11 May 2013

Milan On The Rise

by Danny Grant

With every ESPN broadcast of an AC Milan match since January, viewers have been gratefully informed of the Italian club's "turnaround".

Commentators repeatedly laud the fact the once 15th-placed Serie A giants currently reside comfortably in third place, and never fail to use as many superlatives as possible in waxing lyrical about just how dramatic the club's fall to the basement the team's plummet was, and how equally remarkable its ascent to the top was.

As clich├ęd as this observation is, due to the clout the Rossoneri have in the world of football, while faithful fans may get tired of the repetition of it ad-nauseum, it is also quite understandable how much it has been highlighted.

Looking back to last summer and it really is rare to see one of the world's marquee clubs (arguably Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United stand alone) experiencing such an overhaul in such a short space of time. While Alan Hansen will forever go down in folklore for saying nothing could be won with kids when observing the early-90's crop of Man Utd youngsters who went on to clinch that season's league title, the Old Trafford side nevertheless did have a booming clutch of young players ready to break through - and it took a superb (and recently retired) manager like Sir Alex Ferguson to see the quality of the likes of Butt, Giggs, Beckham, Scholes et al. Milan, on the other hand, did not have a fantastic young collection of eager things ready to break through, so the exodus of the entire first team at Milanello in 2012 was something quite stark. 

Let us take a look at the quality of player the San Siro outfit lost. In sales the club's two star performers, Brazilian Thiago Silva and Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both departed for a king's ransom to rich Parisian side PSG. If that was not bad enough for Milan, the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Filippo Inzaghi, Mark Van Bommel, Gianluca Zambrotta, Andrea Pirlo, Antonio Cassano, Urby Emmanuelson, Alberto Aquilani, Alexander Merkel, Djamel Mesbah, and Maxi Lopez all said their goodbyes at the Curva Sud and Associazone Calcio Milan saw its squad being thoroughly culled as a result.

Very, very few teams on earth could quite simply cope with losing a group of players as good as these all at once, and the players brought in to cope with the loss did not quite stroke the imagination as much as supporters had hoped. The main incomings were Nigel De Jong, Bojan Krkic, Kevin Constant, M'Baye Niang, Gianpaolo Pazzini, Cristian Zapata and Riccardo Montolivo.

There would be no lie in suggesting a fair few of these are very good players, but none inspired supporters as adequate replacements for superstars like Nesta, Seedorf, Ibrahimovic and Silva.
Consequently it was a completely new-look AC Milan who took the field at the Meazza for the club's opening Serie A match of the 2012/2013 season against recently-promoted Sampdoria. 

With a great deal of pressure on the Rossoneri's effectively rebuilt squad, there was none on the visitors and it did not take a genius to see a surprise on the cards. Blucerchiati's Andrea Costa duly obliged on 58 minutes and the home side crashed to a predictable defeat as a result of a horrific display. With a poor attendance buoyed by the gravity of events that summer window, the atmosphere at the San Siro was reflective of the dreadful play on display.

Results did not improve with any urgency - indeed the Rossoneri slumped to six defeats (in all competitions) leading to that fall to fifth from bottom. The one shining light of a truly dire season so far was the form of young Stephan El-Shaarawy, a then 18-year old Italian striker signed for €10million on co-ownership with Genoa the previous season. His goals stopped the Milanese from total annihilation in the league and he nigh-on carried the club on his young shoulders alone.

The turning point for Milan's season arrived in Naples. On the back of another humbling, this time at home to Fiorentina, Milan travelled to the Stadio San Paolo to face the in-form Napoli spearheaded by the league's best striker Edinson Cavani. 2-0 down inside 30 minutes it looked like the Red & Blacks' season was going to suffer another miserable evening, but for a stunning curling drive from El-Shaarawy against the run of play offering hope on the 44th minute. He did it again in the second half as a result of the first sign that season of urgency, belief, effort, and sheer grit on the part of the visitors.

Milan did not leave with all three points, but the solitary one they departed with felt like three and something had changed. The fightback had finally started and a successive run of wins soon followed, including a gargantuan victory over champions and current league-leaders Juventus. Zenit St Petersburg did manage to take all three points at the San Siro in the Champions League and Roma hosted Milan to a pitiful 4-2 defeat in the country's capital in the final Serie A fixture of the calendar year, but these blips aside, 2012 ended overall in staggeringly better fashion to how the season had started.

With January looming Milan were rising back up the table, and when Mario Balotelli signed on the dotted line in January's transfer window, it simply invigorated the whole club. On the up as it was, this was the perfect way to compound that improvement - the signing of a devoted Milan fan as Mario is, while signing a potentially world-class player. 

Hopes were that he could cut out his 'bad-boy' nonsense from the English Premier League and concentrate on football back in his homeland. Those hopes were spot on, and while you cannot take all his crazy temperament away, the Mario Balotelli in Italy has scored 10 in 11 games and looks every inch worth the £20million price tag.

Sadly Balotelli was cup-tied so could not feature for his new side in the CL, but when the Catalonian giants Barcelona came to Italy no one gave the home side a hope, particularly without their new signing able to play.

Manager Massimiliano Allegri's tactics proved he was not even needed - Milan defended like heroes, broke when needed and shocked the football world winning 2-0. It was the result of the season, and the performance. The return leg was pretty awful but the home leg had made everything just that bit better.

Today we look at the table and Milan, after briefly flirting with second, are comfortably third. The third CL spot is all but secured and there is a far better feeling around Milanello than there was last summer when the exodus crushed spirit, morale, and squad depth.

With some genuinely marquee players in the team like Montolivo (who has had, after a slow start, a remarkable season), Kevin-Prince Boateng (an integral fulcrum up-front) and the aforementioned genius of Mad Mario, Milan have a real chance of regaining the Scudetto next season. There are weaker areas on the pitch and they will require addressing, but there is a lot to look forward to for Rossoneri faithful.

It certainly did not look that way six months ago.

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