While Andrea Pirlo is currently the epitome of the modern midfield creator, people often forget that fellow Italian international Demetrio Albertini was delivering equally exceptional performances over two decades ago as AC Milan were brushing teams aside in Serie A and Europe.
In a side containing the likes of Dutch trio Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, it is understandable that the subtle efficiency at which Albertini dictated operations can get lost in the euphoria surrounding the attacking talents of team-mates.
That he remained fundamental to the Rossoneri’s success for over a decade was evidence of his importance to the side and legendary status with the club.
Albertini’s vision was equally as impressive as his ability to find his targets with pinpoint accuracy. Like Xabi Alonso for Real Madrid and Spain currently, the Italian could instantly launch an attack from a perfectly weighted, arrow like, pass across the pitch. Few of his generation could match what the Italian offered Milan, that he made it look so effortless made it even more extraordinary.
Operating from a deep lying position did not restrict his attacking contribution and, whilst never prolific, many of his goals would be outstanding long range strikes either from open play or set-piece. Add to that, Albertini possessed a ferocious shot and ability to execute curling free-kicks with astounding accuracy.
Graduating from the Milan youth system, Albertini made his Serie A debut on 15 January 1989 at the tender age of 17. In that match he helped the side overcome Como 4-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza. However, over the next three years the young midfielder would make just one further league appearance.
Two Coppa Italia outings followed before being loaned to Serie B side Padova for the remainder of the 1990-91 season. Padova finally have Albertini the playing time he craved.
The young Italian flourished and although the Biancoscudati fell just two points short of promotion, the midfielder had shown incoming Milan coach Fabio Capello he could replace the ageing Carlo Ancelotti.
Albertini grabbed the opportunity with both hands and never looked back. He made 28 appearances as they captured the Serie A title in 1991-92 and became a fixture in the first team. Albertini went on to help the Rossoneri win two more Scudetti and reach three consecutive Champions League finals.
That they won just one of those three finals, against Barcelona in 1994, unfortunately does not do justice to how strong that Milan side were. With Albertini pulling the strings, they outplayed Marseille the previous year only to lose 1-0 and suffered defeat by the same score in 1995 against Ajax.
His breakthrough campaign brought international recognition, and he debuted with the Azzurri in December 1991 in a 2-0 win over Cyprus. However, despite winning 79 caps for his country, six as captain, he became part of a generation that seemed destined never to achieve the success their collective talents deserved.
A fixture in the Azzurri side, Albertini was closely connected to failures during a decade with Italy. His first World Cup in 1994 ended in a penalty shoot-out defeat to Brazil in the final and four years later he had a spot-kick saved by France’s Fabien Barthez as Italy exited at the quarterfinal stage.
Italy fared little better in continental competition when a disastrous campaign during the 1996 European Championships saw them fail to qualify from their group. In the 2000 final, Italy defeated 2-1 by France after surrendering a one goal lead in the fourth minute of injury time.
While his talent deserved one last chance with the Azzurri, the 30-year-old was denied the opportunity to compete at the World Cup in 2002 after an Achilles tendon injury, sustained against Juventus, ruled him out of the tournament.
That incident meant his last match in Azzurri colours became a substitute appearance versus England in March 2002. Coincidentally, that year his heir apparent Pirlo made his Italian debut, and Albertini made underwhelming end to his international career.
Throughout that period of international disappointment, Albertini continued to excel with Milan winning two more Scudetti in 1996 and 1999. Finally, after 406 appearances and 28 goals in all competitions, the midfielder departed the Rossoneri in 2002.
After a season in Spain with Atletico Madrid he returned to Italy to join Roberto Mancini’s Lazio, helping the club secure European qualification and complete his collection of domestic trophies by winning the Coppa Italia. Though he only made a 15 minute cameo appearance in the final. However, at 33-years-old he could no longer play as regularly as he once had.
The following season Albertini returned north to join Atalanta only to struggle to influence a side scrapping for Serie A survival. Although he had already departed before their relegation, it was an unfortunate end to his Serie A career.
Albertini was afforded a moderately triumphant farewell by Barcelona coach Rijkaard, the man he had partnered during those early years at Milan. Convinced to join the Dutchman in Spain, he provided crucial experience to the side despite playing just six times. Albertini ended his career helping the Catalan club secure a first La Liga title in six years and with that, ended a highly successful football career.
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