10 Reasons for AC Milan Fans to Be Optimistic This Season
It's been the worst home start to a season for AC Milan in 82 years—even President Silvio Berlusconi has never seen a worse one—so Milan fans would be forgiven for thinking it was all doom and gloom at the San Siro.
Two home games, two losses, no goals scored, jeering fans; where is the cause for optimism there?
And yet despite the fallout from the summer's big-name departures refusing to go away, it may still be too soon to despair.
It's always darkest before the dawn, and, while it may be a hard sell for those who've witnessed the two home games so far this year, in this article, we look at 10 reasons why Milan fans can still be optimistic for the season ahead.
1. Team in Transition
Losing so many players all at once was always going to be a major blow, and unless you've got the seemingly unlimited coffers of Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, it's simply not possible to sign enough replacements to smooth the transition.
In the summer of 2012, Milan lost Alessandro Nesta, Thiago Silva, Taye Taiwo, Mark Van Bommel, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Alberto Aquilani, Antonio Cassano, Filipe Inzaghi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic—almost an entire team.
It was never likely that in this financial climate, Milan would be able to suffer these losses easily, so it's hardly surprising that the current side hasn't immediately clicked.
But what the mass exodus does represent is a fresh start.
No longer will Milan's Champions League games be accompanied by the same tired "average age of Milan's team is over 30" cliché. Milan are now a young team.
So it will take time for those without experience to gain it, as well as the new signings to settle in.
2. Injury Crisis
An injury crisis is never something to be happy about, and the seemingly endemic nature of Milan's recurring problems is cause for serious concern. But it does at least mean that there's plenty more to come from Milan this term.
With new signing Riccardo Montolivo, Alexandre Pato and Robinho all absent through injury for the loss against Atalanta, and Kevin-Prince Boateng and Giampaulo Pazzini only just returned from their spells on the sidelines, the Rossoneri's difficulty in front of goal is somewhat mitigated.
All five of these are world-class players who can turn a game single-handedly, so, once fit, there's no reason to believe that the current home goal drought will continue.
3. Alexandre Pato
For all the deserved adulation Ibrahimovic received at Milan, there was always a feeling that his presence in the side left little room for Pato. Indeed, Pato's most memorable moment of last season was his first-minute goal against Barcelona at the Camp Nou, a game for which Ibrahimovic was absent.
With the mercurial Swede having departed, Pato now has a chance to claim the spotlight.
Since his goalscoring debut in the 5-2 demolition of Napoli in 2008, it's been obvious that Pato is extraordinarily talented. In that game, he was accompanied by fellow Brazilian superstars Ronaldo and Kaka, so there was less pressure on "the duck," but now, he is the man to whom Rossoneri fans will look for inspiration.
Pato, perhaps more than any other player, has been the victim of whatever problems are causing the team's constant injuries, but this is not his only issue.
In a winning side, where chances are easy to come by, he's always been a clinical finisher with electric pace, but his work rate and decision-making are often suspect.
If and when he returns, he can stay clear of injury while improving these two aspects of his game, he has the potential to be the breakout star of 2013 for the whole of Europe.
If not, at 23, he's still a valuable asset and Milan may be advised to cash in while they still can.
4. Improved Champions League Draw
I covered Milan's Champions League group in more detail here, and while it's true that all of the teams Milan will face could be a stumbling block for an already faltering Milan, there's no doubt that the Rossoneri have less to worry about than in recent years.
In the last two seasons, Milan have had to face Real Madrid and Barcelona in the first round proper of the tournament—on both occasions running the Spanish giants admirably close for first spot—but this year, there are no such daunting fixtures.
Knowing that their toughest game may be an away trip to St. Petersburg in October will be far less worrying for coach Massimiliano Allegri, and providing they can come through their first fixtures well, he should be able to rotate the squad a little for the mid-week clashes.
While only the most optimistic Milan fans would dare to dream that this year's team are capable of winning the tournament (although Chelsea's victory last year shows that there's hope for any team presuming their defence is resolute enough), not being too distracted by big European fixtures should help their Serie A form.
A good win against an average Anderlecht side on Tuesday would be a big confidence boost.
5. Better Than Last Year
Last year, Milan came within a whisker of retaining the Serie A title. With nine games of the season left, the Rossoneri had a four-point advantage over Juventus, but a poor run of form at the end of the season saw them miss out on the title by the same margin.
Despite Juventus' historic undefeated 38-game season, some fans will feel Milan should still have won Lo Scudetto having enjoyed a strong points lead after 29 games.
And yet this was achieved having had an even worse start than this year.
After three games in Serie A in 2011/12, Milan had only two points, whereas now they've gone one better with three.
