Gianluigi Donnarumma marked his return to action with AC Milan on Friday by keeping a clean-sheet against Juventus in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia. However, the 0-0 draw with the Serie A champions was not enough for the Rossoneri to progress, with Stefano Pioli's side eliminated on away goals.
The talented young goalkeeper is set to eclipse 200 appearances for AC Milan in the remaining weeks of this protracted domestic season, but for Pioli, the end of the campaign cannot come soon enough. Under increasing pressure, the former Internazionale and Fiorentina manager is also expected to leave San Siro this summer.
A miserable campaign for AC Milan
Currently a disappointing seventh in the Serie A table, AC Milan are the fallen giants of the domestic game in Italy. The 21-year old Donnarumma has suffered enough, having spent five seasons as number one. While AC Milan holds a special place in his heart, his head will turn him towards a club that can offer so much more.
While AC Milan remain ambitious, and appreciate the unacceptability of their current situation, reversing the decline will be too long a process for Donnarumma to waste his time continuing to witness first-hand. With his contract up in 2021, AC Milan must accept the inevitability of his impending exit, and be grateful for the fact he has stayed so long.
Donnarumma will command a significant fee for his services, and there will be no shortage of interest from Europe's biggest and best clubs. Born and raised in Naples, his childhood offers a glimpse into the strong character who withstood criticism during his teenage years, and also the strength to stand up for his own interests.
Still just 21, every leading club will have an interest in Donnarumma. Traditionally, goalkeepers mature and improve with age, and while he already has a wealth of club and international experience, this is in direct contrast to his years. It is frightening to think that he will only get better in the coming years, and he is a player destined for greatness.
Age is on Donnarumma's side
Manchester United's David de Gea turns 30 later this year, and Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich is 34. At Real Madrid and Barcelona, Thibaut Courtois and Marc-André ter Stegen are both 28. Manchester City's Ederson will be 27 this summer, the same age as Atlético Madrid's Jan Oblak and Liverpool's Alisson Becker, who will be 28 in October.
In comparison with his peers, it is clear from the above that Donnarumma has an incredible age advantage over the current best goalkeepers in the business. Even Chelsea's highly-rated Kepa Arrizabalaga will be 26 later this year, yet Donnarumma only celebrated his 21st birthday back in February. Even his youngest rivals will be looking over their shoulders.
The weight of history
With plans to rebuild the San Siro sitting behind a project to restore AC Milan's status in the European and world game, Donnarumma is seen as a key foundation in ensuring the club build from a position of strength on the field as work begins off it.
However, the long-term vision will not match his own short-term ambition, and his emergence has come at the wrong time for both parties.
But while Donnarumma's exit appears inevitable, it seems that Pioli will be following close behind. The history of AC Milan is bigger than the current club, and the weight and pressure of expectancy from the Curva Sud does not allow for periods of transition. The standard was set by the great teams of the past, a history that makes the present unacceptable.
From the defensive brilliance of Paulo Maldini and Franco Baresi to the goalscoring exploits of Gunnar Nordahl and Gianni Rivera before them, legendary names haunt the corridors of San Siro.
However, reaching the same heights of domestic and European dominance has never felt further away from reality as the current side limp their way through the remaining games of a season to forget.
Even Pioli himself must find it difficult to occupy the same place as Nereo Rocco, Fabio Capello and Arrigo Sacchi once stood, performing against comparisons of those that delivered consistent success. For years, Silvio Berlusconi was the driving force behind everything at the club, and while controversial, his control and ambition was a defining factor of his leadership.
The harsh reality
In previous years, a player like Donnarumma would not have been allowed to leave San Siro. His talent and potential are already proven, and the AC Milan of old would have met any financial demand to ensure that he remained committed to the club.
But these are different times, and losing Donnarumma will serve to only confirm their fallen status. As a name, AC Milan belong with the elite of the European game, and Donnarumma's career is heading along similar lines.
While he has made his name at AC Milan, he will not maximise his future if he chooses to stay there, and the opportunity to be the very best will pass him by if he does not move on. The situation is very much a reality check for both parties.
Published 13 Jun 2020, 17:58 IST