A little more than a week back, A.C Milan were ousted from the Champions League in the round of 16 courtesy the defending English champions Manchester United; thereby ending their woeful European campaign this season.
Milan returned to the top flight of European football this season but with the protagonists of their European return all leaving – Maldini hanging up his boots and Kaka sold to Madrid – and a new manager Leonardo in charge, European glory looked far fetched for the Italian giants.
An embarrassing defeat at Old Trafford
Pitted against Marseille, Zurich and the flamboyant Madrid, the Rossoneri were drawn in an easy group and were favourites to advance. The Italian club eventually advanced to the next round but only after putting a below par performance in the group stage in which they failed to win even a single home game picking up just two points at the San Siro.
After a hard fought away win against Marseille, a shocking one goal loss to F.C Zurich showcased the fact that it would be difficult for Milan to emulate their past European success this time around.
When the Rossoneri traveled to take on Madrid, they were not expected to return with even a single point. However, it turned out to be the highlight of Milan’s Champions league when they pulled of a sensational 2-3 away win at the Bernabéu.
The character shown by the red and blacks to come from a goal down to secure three crucial points reminded many of their past European heroics but all such thoughts were put to rest by the team itself when they came up with timid on field performances in the remaining three matches which all ended at parity. With just two wins and an unconvincing display, Leonardo’s men scrapped through the group stage behind the Los Blancos.
In December, fixtures for the Champions League knockout stages were drawn and Milan was scheduled to take on Manchester United in what was one of the ties of the round. Il Diavolo were slated to play host to the Red Devils for the first leg.
Poor form and the pressure to hold on to a hundred percent past record against Manchester in the knockout stage of the elite European cup made sure that Milan had their back against the walls.
Milan stepped onto the field with an attacking mindset and three strikers upfront in Huntelaar and the Brazilian duo of Pato and Ronaldinho. This strategy of Leonardo paid off and Milan were ahead in just the third minute thanks to the pony tailed Brazilian.
Missed chances came to haunt the home team as the game progressed when a freak goal from Scholes helped in leveling scores before half-time. It was a one man show for the next forty five minutes. Wayne Rooney picked up a brace and with that United ended up picking a memorable 2-3 away win— their first ever over the Rossoneri in Italy and buried the ghost of their San Siro past.
A late second goal by Seedorf had given them a ray of hope but it was always going to be difficult for the Lombardy side to make up for three away goals suffered in mid February but a fight was definitely expected from them knowing their stature in European football.
Can Leonardo’s men be crowned Italian champions?
Milan came into the second leg on a good form with a seven match undefeated Serie A streak behind them. The bosses at the helm of the Italian side were optimistic, but everyone knew that they were hoping against hope. A late injury to Nesta didn’t help the cause of Milan who were already missing their star striker Pato.
The Football world was in for a shock, as the ninety minutes at Old Trafford saw one of the weakest performances by Milan ever on the football pitch. After suffering an embarrassment at the San Siro they were humiliated in Manchester thanks to a 4-0 mauling against the Red Devils with Rooney at the forefront again.
‘Boy Wayne’ started of from where he left at the San Siro and ended up putting the round thing past Abbiati twice again. Park and Fletcher joined in the party and handed Milan one of their worst defeats in Europe and helped United get a sort of monkey off their back after they were able to get the better of Milan for the first time in the knockout stage.
A feeble display in Europe leaves Milan with the Scudetto as their only hope for any silverware this season. Last weekend, with Inter losing and Roma managing only a draw saw Milan make it a two horse race for the Serie A. Only a single point separates the Rossoneri from the table topping Nerazzurris, after they picked up a late 1-0 win over Chievo.
With Jose’s men potentially distracted by the Champions league, an exit from the same competition can prove to be a blessing in disguise for Leonardo’s hopes of winning the Serie A.
Historically, Milan has always performed better than Inter in the second half of the season. On the other hand, freak injuries to key players is giving Leonardo some sleepless nights but there is still hope in Milan; hope that Milan will be able to put behind their dismal European show and will able lift up their nineteenth Serie A title.
As long as the manager continues playing attacking football there is a strong possibility that one might see Ambrosini lift that prestigious Serie A trophy after all.