The new season is almost upon us as the Serie A kicks off on August 27th. For a change, this time the defending champions will be the red side of Milan – yes, not the blue one! Last season, Milan brought in Massimiliano Allegri and with him, came a slew of new faces. Robinho, Ibrahimovic, Emanuelson and Van Bommel all joined Milan over the course of the season. The priority last season was to set the records straight in the League. And that was accomplished. Regional dominance needs to established first, and then only can one aim for Europe. With the Scudetto finally in the bag after seven long and agonizing years, Milan is slowly and steadily building a squad for the future; what they are passing through is a re-building phase. Gone are the days of Maldini-Nesta, gone are the days of Kaka-Seedorf, and gone are the days of Inzaghi-Shevchenko.
The Law of Nature states that change is inevitable. Slowly, the Milan old-guard is being replaced by a young breed of footballers who, like Allegri, are looking to win accolades and take Milan back to its rightful place as the biggest club in Europe. The re-building phase is almost over, even though a few signings here and there are still remaining. Milan’s pedigree on the European level is well-known, as they showed their old grit and determination when they met Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League.
Last time around, the first part of the season was a bit tricky for them, as they lost 3 games within December, which included a surprise early loss to Cesena in September. But Milan picked up their game in the next part of the season and eventually, slayed all before them. Call it luck or karma, Milan were somewhat helped by the managerial turmoil at Internazionale. Juventus too were a strong competitor, but they somehow lost the plot with injuries to key players at vital moments in their season.
Napoli, Udinese and Palermo were genuine threats last season, and in the current season, they have got even stronger. Roma have also been pretty active in the mercato, as they brought in Luis Enrique as their manager. Bojan Krkic, Gabriel Hienze, Erik Lamela and Marteen Stekelenburg have also joined, making them one of the teams to watch out for. While most of the other teams have been buying players left, right and centre, Milan have been pretty quiet, having signed two free players in the form of Taiwo and Mexes. With the transfer window closing almost a month later, Milan will reportedly add exactly one more player to their current roster.
If one casts a glance at the pre-season matches Milan have played so far, one will be amazed at the topsy-turvy nature of the results. Granted that players are a bit off-form and most of them have gained a few pounds, but pre-season is the time to shed those and get in shape for the new season. The first against Solbiatese Arno Calcio was so one-sided, that it ended 12-0 in favor of Milan. Seedorf scored from a free-kick after almost ages and that was the only positive take-away from that match.
Next came the Audi Cup, where Milan lost two straight matches on penalties – first against Bayern Munich and then, against Internacional. What was more shocking than the nature of loss was the lack of fitness and energy of the players. Milan’s midfield has been bereft of the genius of Pirlo, and it will take considerable time to find a suitable replacement. Seedorf can only pull through in few important matches, but not each and every one of them.
Redemption came their way recently as they threw away the string of losses, lifting their sixth SuperCoppa Italiana in China. What was sweeter about this victory was that it came at the cost of their most hated rival, Internazionale. But before one gets over-ecstatic, the match was by no means a cake-walk as Milan had to claw their way back, time and again. Linked with a move away from Inter, it was Sneijder’s free-kick that initially put Milan on the back-foot. In the midfield too, Milan were over-run and it seemed like déjà vu.
Inter’s newest acquisition, Ricky Alvarez caused few problems and unless Milan sort out their midfield mayhem soon, it will be a very difficult season for them. Even though Milan scored through Ibrahimovic first, and then Boateng, they cannot rely on the big Swede to always show them the way. One of the biggest plus points in the pre-season is that Ibra is in superb form, and if he continues like this, Milan won’t have any troubles. But, can he?
Milan have an upcoming friendly against Malmo FF, which will be a sort of homecoming for Ibra, having started his career there. Next in the list would be the TIM Trophy on 18th August and the Trofeo Luigi Berlusconi against Juventus on 21st August. Some sort of foundation has been laid as a result of the SuperCoppa victory, and it should propel Milan towards victory in the remaining pre-season matches.
Let’s have a look at the current squad. The goal-keeping position is more or less fixed with ‘Super Abbo‘ not only providing solidarity at the back but also a sense of calm. If he is to remain injury-free, Milan will not have to look at any other options. However, if such a situation should arise, Amelia and Roma are equally adept at making a strong presence beneath the bars.
Moving onto defenders, now. Currently, there are 10 players on Milan’s payroll, but among them only a few are ready for the first team. The most successful center-back duo of Nesta and Silva would be back once again. This duo was so irresistible last season that Milan only let in 24 goals. Nesta had been a bit injury-prone of late, but that is understandable given his age. In the full-backs department, there are a plethora of choices – starting with Abate on the right. One of the most developed players last season, Abate has more or less made the right-back position his own with his excellent performances week-in and week-out. It is actually on the left that Milan faces a dilemma, where Luca Antonini, Zambrotta and the newly-signed Taiwo can be played. Taiwo is an exciting talent, and if he fires from day one, Milan will never have trouble at the left-back position.
