Everything Albert Riera touches is turning to gold.
Fresh from being named the Wellington Phoenix's best player in his first season of professional football, the 30-year-old was on cloud nine yesterday as he flew back into Wellington with some precious cargo and priceless memories.
The Spanish midfielder was one of the best players on show in front of 55,364 at Sydney's ANZ Stadium on Sunday night as the A-League All Stars conceded two late goals in a 3-2 loss to Italian Serie A champions Juventus.
Riera, who initially came to New Zealand on a backpacking holiday, and Brisbane Roar captain Matt Smith, were the only All Stars players to play the full 90 minutes, while Phoenix team-mate Manny Muscat also started the match and impressed before being replaced by All White Storm Roux.
To top it off, Riera is now the proud owner of Andrea Pirlo's shirt after plucking up the courage to pop the question to his Italian idol, one of the world's most influential and admired players.
"It was amazing," Riera said.
"At halftime I went up to him when we were walking back to the changing room and he said no problem. At the end of the game we swapped shirts and chatted for a couple of minutes which was really special. I need to wash the shirt first and then frame it up. Manny got [Patrice] Evra's shirt so he is very happy too."
The eyecatching team performance against a full-strength Juventus highlighted the A-League's growing status as Alessandro Del Piero waved goodbye to his adoring Australian fans.
Riera got to spend 10 days in camp with the Italian legend and loved every minute of it.
"Before the game, he said he's got a lot of friends at Juve but he's also got a lot of friends in the A-League. He said he wants to win and we're his team-mates and we have to fight for each other. And that's what we did."
Riera's reputation is also on the rise as he combines the ability to both break up play while being comfortable on the ball.
Off contract at the end of the 2014-15 season, Riera said there had been no interest from other clubs.
"No, no, no. This is just the beginning of a great season ahead. We were a bit upset at the end of the game because they came back in the last five minutes. But in the days ahead, we're going to look back and realise what we did.
"We have to be very proud of the performance. But their guys up front were very clinical - they had four chances and scored three. Every time they got the ball around the box you could smell it, the danger, that's what makes the difference."
It's now back to earth for Riera and Muscat, with the Phoenix's next assignment against a New Zealand A selection at Taupo's Owen Delany Park on Sunday.
- The Dominion Post
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