THT presents an in-depth preview of AC Milan’s 2013-14 season which is kicking off with a Champions League playoff fixture against PSV this midweek.
After winning the 18th league title a little over two years back, AC Milan were expected to hold on to the summit position for longer than they did. While there was some apprehension about maintaining that level of success without investing enough into reinforcements, very few would have predicted a downfall of these proportions in a matter of two seasons. The second and third finish in the next two league campaigns is not exactly indicating a ‘downfall’, but only those who follow Milan week in and week out know the team has overachieved for its strength during the last season and that the chance to play in the season’s Champions League was a matter of momentous brilliance rather than anything else. You’d have thought that with the Champions League football almost guaranteed for the next season, Milan shall definitely invest to find more depth in the squad. But the issues have hardly been addressed, much to the disappointment of the fans, and qualification to the Champions League group stages looks far from certain as of now.
Milan gear up to kick-start the new season with arguably the most important fixture of the season, at the very start itself facing PSV midweek for the first leg of the playoff. A decisive away goal could immensely turn things in Milan’s favour ahead of the second leg to be played at San Siro a week later. Should Milan fail to make it to a competition the club particularly prides itself for, the anguish and frustration among the fans shall know no limits. An away trip to Verona, sandwiched between the two-legged playoff, will be Milan’s first Serie A outing of the season and the result in Eindhoven will have a significant impact on the domestic performance, too.
In the three seasons of Massimiliano Allegri being in charge, Milan have inevitably failed to register a solid start in the league and should the trend continue, they will find it very difficult to keep pace with their direct rivals in Roma, Fiorentina and Napoli. The only realistic objective from the season is to retain a place in Europe and go past the first knockout round in the Champions League, hoping the draw remains kind enough. Defending champions Juventus are way out of Milan’s reach with their already handsome looking squad having been greatly bolstered after the arrival of two world class forwards. Clubs all around Serie A have had a busy transfer window so far and the league will be graced with the presence of some of the finest in business — on the down side, Milan are yet to find their “Mr. X” for the third season in running.
Squad Check & Transfer Activities
The squad in general has been considerably reshuffled if every single piece of transfer is taken into consideration, but it is important not to lose the context here. Much of these negligible deals involve selling and loaning out the fringe players – for the reasons ranging from the player not being deemed good enough to play for Milan in the future, to offering him more playing time at a club in need for cheaper talent in the market. The most notable departure is that of Massimo Ambrosini. The former skipper was offered an additional one year contract at the end of the previous season when an entire generation of players including Nesta and Seedorf called the curtains on their playing career at Milan.
However, the same favour was not to be extended at the end of the last season and it seems there was a verbal agreement in that regard well before the time came. Other than Ambrosini, Milan have lost a second defensive midfielder in Mathieu Flamini. The Frenchman did make some useful contribution in the latter half of the season, scoring some important goals, but his demands and Milan’s plans for his future were perhaps not the same. Flamini is unattached as of now and has been linked with a move back to his former club, Arsenal. Rodney Strasser was considered one of the brighter young talents during his years at the Milan academy, but once being promoted to the senior team, he has mainly spent his time juggling around the clubs, mainly in loan and co-ownership deals. With Milan exercising their move to buy the other half of Kevin Constant from Genoa, Strasser has been sold in return to the Rossoblu and this might prove to be a decisive move in his career.
Of the players who have been signed in an otherwise silent transfer window, Riccardo Saponara has attracted the maximum attention. Having had a successful season at Empoli, Saponara is already being touted as the answer to Milan’s lack of creativity in midfield. Comparisons with Kaka have already been drawn as he’s mostly expected to play in the same role that the Brazilian made his own during his legendary spell at the club. In Andrea Poli, Milan have signed a player who is an improvement over the current crop of midfielders in terms of passing ability. He’s done reasonably well during the pre-season game and mainly due to the lack of options, almost becomes an automatic selection. Bryan Cristante has been promoted to the first team and this can be his season to rise to the next level. He’s surely someone to keep the first choice midfielders on their toes and increase the internal competition, which is a positive sign. Urby Emanuelson too has returned after his loan spell at Fulham, but Galliani might look for some suitors before the window closes.
The defence has remained in a vulnerable shape ever since the departures of Nesta and Thiago Silva and is one area that needs to be greatly tightened up. Although Milan haven’t made any big signings here, the purchase of Christian Zapata after a year long loan spell from Villarreal is an important one. Zapata’s compatriot Jherson Vergara has been signed from Colombian outfit Deportes Quindio. The 18 year old had been impressive in patches during the pre-season but is unlikely to see much playing time straightaway. A loan move for him isn’t the unlikeliest option at this stage. Matias Silvestre has been signed for Inter mainly as a cover for the presently injured Daniele Bonera.
Milan’s attack looked in a pretty good shape at the end of the last season and, it can be argued, is the most balanced one in Serie A at the moment. Quite expectedly therefore, the club hasn’t spent too much on signings in this department. Andrea Petagna has been promoted from the academy and is one exciting talent to look forward to. However, Milan definitely need one attack minded midfielder who can play closer to the forwards and dictate the play near the box, forming a link between attack and midfield. Adem Ljajic, Keisuke Honda and Christian Eriksen have all been linked with a move, but so far Milan have failed to secure any of these players’ services. While Honda is pretty much expected to make a move in the winter with his contract expiring, the fans will definitely hope for the arrival of at least one of the other two. Perhaps a typical deadline day surprise from Galliani might be in store.
