With sixteen titles shared between them, AC Milan and Real Madrid have enjoyed an illustrious history to boast of in terms of European football. Whenever, the two clubs have crossed swords, the clashes have remained of highest intensity and grit. At the beginning of the on-going season, when draws for the group stages in the Champions League were announced, the two clubs were placed in the same group for the second time in running, ascertaining at least two battles of a peculiar panache. During the previous season, Milan managed a clear upper hand beating Madrid 2-3 in a scintillating contest at Bernabeu and later managing a stalemate in the San Siro leg. However, despite Milan reinforcing their squad immensely at the beginning of the current season, Madrid were deemed to run riots at the Rossoneri as they were gradually maturing in their neo-Galacticos era and under the astuteness of Jose Mourinho, the Spanish giants were certainly looking a unit most would prefer not to meet.

The Decisive Encounter against Madrid

The fashion in which the events unfolded was not far from expected. The triumvirate of Higuain, Ronaldo and Di Maria splintered the Milanese defence apart and handed the Italians a 2-0 defeat after an authoritative performance. The return leg of the group stages at San Siro too was anticipated to be another onslaught from Los Blancos and it did not take them long to establish their ascendancy. The first half saw the hosts being completely subjugated. But it was the second half that let the visitors feel the heat. Real Madrid attackers continued on the tried and tested methods and immediately diverted all their attacks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s flank of operation. To the surprise of many, world’s most expensive player was suddenly not finding the going easy despite outpacing Gennaro Gattuso in the midfield. His attempts were often blocked, he was denied space to work around and was eventually made to look like a stationary figure on the pitch. The young defender manning the left flank was operating deep enough for Ronaldo being forced to cut in prematurely where he often ended up either providing wayward crosses or losing the ball to the well positioned Centre Backs.

 

The key component in the Allegri brigade

 

The frustration of both Ronaldo and Mourinho raised to a level that The Special One decided to switch the flanks between the two wingers and asked Di Maria to run from the left wing. Apparently, even the Argentine’s presence could provide no substantial difference and all his attempts to break through too were quite convincingly negated. So much so, that Mourinho was compelled to re-sketch his chalkboard while introducing the late substitute Pedro Leon. Madrid shifted their entire attention to the right flank and eventually did enough to seal a point from the game but in a broader perspective, Milan were hands down the more benefited unit from the game. The restraint with which Milan’s youngest player on the pitch nullified any potential threat from Madrid wingers was ultimately the reason Milan could save themselves from another humiliation at the hands of Spanish rivals. That day on, the makeshift Right Back for the Rossoneri who had already been to both the extremes of the sinusoidal career of his, cemented his place in the defensive line. Milan have been tremendously benefited from his perseverance and discipline in perhaps the most vulnerable area they have been conceding goals from for last couple of seasons. Ignazio Abate is the name of the 24 year old being discussed here and given the description above, there can hardly be any rewards for guessing the name correctly.

From Nobody to Somebody of Prime Importance

Abate began to ply his trade in the youth ranks of Milan and graduated to the senior team in 2003 but failed to feature into a Serie A game during his initial stint. He was however capped into few odd cup games at both domestic and continental level but failed to build any considerable repute for himself. The major part of his Milan spell was spent serving loan periods at various clubs in lesser leagues before finally moving to Empoli to make his Serie A debut. The days at Empoli and those in the following season at Torino were not exactly productive as he could only manage to start 49 games collectively for the two clubs.

At the beginning of the 2009 season, Abate made his way back to his youth club that was seeking a revamp under the newly appointed manager Leonardo. The Brazilian did not initially place Abate into his scheme of things. Massimo Oddo, Gianluca Zambrotta, Daniele Bonera and Luca Antonini were the key candidates for the two Full Back positions in the Milanese setup. Given Zambrotta’s abilities to deal on either side of the flank, he automatically reserved a place and the other was often filled by Bonera, Antonini or Oddo in that order. Abate started 25 games and made 16 appearances as substitute during the season but his role in the side always remained undefined. He started few games in the midfield positioning just above the defensive line. He was also chosen as the Right Back in the latter half of the season.

Massimiliano Allegri, though altered many of the methods implemented by Leonardo, persisted on his predecessor’s choice of defenders. But unlike the Brazilian, Allegri did not fail to identify and acknowledge the problem areas. Post a string of listless performances by Bonera against Cesena and Catania during the early days of the season, Allegri decided to plant Abate on the Right and earned an instantaneous criticism for the move. Abate had not served in a familiar position of late and was predictably vulnerable in tracking the movements of Hernanes and Floccari. The Italian defender was nowhere in the frame to be seen when Hernanes ran past the Milan back-line and provided a sublime cross for Floccari to net one in. Two minutes later, he was replaced by Antonini and then on, he had to wait till ‘that’ game against Real Madrid – when his industry came to the rescue of his side – to earn his place back on permanent basis in Max Allegri’s blueprint of the first team.

 

Aiming High: There are heights to scale aplenty for the Italian

 

Since the day, Abate has been a key reason for Milan’s best defensive record in the league for the season running. But for a month stretched period ruined by injuries, he has started all the games for Milan and has delivered at the important, season-defining junctures. His assiduous performances in defence against the likes of Napoli, Inter and Juventus deserve a special mention.

Playing Style, Attributes and Strength

Ignazio, a natural Midfielder, who cultivated himself to play into a wide defensive position on regular basis, deserves all the credit for an immensely successful transition in relatively short period. He neither boasts of Maicon’s muscle nor of Alves’ attacking instincts. He does not possess Ramos’ ruthlessness, nor does he as immaculately overlap the wingers as probably Evra does.

Yet, there is this special attribute to his game which helps him be an extremely tough customer to deal with. He is a no-nonsense defender who heavily relies on his concentration, attention and percipience. He is not the best reader of the match but he need not be one playing alongside someone of Alessandro Nesta’s credentials. His strength lies in his work ethic that allows him to track back to the deepest end of the pitch immediately after making an advanced run in the opposition’s half. He chooses to defend deep and defend wide. He is not the cleanest tackler and knowing that fully well, when inside the box, he emphasises on blocking the attacker’s angle and lets the more classy defenders deal with winning the ball back. This speaks volumes for his maturity that is way over what his age would otherwise suggest. It is not easy for a young defender to reserve a place in arguably the most complex of the leagues but Abate has successfully done so.

Like it is expected from a modern day Full Back, Abate does tend to make forward runs and of late he has added a dimension to his game by cutting in and providing dangerous through balls. Earlier, he used to run mono-directionally and provide some ambitious lateral crosses which seldom poised any substantial threat. Lately, he has improved on his attacking prowess but one must admit the lack of creativity from the Milan midfield which denies him a chance to engage into radiant interplay which the likes of Alves and Maicon do for fun. With an addition of a Krasic or Sanchez like Right Winger in the ranks, Abate can offer much more in the attacking third.

Future with Milan & Italy

With the culmination of an industrious season, Milan must remain keen on offering Abate a permanent place in the defensive setup. Abate can play the protagonist in the process of transitioning the defence into a more youth oriented one. His future with Milan appears to be glimmeringly bright and the famous Milan Lab must work on him to last over a full season.

The Italian national team is under an unprecedented drought of world class talent and amidst the scenario, Cesare Prandelli won’t be able to neglect Abate for long. Christian Maggio, Mattia Cassani, Davide Santon and Marco Motta have been recently tried in the Right Back position. From the analysis of his season with Milan, Abate can definitely provide higher mettle than any of the mentioned ones and it will be only a matter of time for Prandelli to give him the nod that he richly deserves.