Milan began the 2011-12 season with twin objectives of advancing beyond the 2nd round of Champions League and to retain the Scudetto won after 8 years. There were the minor objectives of doing better in the Cup competitions, especially with the Super Coppa Italiana, scheduled in China at the beginning of the season. In the end, they ended up achieving only one of those aims, and barely so – going one round beyond the second round of Champions League.
The Scudetto was lost to a Juventus team that went unbeaten through the season and it was the Bianconeri who ousted Milan from the Coppa Italia semi-finals, albeit after extra time was required to resolve the tie. Milan did win the Super Coppa, to claim the first title of the season, but then it was scant consolation, when it was perceived that no more trophies would come in after August.
They say the morning shows the day. But you have to read the morning right.
Most Milanisti were over the moon, to see their team beat their two closest challengers for the Scudetto – Inter (in the Super Coppa Italiana) and Juventus (in the Trofeo Berlusconi). One player who shone in both those games was Kevin-Prince Boateng. Playing in his trequartista role, Prince showed composure and skill to score in both the games and make Milan a firm candidate for retaining the Scudetto. Those victories over their direct rivals, albeit at a pre-season stage, were a morale booster and one would never have thought that Milan would fail to beat those teams even once in the 4 encounters in the league.
The real signs that things were to go pear shaped was when the first of the injuries stuck Milan as Mathieu Flamini, one of the squad players, that Allegri depended on, was ruled out for 8 months with a muscle tear in the Trofeo Berlusconi match. A modern day Nostradamus would have identified this as a key (and emblematic) event rather than the victories themselves.
The season itself started horribly with 5 points off 5 games. But slowly with Ibrahimovic returning to form, and the midfielders scoring freely, Milan started climbing the rungs. By the end of the 2011, Milan, Lazio and Juventus had pulled away and by January, Milan and Juventus continued their epic two-way battle, till it was decided for good in the penultimate round of games. In coming second, Milan won only 2 points less than last year and this further undermines how big a season Juventus had, rather than Milan’s own poor form.
The Champions League featured 4 games against Barcelona – 2 in the group stages and 2 in the quarterfinals. These 4 games highlighted that Milan still have some distance to go to really trouble the top dogs of Spain, England and Germany. To be honest, manager Massimiliano Allegri had said after their most convincing win of the season – the 4-0 rout of Arsenal, “My plan is to win the Champions League with Milan in the next two years. If we are lucky we can make the final this year but Real Madrid and Barcelona are a step above everyone“.
One could echo the luck factor which Allegri mentioned, and which eventual Champions League champions, Chelsea evidently boasted in all their knockout ties, did elude Milan at crucial junctures in the European journey. They went to Arsenal for the away tie with only 4 senior midfielders, played both rounds of quarterfinals without the best defender in the world – Thiago Silva, got called for crucial (and one of them being dubious) penalties at most inopportune moment – just before the half time in both their knockout away ties. In the end, Milan could not beat a single team, both home and away. (Just for comparison, winners Chelsea could beat only 1 team both home and away – Benfica)
The Coppa Italia has been deemed as glorious practice matches by a long line of Rossoneri teams, and this time too, there was no difference. Finally when the two-legged semi final round came and Juventus came calling, Milan tried to sit up and make a match of it. Only by then the whole injury fracas had robbed the team of half of its starters. The rest either were making returns and were gingerly or were totally knackered.
Even though in the second leg, Milan became the first (and only) team to beat Juventus over 90 minutes in their own stadium, this season, it was not enough as an extra time goal from Mirko Vucinic, sealed their fate. This was a second successive exit at the semi final stage of the Coppa and without a doubt, the attitude towards Coppa won’t change unless, one were not in the running for other more prestigious honours.
What started as a freak injury to Flamini in the Trofeo Berlusconi was only a mild precursor to the season. Along with Gattuso and Cassano, this was one of those injuries, which kept the player out for more than 6 months. Of course it was different for Gattuso and Cassano, for whom their entire career and life respectively was at stake. That they ultimately both returned to play some part in Milan’s Scudetto fight is a testament to their spirit.
The Italian daily, Gazzetta had listed out the number of matches that were missed by the injured players for the respective teams and Milan had comfortably topped that list far outstripping all its rivals. Once again, in stark contrast, Juventus had the fewest such missed games from injuries. At one point it became farcical as up to 13 players, most of them first team players were unavailable due to injury.
Many reasons have been attributed for the cause of those injuries – Allegri’s physical conditioning, San Siro pitch, the resident physicians at Milanello but at the end of it, each had a little role to play but mostly it was a freakish season. If one were to sit back and count, among the regular players, only two – Urby Emanuelson and Antonio Nocerino did not miss a single game due to injury. Everyone else, and that means everyone, had one or more games missed due to injury. They ranged from the relapsing kind (Pato), mysterious non-football kind (Boateng), foot getting stuck in the San Siro mud kind (Merkel), terrible miscalculation of injury threats kind (Thiago Silva) and others.