It's hardly a grand points tally, but it shows that nothing is lost so early in the season. As Allegri himself put it: “How bad is the situation for Milan? We’ll, we’ve got one more point than at this stage last season...Last season we won very few head-to-heads with the other big clubs and did well against the smaller sides. Maybe this year it’ll be the other way round...” (via Football Italia).
6. Quick Turnaround
Similarly, it doesn't take much to change things.
Juventus have, annoyingly for Milan fans, continued where they left off last season, but cross-city rivals Inter had a pretty major blip at home to Roma in Week 2.
As a result, the Nerazzurri in fifth place are only three points—or one game—ahead in the league table. If Milan can beat Udinese and Inter stumble against another team in black and white stripes, Siena, parity will be restored in Italy's second city.
7. Locker Room
An interesting sideline raised by the departing Gennaro Gattuso was how the atmosphere at the training ground and in the locker room had changed at the San Siro in recent years.
The veteran, never one to be backward in coming forward, said: “The locker room was out of control in the last two or three months with things I’d never seen in 13 years with the Rossoneri,” (via Football Italia).
“When we had training at 9.30am, many arrived just 10 minutes beforehand and nobody would say anything. I’d arrive 45 minutes early in order to do some exercises, get a massage or even just to relax with a cup of coffee. That’s the sporting culture you get after years of experience.
“Or, when we had lunch at 13.00, some turned up 15 minutes late. There was no respect for the rules."
While it's unclear whether or not anything has changed in this regard, it's not a huge leap to conclude that characters such as Antonio Cassano and Zlatan Ibrahimovic might have contributed to this atmosphere.
Both were known to be outspoken and well-aware of their own abilities, so with a younger, less-proven contingent arriving at the club, it's possible that a keener, more enthusiastic approach may begin to prevail.
8. Books Balanced
President Silvio Berlusconi and vice president Adriano Galliani may have angered Milan fans with their conservative approach to transfers of late, but in the cold light of day, it's the only prudent way for them to do business.
While Milan's remains the highest wage bill in Italy at 120 million euros per season, this is small when compared to their European "super club" competitors. Milan’s annual outlay would not even rank in the Premier League’s top five wage bills (via Yahoo! Sport).
Indeed, the Rossoneri have cut their annual payroll by €60m, according to Football Italia, not to mention how the €65 million (via Wikipedia) received from Paris Saint-Germain dwarfs the fees paid out by Milan for replacements.
This is all in preparation for UEFA's Financial Fair Play Regulations, about which Berlusconi said: "We did not want to sell Thiago Silva or Ibrahimovic and turned down the first offer. We then thought about the Financial Fair Play…so we had to accept it with weeping hearts. It was impossible for us to turn down the offer. It has saved us a lot of money in transfers and wages, meaning our finances are secure for many years to come. We will save 150 million euros in two years." (via Wikipedia)
While the short-term hit is now being felt by Milan, it's only to avoid a bigger long-term issue, and this puts them in a much better position for the financial climate in European football going forward.
9. Pazzini Against Bologna
With the distinct lack of goals Milan are experiencing at the San Siro, it is easy to forget that this was not the case in their only away game so far this year.
Just two weeks ago, Milan fans were cooing over the full-debut hat trick of new signing Giampaulo Pazzini.
While on Saturday, Il Pazzo looked a shadow of the dynamic figure he cut against Bologna, one must not forget that he's been beset by two small training ground injuries in between the two games: one for Italy prior to the game against Malta, and one in the build up to the Atalanta debacle. So, it may be unfair to judge him on a game he almost didn't make.
In his only other full outing for Il Diavolo, Pazzini looked at his best. He was the kind of centre forward Allegri's new shape demands, and he made good on the half-chances that came his way.
It still means than in little over two games, Pazzini has scored three goals, which is a great return for a new striker. And the player who cut through a tough Bologna side is the one Milan fans should keep in mind for the future.
10. An Attacking-Biased Squad
Despite the lack of goals at the San Siro, there can be no doubt that Milan have the personnel to be effective in attack.
The biggest area of concern for the Rossoneri is in the centre of defence, so Allegri's best tactic will be to play to his side's strengths.
Building right the way from defence, Milan's team has great players going forward. Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini have both improved significantly in their defensive duties, but both have always looked excellent when raiding down the flanks.
In midfield, Montolivo has a range of passing that is reminiscent of Andrea Pirlo and Milan will be looking for him to replace "l'architetto," while Antonio Nocerino's attacking play was the revelation of last year.
Then, up front, Milan have Kevin-Prince Boateng, Robinho, Pazzini, Pato, Stephan El Shaarawy and Bojan Krkić; if they're all fit, Allegri's biggest concern will be who to leave out, not a lack of options.
What this means is that if Milan are to be successful this year, it will have to come through implementing an exciting style of play. Regardless of which, if any, trophies they can gain along the way, it is extremely unlikely that watching this Milan side will ever be boring.