AC Milan- Champions of Italy- Doesn’t it have a nice ring to it? The tag of Campioni d’Italia for the 18th time took seven years to arrive for Il Diavolo, but it was by far the sweetest of the lot.
Handling of the transfer market by the old fox Galliani was the quintessential reason behind Milan’s runaway success in the league. After spending the last few years in hibernation, the golden tie finally came at the forefront and bought match-winners at the blink of an eye. The arrival of Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Boateng and later Cassano with Van Bommel dictated the way Milan played ball throughout the season. At the same time one cannot overlook, Christian Abbiati’s workhorse like performances in front of the goal. It is essentially due to the rise of this unsung hero that the Rossoneri ended up with the best defensive record in Serie A, which further helped them to lift the all-elusive 18th Scudetto.
Questions can be raised over his ability to do the samba, unlike some of his Brazilian teammates, but one cannot lay a finger on the ability of this Italian to keep the shots at bay from his goal post. Twenty one year old Abbiati had won the Scudetto for Milan back in 1998-99 on the last day, with an injury-time wonder save against Perugia. Twelve years down the line his sensational reflexes again came to the rescue of his club, not just once but on several occasions throughout the season.
With the retirement of Nelson Dida last summer, the goalkeeper spot was up for grabs. With the arrival of Marco Amelia on loan deal from Genoa, it was believed that the position of the shot stopper was covered. But to everyone’s surprise the new man in charge— Allegri persisted with Abbiati during the pre season friendlies. Little did anyone know that this self-proclaimed fascist would prove to be the lynchpin for Milan in the games to come.
After few initial hiccups that saw Milan losing to newly promoted Cesena, Abbiati finally got the hold of things. This humiliating loss saw fans gunning for his head but Allegri continued showing faith in him, which started reaping dividends soon afterwards. A string of impressive performances followed, especially the one against Lazio in which Milan walked out of Rome with a single point primarily because of Abbiati’s heroics between the sticks.
His significance in the campaign for Milan can be seen from the fact that out of the forty games in which he featured for the Rossoneri, he managed to keep a staggering twenty-one clean sheets – highest among all the Serie A clubs this season.
Meanwhile, Amelia who was tipped by many to walk straight into the starting eleven for Milan at will was left warming the bench for a major chunk of the season. Although, he did feature in some crucial encounters during the season; first one being the UEFA Champions League tie against Jose’s men at Madrid owing to the injury Abbiati had suffered against Chievo. But as fate would have it for him, Milan ended up on a losing side, just like most of the matches in which he guarded the goal line.
Milan kicked off the second half of their season at the top of the table, but retaining the top slot was proving little tricky for them. As many as eleven squad members were sidelined due to injuries. The onus was on the rest to step up their ante and they did not disappoint.
In Nesta and Thiago Silva, Milan possessed arguably the best pair of central defenders in Europe but the full backs had been a major area of concern for them. With the rise and rise of Abate (thanks to Tassotti’s mentoring) the right back position was taken care of; but Allegri’s men still remained vulnerable from the left flank. In order to fill up for the left back position everyone from the central defenders to the keeper Abbiati, further notched up their game. They gelled well with the new signings to provide a decent protective cover over the left side of the pitch.
Unfortunately Abbiati picked up another injury, twenty minutes into their crucial first leg of Champions League fixture against Tottenham at San Siro and had to be substituted by Amelia. The dreadful run of Milan with Amelia between their goalposts continued, and Milan was handed an embarrassing loss at their home turf thanks to a solitary goal by Peter Crouch. It was this very goal, which would eventually knock them out of the Champions League.
Back in the League, Milan gave it their all against the top teams but it was their performance against the teams from the bottom half of the table which was sending the management as well as their fans into a tizzy. On the other hand, Internazionale under Leonardo was closing in on their rivals at the top.
The performance of their forwards, who had a fantastic run in the first half, slipped at the tail end of the season. Ibrahimovic kept on getting suspended day-in and day-out; Robinho couldn’t finish in some crucial ties; Pato and Inzaghi were already out due to injury while Cassano was playing like a dream on some days and looked completely out of sorts on other occasions. That was the time when the midfielders led by Seedorf (who had a miserable first half) injected some much-needed life into the squad. The back line made sure to protect whatever narrow lead they achieved. Slowly but surely Milan’s campaign was coming back on track. The 3-0 win in the derby over Inter at the beginning of April, turned the tide completely in favor of the Rossoneri.
Lifting the Scudetto was left a mere formality after Milan’s victory over Brescia in week 34, which saw Abbiati turning back the clock by twelve years. He forced a Diamanti free kick wide in the 89th minute and brought back the memories of 1998-99 season. That superlative effort by him helped Milan in earning much needed three points, which almost sealed the fate of the title.
Out of the possible thirty-eight games, he made a start in thirty-five of them and finished with remarkable 110 saves to his name. After watching his performances in the Milan jersey it would not be wrong to say that on current form he is the best shot-stopper in Italy. Gigi Buffon suffered from a herniated disc in his back, which saw him watch Italy’s entire World Cup from the sidelines. It kept the Juventus keeper out for a major part of the Serie A season as well. He eventually made a comeback but was far from his best whenever he was on the pitch. This however puts a big question mark over Abbiati’s exclusion from the national squad. With the pressure of the fans growing with every passing day, one can say that it is only a matter of time before the Milan goalkeeper gets a call from Prandelli for the national team. Will he actually get a call or will Pradenlli continue to deny him is for us to see in the near future, but the fact that Abbiati fully deserves his place in the Italian squad is beyond any doubt.
Jersey number 32 of Milan might not have been amongst the most vocal on the pitch, but the stern faced goalie left no stone unturned when it came to performing his duties in front of the goal.
Until he got injured in 2002 he was the regular starter for Milan for almost four years from 1999-2002. After that he lived in the shadow of his replacement Dida, and was loaned off to as many as three clubs in the span of three years between 2005-2008. He finally arrived back at Milan in 2008-09 season but was never the first choice keeper, neither under Ancelotti nor under Leonardo, mainly due to the long spells of injury which had kept him out of action. This year he was entrusted upon with the responsibility of being the first choice keeper by Allegri, a decision he justified without any faults.
Judging by how public opinion has swung in his favour over the course of the season, it can be said that this time around, the bald Italian will surely get his due respect at Milan – something which he has been denied till now but something which he truly deserves.