Two players that Milan missed most were Thiago Silva and Antonio Cassano. If Ibrahimovic was scoring the goals that lifted Milan from the doldrums of 5 points in 5 matches, it was Cassano who was providing the assists. Despite missing more than 6 months, Cassano’s 10 assists for the season, is the highest in Milan and fourth highest in the league. A complete season of Cassano with Ibrahimovic, would probably have secured the Scudetto.
However despite losing Cassano in October 2011, Milan still were comfortably in the lead, 4 points ahead of Juventus, when Max Allegri decided to risk Thiago Silva against Roma, despite him not being fully fit. Within 10 minutes of the match, he had hobbled off, not to return in the season again. In the next six matches, Milan would keep only 2 clean sheets, crash out of Champions League to Barcelona, and squander 7 points in the league. That was the decisive Scudetto finish and Thiago Silva’s absence would probably be the most crucial cog in it.
The most frustrating injury situation though was for Alexandre Pato. He began the season with a bang – a goal within 24 seconds at the Nou Camp in the Champions League opener. Never after those 24 seconds, would the season be even half as joyful for him and his fans as he would get injured, spend time out, come back and just on return, get injured again. Milan doctor, Jean Pierre Meersseman, resigned himself to resorting to prayers. One can only empathise with him as at 22, he sees his career stalled by such repetitive injuries. Milan considered selling him off in January to PSG, only for the President, Silvio Berlusconi to intervene.
Many Milanisti would like him to be sacrificed to get the funds to probably go for someone like Carlos Tevez. But Milan would do well to keep hold of him. Just like Milan seemed to have been cursed by the fitness gods in the season, Pato too is having a one of those years, where every time he touches a football, he crumbles. It is completely unreal and beggars belief. But just like, one hopes, so many injuries can’t repeat for a squad again, so would one hope that Pato will come back stronger and fitter.
Juventus had beaten Milan at the beginning of the season and again in the first leg of Coppa Italia, at San Siro. So when they met again in February in a top of the table clash, Milan had all to do. Only they were hamstrung by the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic due to suspension. Antonio Nocerino had given Milan the lead within 15 minutes and when Sulley Muntari, put the ball past Buffon from a corner, it seemed Milan had secured a lead, which would see them through.
But horror of horrors, the assistant referee did not spot that the ball had crossed the line twice, only for Buffon to pull it back both times. Juventus would ultimately even the match 1-1 from a late Alesandro Matri goal, but the defining picture of the match would be Buffon pulling back the ball at least one foot inside the goal line, with the assistant referee at the perfect position to judge the same.
Milan have cried foul ever since. There have been few more such incidents in crucial juncture of the season – a Robinho goal disallowed, after it too had crossed the line (though a far more marginal call) against Catania in a match Milan drew 1-1, a non-existent Ibrahimovic offside call when Milan were trailing Bologna 0-1 (ultimately drew 1-1), one can always make a list of such incidents.
Looking back, that goal (and a potential victory) would not have been enough to bridge the 4-point gap Juventus ultimately had on Milan. For a season, teams do get called for some favorable calls, some unfavorable. It was sheer bad luck that those calls happened in the business end of the season in the matches of prime importance.
What made it more rotten was that the team was fighting without most of its arsenal out injured, and such calls from the officials shatters the spirit of the fans, if not the players. That the team rallied round to stay in the hunt for the title, speaks volumes for themselves. Dwelling on the ghost goals and what-could-have-been only diminishes the effort and the fight that the team has displayed under extreme duress.
The final match of the season against Novara, was played at the backdrop of a second derby defeat and a Scudetto crowning for Juventus. Yet the Milan faithful turned up in numbers to salute a generation of Milan players who have defined the ethos of the club in the new millennium. Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi were the last of the old guards who personified the class of Milan for the last decade.
Throw in Gianluca Zambrotta and Mark van Bommel and you have got a set of players who never take a step back in the field of play. Losing that contingent together, losing that dressing room atmosphere simultaneously, losing that on-field magic at the moment of need, would definitely make one sentimental about the times past.
But all good things come to an end and even though one or two of these players (Nesta and van Bommel especially) could still have played on, they collectively decided to move on and open up the ground for a new batch of Rossoneri heroes.
In a final, magical display of their skill, Inzaghi, scored his 126th goal in his 300th official match for Milan, from a Seedorf through pass. Nesta ran half the ground to be the first to embrace Pippo after the goal. And Gattuso and Zambrotta, all of whom were making their final appearance, soon joined them.
The men may go. But their legends will endure.