Serie A: Why Milan Can Challenge for the Scudetto This Season
Last October, few managers in world football had less job security than Massimiliano Allegri.
After eight games, his Milan side had secured just seven points, leaving them languishing in 15th place in Serie A.
Veterans such as Gattuso, Inzaghi and Seedorf had moved on during the summer, and the preseason was a damp squib. Owner Silvio Berlusconi appeared to be preoccupied with legal and financial battles, and Rossoneri fans were staying away from the San Siro in their droves. This was a season to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
What a difference a few months make.
Having kept faith in Allegri, Milan have completely turned their fortunes around. They are undefeated in 2013, and they sit in third place in the league—in prime position for one of the three Champions League places on offer. They may have been knocked out of European competition now, but they can claim one of the surprise victories of this season's tournament with an emphatic 2-0 home victory over favorites Barcelona.
Shortly after the victory over the Spanish giants, vice president Adriano Galliani pondered how Milan would be doing if they had pulled the trigger and sacked Galliani after seven games. "It doesn't bear thinking about," he said.
With nine games remaining, Milan sit just two points behind second-place Napoli and 11 behind the season-long leaders Juventus.
Galliani seems to concur with this assessment, having tipped the Rossoneri for next season's scudetto rather than the current one.
Yet there are several reasons to believe Juve (and Napoli) can be overturned by a Milan side experiencing a red-hot streak of form.
Juventus rely on their formidable midfield in their perfected 3-5-2 formation, but their defence may be weakened in the run-in. The ankle injury that has already hampered Giorgio Chiellini's campaign appears to be back. Martin Caceres—who has started in six of the last eight games—suffered injuries in a car crash over the weekend.
Up front, meanwhile, Juve arguably still lack a world-class forward (a gap that should be filled by Fernando Llorente in the summer). Only three of their last seven league goals have been scored by a striker.
Juve's most crucial banana skin, however, is their run-in. Of the nine remaining opponents, they have already lost to three (Internazionale, Milan, Sampdoria) and drawn with one (Lazio). If they repeat the same results, they will drop 11 points. AC Milan, you will note, are currently 11 points behind, albeit with a worse goal difference.
Juventus coach Antonio Conte is clearly concerned by the threat of Milan—the day after their famous victory over Barcelona, he declared them title contenders.
Milan have already beaten five of their remaining nine opponents this season—they defeated Juve and drew with Napoli—and were only beaten by two of them. It is not too unreasonable to assert that they could go unbeaten for the rest of the season, given the incredible form they have shown in 2013.
The highlight of the il Diavolo renaissance has surely been their youthful attacking prowess, particularly the efforts of Stephan El Shaarawy, Mario Balotelli and (to a lesser extent) M'Baye Niang. El Shaarawy and Balotelli share 23 goals between them—nearly half Milan's total output for the season—while Super Mario has netted seven in six league starts since arriving in January. The average age of all three strikers is 20, which bodes very well for the future.
Most Rossoneri fans would have bitten your hand off if you offered Champions League football earlier in the season, and this remains an attainable goal.
Yet this is a team riding high on confidence. And this is a league where leaders are often toppled: just ask the Roma side who were overturned by Milan in 2003-04 after dominating up until the winter break. Or the Juventus side who were languishing in fifth place at the halfway point of 2002-03 but ended up winning the league by seven points.
It's a funny old game, and Milan might just end up having the last laugh in this campaign.
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