, as an emergency substitute, fully 20 years ago.

It was against Russia, and Italy squeezed through. They will probably have to face the same roulette, albeit as the seeded team in a tie that could deliver them a Sweden or a Republic of Ireland as opponents, to even make it to Russia for Buffon’s milestone tournament.