Milan had a fairly busy pre-season. Apart from playing in a few domestic games, they also participated in two international cups against some of the best teams in Europe. It all started with the 5-1 humiliation of the fourth division club, Pergolettese. Milan then played the TIM Trophy where, to everyone’s surprise, they lost to the newly promoted Sassuolo after beating Juventus on penalties in the first game. The alarm bells were rung for the first time owing to the poor showing in defence.
Milan then travelled to Spain to face Valencia for the first knock-out round game of the International Champions Cup. An impressive 1-2 win over the hosts was truly a confidence boosting one. Robinho found the back of the net after missing a penalty earlier on while Nigel De Jong announced his return in a grand fashion scoring a spectacular long-ranger. Before heading to USA for the rest of the tournament, Milan made a short trip to Germany to play the Audi Cup hosted by Bayern every year. In what turned out to be a rather comical goal-fest, Milan lost to Manchester City 5-3 in the eliminator. All eight goals were scored in the first half itself. Milan went on to beat Sao Paulo for an eventual third place finish in the tournament.
On their arrival to the US, the team was very well received and the excitement was visible among the club’s huge fan-base in America. The tour therefore was an eventful one from the marketing perspective, too. Milan played Chelsea in the semi-finals and in a rather disappointing show, lost 2-0 to the Londoners which pushed them a step down to contest for the third spot. Facing LA Galaxy, Milan registered a 2-0 win themselves this time courtesy goals from Balotelli and Niang. The pre-season concluded back home in Italy where Milan literally annihilated the Serie D unit Derthona with the final scoreline reading 11-0.
Formation & First Team
President Berlusconi had quite clearly asserted his dislike for the 4-3-3 formation that Milan played for the large part of the last season. Allegri’s argument of the lack of creative players to deploy 4-3-1-2 was a perfectly valid one, but again, despite doing little on his part to add the missing pieces to the squad, Berlusconi has insisted on reintroducing 4-3-1-2 and one might assume Allegri has already agreed to obligate in return to his job being offered at least a one year lease.
Christian Abbiati will continue to start as the first choice custodian in what could be his final season for Milan. His fitness is certainly not of the highest level but his instincts and positioning are still top notch. Mexes and Zapata will form the central defensive pairing in front of Abbiati after having had a decent season together. Milan’s problems in defending the set-pieces are very well known and one might just hope Tassoti will have done enough homework before going into the season. Between Abate, De Sciglio and Constant, the two fullback positions will be filled from time to time. Abate, being the senior most will be preferred for the right back slot unless injured, while De Sciglio will have to battle it out with Constant for the other flank. Both De Sciglio and Constant need to show more tactical alertness while defending whereas Abate needs to immensely improve his crossing abilities.
The newly appointed skipper Riccardo Montolivo will be the leader of the three-man midfield, and with the return of De Jong in the lineup, Montolivo is expected to have more influence in building up the attacking moves. Andrea Poli is the likeliest candidate for the third slot but he’ll face competition from Antonio Nocerino from time to time. There have been rumours of Nocerino’s transfer and one may not be surprised to see the Palermo man being shipped off to salvage a career that has gone downhill since his first season at Milan where he exploded under the influence of a force called Ibra. Sulley Muntari is also a strong contender to occupy the third slot in midfield, while one shouldn’t be surprised to see Cristante too being tried in that role.
If 4-3-1-2 is indeed to be brought back, Kevin Prince Boateng becomes the automatic first choice to play in the hole, despite that not being the Ghanaian’s preferred position on the field. However, Boateng has been linked with a number of clubs and should Milan successfully manage to land one of their three transfer targets in Honda, Ljajic and Eriksen, Boateng’s departure will be imminent. Moreover, with the formation allowing only two strikers to start, there’s doubt over Niang’s role too. The youngster had showed glimpses of what he’s capable of doing during the last season and rather than wasting his abilities, Milan might consider loaning him out for a season. Balotelli and El Shaarawy will naturally select themselves to play in the two spots up front, while Pazzini will be the first choice backup to the two. Milan have failed to find suitors for Robinho and have been forced to offer the Brazilian an entirely fresh contract. This being a World Cup year, one might expect Robinho to bring out his best in the opportunities presented his way. In the past, he has also played in the hole behind the strikers and his work-rate has been impressive.
Starting Lineup: Abbiati; Abate, Mexes, Zapata, De Sciglio; Montolivo, De Jong, Poli; Boateng; Balotelli, El Shaarawy
Although PSV will pose an immense challenge to overcome, Milan should do just about fine to make it to the Champions League – a tournament they’ve historically done well in. The competition on the domestic front has been intensified to levels that weren’t known a few seasons back and while that is not the greatest possible news for Milan, it also presents an opportunity to raise their own game to new levels. The fixture list in the first third of the season is relatively easier and capitalizing on that, Milan might be able to hold on to a position in the league’s top three. Anything beyond it is frankly unrealistic.
Milan haven’t been the biggest force in the Coppa Italia for some time now and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon. The fans too do not lose their sleep over the club’s lack of success in the domestic cup and the trend should continue. Unless Milan face a top-four team in the earlier stages, they should make it to the semis but that shall be about it.
Milan simply do not have the pedigree to compete against the top European clubs in the modern day, and while they might continue to shock the world like they did against Barcelona last season, those results will be few and far between.
Serie A: Third
Coppa Italia: Semi-Finals
Champions League: Round of 16