Seventeen year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma has made the no.1 jersey at AC Milan his own, proving that the youngster has a strength of character well beyond his years.

It’s hard to believe that the 6’5″ bearded giant standing between the posts for AC Milan is still too young to buy a drink. Yes, Gianluigi Donnarumma puts pay to the assumption that all teenagers are scrawny and spotty, as he continues to cement his position as the Rossoneri’s number one.

It’s just over a year since Donnarumma made his competitive debut for Milan in a Serie A clash with Sassuolo at the age of 16, becoming the youngest goalkeeper to start a match in the history of Italian football. It was an undoubted gamble by then-manager Siniša Mihajlović, but one from which Milan are now reaping the rewards. 

Now managed by Vincenzo Montella, Milan find themselves second in Serie A, and just off the back of a fine 1-0 win over first-placed Juventus. Donnarumma has burst onto the scene at an exciting time, as the club seek to re-establish themselves as one of Europe’s heavyweights. The Naples native enjoyed a solid first season in the first team, keeping a respectable 10 clean sheets from 30 appearances.

Donnarumma grew up supporting the club whose shirt he now dons each week, but has cited legendary Juventus keeper Gianluigi Buffon as his hero and inspiration. Indeed, there are many similarities to be drawn between the two, and not just the fact that they share the same first name. Buffon himself was only 17 when he made his Serie A debut for Parma some 21 years ago. On a technical level, Donnarumma’s agility, despite his significant height, is why many have touted him to succeed Buffon as Italy’s number one.

Buffon has been quick to praise the young shot-stopper, marvelling at Donnarumma’s ability to cope with the pressures of being a goalkeeper at such a young age. The nature of goalkeeping is such that one mistake can cost your team dearly, regardless of how well you may have played apart from that. However, Donnarumma has been unfazed by the stresses of being number one at a club of such stature, proof of his impressive mental strength for such a young player.

Last month, Donnarumma made his senior debut for the national side, replacing Buffon at half-time in a friendly with France. Combine that with tonight’s tight victory for Donnarumma’s Milan over Buffon’s Juventus, and it appears that the passing of the baton has begun. Buffon has been an iconic figure for club and country over the last 20 years, and having announced that he will retire after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Italian public will need a new figure on which to pin their footballing hopes.

Another Italian World Cup winning goalkeeper Dino Zoff has said that Donnarumma is “predestined to become a great goalkeeper”, but that “it all completely depends on him.” This is where the key lies for the teenager. It’s vital that the young goalkeeper doesn’t let this expectation overwhelm him, and concentrates on improving day-in, day-out. Premature success can often breed complacency, and Donnarumma must ignore the growing expectations and concentrate on becoming the best goalkeeper he can be. Time and again, we see players of high potential fall by the wayside as a result of their egos being inflated by media hype. If Donnarumma is to fulfil his undoubted potential, he must remain focused.

There’s a growing sense of expectation at AC Milan as a whole, with the club currently only two points off top spot in Serie A (although they could drop down to third again if Roma defeat Palermo tomorrow night). Milan fans are desperate for the club to re-claim their place amongst Europe’s elite after lingering in the wilderness for several seasons. With Donnarumma, the Rossoneri faithful – hungry for success – have a figure who they can rally behind. Indeed, AC Milan, their fans, and Donnarumma himself all share the same goal: to rise.

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