There’s a well know school of thought that says that big competitions are won on the back of great defenses. AC Milan are really proving this to be true this year – much like their cross-town rivals had done so last year – by being the Serie A team to have conceded the least amount of goals (23). What’s even more impressive is Milan’s consistency both home and away, having conceded 11 goals at the San Siro and 12 on their travels. Furthermore Milan have conceded a paltry four goals in their last ten fixtures, and never more than one goal in a single game. In fairness it is a bit of a surprise given a Milanese defense that is so reliant on the dual presence of both Thiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta. Luckily for the Rossoneri however, this has been the case for the majority of the season. A better defensive setup from Massimiliano Allegri has also added extra midfield cover and protection to the defense, which has been another contributing factor. However one thing that is often forgotten when we think of staunch defenses is the goalkeeper. In Milan’s case, Christian Abbiati has been a stalwart in the Milanese defense this season.
In fact, Abbiati has probably been Milan’s most understated players during the Rossoneri’s Scudetto run this year. The Italian goalkeeper has been one of the key performers for Milan and undoubtedly been the reason for the Rossoneri’s impressive defensive record. In the same way that we used to say that Gianluigi Buffon – in his pomp when at Juventus – was worth six to nine points a season, so it has also been the case with Abbiati this year.
It has been a very long journey back to the San Siro for the 33-year-old Italian. Abbiati donned the no.1 jersey for Milan back in 1998 – succeeding Sebastiano Rossi – and remained first choice for four years until Dida displaced him in 2002. The Brazilian shot-stopper’s good form for the Milanese giant had effectively grounded Abbiati’s playing time to a halt. As a result a treble of loan spells to Juventus, Torino, and finally Atlético Madrid followed from 2005 to 2008 after which Abbiati eventually returned to the San Siro. Dida had by then fallen out of favor and been replaced by then no.1 Zeljko Kalac. Abbiati’s solid pre-season form earned him the starting berth in goal however and he enjoyed a good season until a severe knee injury in March 2009 put a halt to it. Dida returned to being the no.1 choice as the Italian recovered from a six-month rehabilitation and a knee surgery. Having fully recovered now, and following Dida’s departure, Abbiati re-claimed the no.1 jersey and has been key in Milan’s Scudetto run.
What makes Abbiati such a great goalkeeper are his great reflexes, even at his age, but as well as his ability to spread himself. Standing at 6’3, the Italian has an impressive reach that allows him to virtually extend himself to the corners of his goals from a single standing leap. As a result he is very difficult to beat once he steps out to the 6-yard area to block an opposition striker’s attempt on goal. Furthermore his height allows him to really command his penalty box on corner-kicks where it is easier for him to come out and claim the ball while still in the air. That height is actually key as he stands the tallest – apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic – player of the team and certainly the tallest of the defense. A cool head, unshakeable concentration, and great focus are also some of his great attributes. All are mostly pertinent to his ability to pull match-winning saves or saves following long spells after having not been solicited.
If Abbiati goes on to help Milan to lift the Scudetto, it will have been a wonder as to how national team coach Cesare Prandelli seems to have been blind to the custodian’s great performances this year. Abbiati’s Azzurri career began as third-choice goalkeeper at EURO 2000, and he only received his first cap three years later in 2-1 victory over Switzerland. He was however left out of the 2006 World Cup squad and then following his 2009 knee injury, stated that he would refuse any future call-up for Italy in a non-starting role. Surely his form this season would warrant Prandelli taking a chance on the 33-year-old. It is understandable that he faces stiff competition around the peninsula, but the only major advantage his competitors have over him is age. The fact is that an experienced head could do well for Italy as Prandelli is still trying to build his Azzurri backline, which is sure to be mostly composed of youngsters. All in all however, what is for sure is that Abbiati has been one of the great pillar’s onto which Milan’s Scudetto challenge has been so successful. After all the facts seem to speak for themselves. Ibrahimovic’s goals seem to have dried up since February, Milan have the best defensive record in the league, and Abbiati has managed an impressive 16 clean sheets this season. Finally Milan have never lost a game after having scored first this season, suggesting that quality defense backed by quality goalkeeping are usually behind the Rossoneri’s ability to protect winning or drawing positions. That ability alone, to by himself win countless points for Milan, is why Abbiati has been Milan’s savior on far more occasions than it has been mentioned this year.