“An embrace from the best goalkeeper in the world,” Milan custodian Gianluigi Donnarumma wrote on Facebook after he swapped shirts with opposite number Gianluigi Buffon at the end of his side’s 1-0 defeat to Juventus in Serie A on Saturday evening. “What an emotion.”
It must have been a rather surreal moment for both men. Just a few short years ago, Donnarumma would have been watching Buffon’s performances on television, hoping that one day he may meet his hero, even if only as a fan. Since then, of course, the kid from the Bay of Naples has become a professional goalkeeper himself, handed his first-team debut by Milan manager Sinisa Mihajlovic at the tender age of 16 in last month’s encounter with Sassuolo at San Siro.
For Buffon, too, it must have been strange to face a keeper less than half his age. The Juventus man made his debut for Parma in November 1995, three-and-a-quarter years before Donnarumma was even born.
It was Buffon who came out on top at Juventus Stadium, the Bianconeri edging out Milan to climb up to sixth in the table and keep their title hopes alive. Donnarumma, though, turned in another impressive performance that was full of confidence and maturity: his handling was excellent and he never looked flustered with the ball at his feet, while he also proved adept at coming off his line and snuffing out danger when the situation called for it.
Crosses were claimed and corners punched clear, his 6ft 5in frame allowing the teenager to dominate his penalty area and relieve pressure on a backline that has looked extremely nervy at times this term; indeed, after 13 matches only Carpi, Frosinone, Verona, Sampdoria, Torino, Empoli and Lazio have conceded more goals than the Rossoneri, with Milan possessing the second-worst defensive record before Donnarumma’s introduction to the starting line-up last month.
Although some claimed he should have done better to prevent Paulo Dybala’s winner, the fierce effort from only seven yards out would have been difficult for even the most seasoned shot-stopper to keep out.
The display was merely a continuation of Donnarumma’s positive start to his senior career. He has kept two clean sheets and conceded only three goals in five games, demonstrating a confidence and assuredness that belies his tender years.
“He is a polite and serious kid, but he has no fear,” Milan youth coach and former midfielder Christian Brocchi said earlier this month. “He has always been a huge Milan fan; he dreams of being Milan goalkeeper for the next 15 years. This dream is very likely to come true.”
It was a major call for Mihajlovic to bring Donnarumma into the team to replace Diego Lopez – who was restricting Iker Casillas to a place on the substitutes’ bench at Real Madrid not too long ago – but, for now, it looks to be paying off. There is still room for improvement for the 16-year-old, but there is hope in Italy that the country has finally found the much-searched-for ‘heir to Buffon’.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.