Since Nesta is a bit injury-prone, there is Yepes to cover for exactly such a situation. Mexes has also been bought from Roma to strengthen the defense. Yepes has a tendency to go forward at every opportunity and even though it is encouraging, it can sometimes come back to haunt Milan like in last year’s Champions League match against Tottenham. It remains to be seen how Mexes and Silva gel over the season as, in all probability, these two form the core of the defense for years to come. In addition to all these players, there is also the vastly-experienced pair of Oddo and Bonera, who can be called upon at any time during a match.
Looking at the midfield, one can only shudder. There is the experienced Van Bommel, who is usually deployed just in front of defense to form a protective shield. Gattuso, Flamini and Ambrosini usually play on the right side of midfield, with Gattuso often falling behind to support the defenders. Among these three, Flamini now has to take up the mantle of playing a more regular role. Last season, he was injured more often than not and even though Gattuso does fire up the tempo when he is on the field, but the fact is the Milan legend is nearing the twilight of his career.
Looking at the other side of the pitch, there is Emanuelson and the ever-lasting Seedorf. Emanuelson came in through the January transfer window and since he was not able to participate in Champions League fixtures, his exposure was limited only to the League. The Dutch maestro, Seedorf, has been playing the play-maker role ever since Kaka’s departure. Pirlo was a huge help, but now that he’s gone, Milan need to find another play-maker as soon as possible because Seedorf cannot be counted on to play each and every game of the grueling season. Boateng is another player who plays in midfield, but ever since Allegri played him as a trequartista, he has not fallen back to the midfield.
It is only in the strike zone that Milan can say for sure that they will bite, and bite hard! Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho have formed the attacking skeleton from where all goals emanate. Cassano, like Emanuelson, came in late, but has nicely settled in the Milan set-up. His eye for creating a goal for others is uncanny and if he continues in the same vein like the second half of last season, we can look for some pretty awesome fireworks.
Backing this quartet is the man who “was born in an offside position” – Pippo Inzaghi. Even though age has caught up with him, his determination to make a mark every time he steps on the field is well-known, both among his team-mates and more importantly, among the opposition. So much so, when last year Madrid played Milan, Mourinho was more worried about Inzaghi than any other player. And his brace in the same game goes to show that Mourinho’s fear was not unfounded. Being out with injury most of last season, Pippo is back and he is currently playing practice matches in Primavera. El Shaaraway came in at the beginning of this mercato and ever since, has generated the right kind of noises. His performance in the League will be tested this season, but the question on everyone’s mind is – can they step up?
Last season, Milan got off to a slow start, but eventually found their stride as the season wore on. This season, they are faced with a tough September and October. Lazio, Napoli and Udinese are waiting in September, whereas Juventus, Palermo, Parma and Roma are coming their way in October. With the initial games against the top teams in Italy, Milan will have to play out of their skins to escape through these two months unscratched.
A relatively quiet November and December follows for the players to rejuvenate. But the Champions League fixtures will be going on at that time, so it might turn out to be a mixed time. If Milan comes out of the first part of the season with least losses, they can consolidate that in the second part.
But this season is not only for Serie A; this is also the season when Milan will look to stamp their authority on the European front. Last season, Allegri built the core of the team bit by bit and now is the time to reap the benefits. But realistically speaking, Milan can hope to go as far as the semis of the Champions League, if the present roster continues. Should something really amazing happen over the course of this August, we all can look for a roller-coaster ride in Europe.
Internazionale awaits Milan in the New Year as the first Derby della Madonnina is on January 15th. After that, February and March will be a trying time for the Rossoneri as they have as many as nine games to play in the League alone. Add to that the potential Champions League fixtures, and the pressure increases further. The toughest month might prove to be April, where Milan play not three, not four, but as many as six matches! That looks like a daunting task, but Allegri will have an ace up his sleeves so that Milan can sail smoothly through tough times.
In a nutshell, Milan have all the ingredients to make this season an historic one. But all said and done, it will finally come down to the eleven players on the field and the one person shouting instructions outside it. Lifting the Champions League this season might be a bit far-fetched, but one can never count out the single most important factor in football – luck.
If Lady Luck decides to smile, then it will rain trophies at Milan and even if she doesn’t, Milan will fight tooth and nail like the way they can. Milan have the right mixture of youth and experience this season, and if the veterans can manage to incorporate their grit and fighting determination in the youngsters, there will be no stopping the red-and-black striped players. The pride and honor of wearing the Rossoneri jersey at the San Siro is reserved for a selected few, and the youngsters need to learn this from day one. Because this is not just any other club.
This is Milan. And this, is their time.