With the exit of Maldini and Kaka in the summer before the start of the season 2009-10, this year was always going to be the year in which Milan starts its resurrection. A new manager at the helm and in spite of an ageing squad coupled with injuries which engulfed most of its players, Milan ended a roller-coaster of a season without any silverware but a consolation direct entry into the next year’s UEFA Champions League. Here is a look at the ups and downs of the Italian club which shaped their season.
All was lost before it began
Leonardo was handed over the reigns of A.C. Milan after Carlo Ancelloti left for Chelsea in the summer of 2009. One saw a vulnerable Milan stepping onto the field this season, as for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century they were without their legendary captain Paolo Maldini. The most inspirational figure in the Milan dressing room had finally called it a day. Before Milan could even recover from the fact that their most beloved son has hung up his boots another blow came their way. Real Madrid had successfully carried out a major coup and signed Brazilian Kaka for a then record fee of 62 million pounds in the same summer. The Brazilian never wanted to leave the Italian club and had earlier cited his interest in leading the Rossoneri as well, but the debt on the club had forced the management to accept Madrid’s offer.
The departure of these two names meant that A.C. Milan would never be the same again. Leonardo would have a tough job up his sleeves considering the fact that their arch rivals Inter Milan had won four back to back Scudetto and were playing in a league of its own. Nor would he have the likes of iconic Maldini or the poster boy Kaka to look for inspiration for his ageing squad.
First half- An unconvincing beginning
Leonardo’s stint as a manager with is former club didn’t start on a good note as the Lombardy side lost all its matches in the pre-season world football challenge in the month of July. Their Serie A campaign started on a disastrous note as they were humbled 0-4 at home by the Nerazzurri in the “Derby della Madonnina” in only their second match of the season. A string of unconvincing performances in the next two months which included a home defeat to FC Zurich in the group stages of the UEFA champions league and below par performances against Udinese, Bari and Atlanta in the local league saw the red and blacks drop down to the bottom half of the table in the Serie A.
Il capitano vs Il capitano
There was pressure growing on Leonardo and rumors of his early exit were doing rounds as early as the second month in charge at The San Siro. The only saving grace for Milan at this time was when they scripted a stunning victory over Real Madrid in a five goal thriller at the Santiago Bernabéu. A champions league game which was decided just two minutes from time saw Milan coming back from one goal down to hand the flamboyant home team a defeat by two goals to three. This famous win initiated an eleven game undefeated streak for the Rossoneri in all competitions which was only halted by a 0-2 away defeat to Palermo in the last match before Christmas break. This fine run came as a breath of fresh air for the Milanese club and saw them climb to a respectable second place in the league before the January transfer window and with that silenced the critics of Milan’s Brazilian manager for good.
Second half- Running out of breath
Beckham returned in January to add a lot of pedigree to the midfield. Arrival of the former English captain opened the floodgates and saw Milan score as much as fourteen goals in four matches which included a 0-3 away win over Juventus. Coupled with a slow start by their inter-city rivals in the second half of the season Milan emerged as major threat for Jose Mourinho’s side.
The second part of the Milan derby was very crucial for the race at the top and to stop Inter Milan from lifting up an unprecedented fifth consecutive title. Milan went into the game on a high but were quickly brought down to earth by their old foes. A 2-0 defeat by a nine men Inter was a slap on the face of the Rossoneri and it showcased the flagrant differences between the two Milanese clubs. This loss halted the second half Milan juggernaut.
Where it all starting crumbling..
In the Champions League, Milan had managed to scrape through to the knockout stages but they had a daunting task ahead of them with the English champions Manchester United slated to be their next opponent. History was on the side of the Italian club as they had never been knocked out of the elite European tournament by Manchester United. But this time Sir Alex Ferguson came to San Siro to set the record straight once and for all. A couple of headers courtesy Wayne Rooney resulted in handing Milan a first ever home soil defeat against the English champions. Seedorf got a late goal to keep the Italians still in the hunt and gave a respectable read to the scoreline at the end of their first leg (Milan 2-3 Manchester United).
Rooney’s four goals over two legs proved to be Milan’s Nemesis
Milan quickly brushed aside the disappointment of an embarrassing Champions league defeat and went about doing their business in the Italian league, getting closer and closer to the top of the table.
They had a remote chance of qualifying for the quarters of the Champions league when an injury prone Milan side traveled to England in March. But after ninety minutes of humiliation which saw four goals going past Christian Abbiati including another brace from Rooney, which overshadowed the return of Beckham to the theater of dreams, Milan was shown the door for the first time by Manchester United in an European tournament.
Meanwhile, the battle for Scudetto was heating up and a win over Napoli would have put Leonardo’s men at the top for the first time. But it seemed that Milan had failed to recover from the defeat at Old Trafford and only managed a draw against Napoli and with that had squandered a golden opportunity to go past Inter. What added salt into their wounds was an injury to Pato who was making a return with this game.
Injuries to its key players and fielding an ageing squad day in and day out had taken its toll on Milan and they managed to get just six points out of seven games from mid March to April end which included two defeats to Sampdoria and Palermo respectively. By the time April ended they were well and truely out of the race for the championship.
Milan went into the month of May with their manager’s exit a certainty. This did not discourage them from achieving their aim of an automatic qualification spot for next year’s Champions league and before their final home fixture against Juventus the Rossoneri made sure that the third spot is sealed by them.
Irrespective of that fact that he was handed a sqaud comprising of old war horses and was given no transfer market budget Leonardo made sure that Milan finished the season at a respectable position. The way this first time manager conducted himself on the sidelines is a lesson for many established names. But another trophy less season for a club as big as Milan resulted in a fall out between owner Berlusconi and Leonardo and it ultimately paved way for his exit.
A Happy Ending: Grazie Leo
Leonardo’s exit was confirmed before Milan took on the mighty Juventus and his team gave a fitting farewell to their manager shredding an already bruised and toothless Juventus 3-0 at the San Siro on the last night of their campaign. It was heartening to see the way in which Antonini celebrated his first goal in Milan colors by thumping one past Buffon and then running up to Leonardo along with the entire squad. It speaks volumes about the respect which the Brazilian commanded.
Even the fans were against his departure. Chants and banners with “Don’t go Leo” filled the stands. Ultras section showed anger against Berlusconi’s decision with a huge banner saying “Presidente bocciato: assente ingiustificato” which means “President rejected: Absent Without Leave”.
A look into the future
With the departure of some of the senior members from the squad – Nelson Dida and Giuseppe Favalli, the average age of the squad has reduced considerably but at the same time some able reinforcements have to be brought in the team.
Fininvest, Berlusconi’s media group which owns A.C. Milan has already made it clear that no extravagant signings will be done by them in the summer. A dormant transfer window also rules out all the chances of the arrival of the Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko at San Siro.
After Van Basten turned down the offer for top job, the former defender duo of Filippo Galli, Milan Youth Sector Director and Mauro Tassotti are tipped to be the replacements of Leonardo as the joint managers of the senior squad. If Galli makes it to the manager post then one thing is assured that quite a few players would be making it to the senior team from their Primavera squad.
Youth is what Milan desperately needs and inclusion of young Italians who are waiting in the wings of their youth squad is the best that can happen to the club.
Lets hope that the former defenders if and when they come can take this Italian club to the top of the European football – a position where it truely belongs.