Donnarumma: From Public Enemy No.1 to Milan’s Champions League superstar

The 20-year-old is winning fans back after his contract controversy, with his displays propelling the Rossoneri toward a top-four finish in Serie A

In the first edition of this season’s Milan derby, all eyes were expected to be on either Gianluigi Donnarumma or Mauro Icardi come full time.

In the end, they were on both, but for very different reasons.

Just as the game looked set to peter out at 0-0, Matias Vecino’s harmless cross was misjudged by Donnarumma, allowing Icardi to pounce at the back post and head home a stoppage-time winner.

It was an error that came just five months after the young goalkeeper had been responsible for two of Juventus’ four goals in the Coppa Italia final, and less than a year after he was reduced to tears by a banner produced by the Milan fans.

“Moral violence, 6 million per year and the signing of a parasite brother? Now get out, the patience is over!” read the message from the Rossoneri faithful to Donnarumma, in the wake of his messy contract negotiations.

It wasn’t his first experience of a bitter fan backlash. Just months before, when the ‘keeper had initially rejected a new deal with Milan, Italy fans showered him in fake money during a game at the UEFA under-21 European Championships.

But behind all the controversy stands one incredibly talented footballer, one who has only matured and improved during the adversity he has faced since making his senior debut aged 16.

“He has become a man, he is more aware, he is an adult,” legendary goalkeeper Dino Zoff told Corriere della Sera.

“With all the pressure he had on him, it wasn’t easy, but he has the maturity to realise where he’s going wrong,” Italy boss Roberto Mancini added, speaking to Rai Sport.

“Donnarumma is young and, like all young lads, can make mistakes or do incredible things. He has extraordinary quality and will have a very long career, but errors are part of human nature.”

This time around, while Inter’s derby day hero Icardi spoils his reputation among fans of the Nerazzurri, Milan’s derby day villain Donnarumma has his sights set on redemption with the Rossoneri.

Inter’s injury crisis and struggle for goals going into Sunday’s San Siro showdown plays nicely into the hands of Milan, who had to deal with depleted numbers of their own over Christmas yet know, incredibly sit third in Serie A, a point above their city rivals.

For several games, all of Alessio Romagnoli, Mattia Caldara, Mateo Musacchio, Ivan Strinic, Lucas Biglia and Giacomo Bonaventura were on Milan’s injury list. 

Without three centre-backs, a left-back and two defensive midfielders, Gennaro Gattuso was forced to put square pegs into round holes. It was a period that saw full-backs Ignazio Abate and Ricardo Rodriguez play as centre-backs, while winger Fabio Borini played as a wing-back.

Milan surprised all by strengthening their challenge for Champions League football in this time, and so the performances of the square pegs came in for praise. But the key man was behind the makeshift defence: a commanding Donnarumma, who has benefited from attention being elsewhere this season.

Whether on the injuries, Gattuso’s future, or the domino transfers of Gonzalo Higuain, Alvaro Morata and, Milan’s January signing, Krzysztof Piatek, focus has, for once, been off the 20-year-old, despite him having some of the best stats in Europe.

Of the goalkeepers who have played 15 games or more, only Inter’s Samir Handanovic – and by the finest of margins – has a better save percentage than Donnarumma, who has kept 10 clean sheets in his last 16 games and conceded just six goals.

“He is way more mature and has plenty of self-confidence,” former Milan stopper Christian Abbiati told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He is doing amazing things this season.”

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Gattuso has noticed it too, telling the press: “In Donnarumma, I see a goalkeeper who has great confidence.”

The manager’s faith in him has played no small part in that. While Milan fans called for him to leave, Gattuso was always behind his goalkeeper.

After consoling him on the pitch following the unveiling of the ‘get out’ banner, Gattuso said: “He will have my protection, for all the protection I can give.

“He’s an 18-year-old kid, of course he was shaken. I can only thank him for what he’s doing.

“For his age, he’s the best goalkeeper in the world right now. You can tell from his face he’s not happy, but I have known a great athlete and great kid.”

Gattuso was there again after Donnarumma’s derby day error last year, telling reporters: “You said he was growing – you wrote it.”

“The choices, I make them,” he added, trying to take the blame from his player. “I see him calm.”

Donnarumma has repaid that trust, and not just in his performances.

“He is a great coach, he always gives you the energy to give your all and he spurs you on to give more and more,” he told Corriere dello Sport of his under-pressure manager earlier this season.

“Sometimes beatings are needed, and I’ve taken them, especially from him!”

Gattuso is not alone in that respect. Between him, the fans and the media, Donnarumma has been beaten black and blue in the four years since he made his senior debut in the red and black.

But it is a testament to his character and quality that he has emerged from the tough times an even better player than he was before, with the gossip columns again littered with his name – this time for the right reasons.

“Milan will be rewarded and Donnarumma will surely become the new [Gianluigi] Buffon,” former forward Dejan Savicevic said of the goalkeeper’s form last month.

Whether or not that transpires in the long-term, only time will tell.

In the short-term, Donnarumma’s focus is on helping Milan to their first top four finish in six years and ending five years without Champions League football.

Victory this weekend would go some way towards achieving that – as well as clinching personal redemption for a youngster who is slowly, but surely, winning back the support of each and every Milan fan.

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