With Serie A over for another year, it has been one of the closest fought and interesting campaigns in recent memory. From a position of seemingly unassailable dominance Inter have been brought crashing back down, through a combination of terrible luck with injuries, poor form and the ill-judged appointment of Rafael Benitez. The race for the Champions League and relegation slots ran until late in the season while the play of Napoli, Udinese and Lazio has been both refreshing and entertaining.
Much has been said and written about many of the leagues standout performers, of Edinson Cavani’s transformation from energetic wide player to one-man strike force, Marco Di Vaio’s astounding leadership of Bologna both on and off the field to the superlative performances of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Hernanes.
Yet above both these man there is one player who, while receiving very little press recognition, has been in arguably better form than any of those names already mentioned. His team have faltered when he has been absent from the line-up, managing to only secure three points and failing to win any of the six games he missed. The title that was so richly deserved by the San Siro side would arguably have been lost long ago were it not for the performances of Christian Abbiati.
The goalkeeper has been in amazing form and while credit for that also goes to the defence in front of him it must be remembered that for large parts of the season that back four has contained a mixture of Luca Antonini, Daniele Bonera, Mario Yepes and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Despite their paucity, Abbiati has manged to post some staggering statistics from between the posts.
In 35 starts – during one of which he came off injured before the 20 minute mark – he has kept eighteen clean-sheets and made 110 saves while only conceding 18 goals. Those numbers look even more impressive when compared to his fellow ‘keepers in Serie A – nobody has more shutouts, he has allowed at least nineteen less goals than anyone who has played more than 3000 minutes and his 0.54 goals against average is almost half a goal better than any player in the league (Morgan De Sanctis is in second place with 1.03).
More than these hugely impressive numbers is the calm and confident manner he has transmitted to a constantly changing team in front of him. Besides Thiago Silva no other Milan player has made 30 appearances this season, and indeed only six members of the squad have started 20 matches. Young players like Alexander Merkel and Rodney Strasser have come into the side regularly and it is thanks to leaders like Abbiati that they have been allowed to feel comfortable in what would otherwise be a far more daunting experience.
Despite making almost 250 appearances for the club, this is something of a breakout year for the 33 year old, who’s Milan career has certainly been anything but easy. Joining the club in 1998 he eventually replaced Sebastiano Rossi before the emergance of Dida, which saw him become a frustrated reserve. In 2005 he seemed set for a move to newly promoted Genoa, only to see it collapse as the club were relegated as part of a match-fixing scandal.
Ironically it would be a pre-season injury to Gigi Buffon, in a friendly against Milan, that would hand him a chance to prove his true worth. He would not pass it up, starting 19 league games and conceding just nine goals for Fabio Capello’s ultra-dominant Juventus. Buffon’s return saw him on the move again – still only on loan – first to Torino then Atlético Madrid before returning to San Siro in 2008. Injury and Leonardo’s preference of Dida saw him rarely play however, until this season.
Now firmly first choice for the league champions it has been perhaps only the presence of Buffon and Cesare Prandelli’s decision to use younger players that has seen him fail to add to his four Italy caps. With the form he is in right now, nobody can deny Christian Abbiati is the leagues best, Serie A’s number one number one.