With Atletico Madrid just three games away from an unprecedented League and Champions League double, the footballing world has been quick to heap praise on their quirky band of players. From Thibaut Courtois in goal to the defensive partnership of Diego Godin and Miranda, then Koke and finally Diego Costa, most of the plaudits have been shared among the team’s bigger stars.
But perhaps their most important player of all is also the one who leads his team into battle every week. Gabi Fernandez has had a chequered career. He started as a youth player for Los Colchoneros but struggled to make a mark on the first team after his promotion. Eventually he was sold to Real Zaragoza, where he endured relegation, enjoyed promotion and had the most prolific season of his career with 11 goals in 2010-2011.
He would return to his hometown club the next year and form an impressive partnership with fellow academy player Mario Suarez in the centre of the pitch. Diego Simeone named him captain for the 2012-2013 campaign and he’s not looked back since.
Gabi is a tidy and composed player in the same vein as Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. In fact, judging on this season alone it’s hard to pick between the three. Busquets has been underwhelming at times and a tad error prone, while Alonso, though still an important cog in the Real Madrid machine, has shown signs of age creeping up on him as well.
Gabi on the other hand has been a model of consistency at the heart of an Atletico team on the precipice of greatness. Even more impressive is the fact that he’s had to do it without his partner Suarez for a significant portion of the season after he succumbed to a knee ligament injury.
The skipper hasn’t missed a beat regardless of his midfield partners in Tiago Mendes or Koke. He’s been the constant, providing stability and leadership to a team that’s dealing with more pressure than they are accustomed.
However, despite his performances this season, Gabi’s chances of making the Spain squad are thin. At 31-years-old this is likely his last chance of playing in a World Cup but Spain are innumerably stacked in the defensive midfield position and Gabi has never won a senior cap to this date, though he did amass 19 with the youth team over a decade ago.
Del Bosque is unlikely to cause such a major shakeup, especially with so many younger midfielders who would greatly benefit from going to Brazil. Gabi’s in the unfortunate position of peaking at the wrong time in his career, and Del Bosque’s forthcoming squad selection is likely to prove that.
But Gabi shouldn’t hang his head. It’s been a fantastic season and he’s played a major role. And if he can continue on this trajectory, despite his age, he could be in with a shout for the European Championships in two years’ time.