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Where AC Milan Need to Strengthen to Be Champions League Contenders

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Where AC Milan Need to Strengthen to Be Champions League Contenders
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Now that Max Allegri has been confirmed on the Milan bench, the Rossoneri's attentions will turn to next season and what they can realistically hope to achieve. Or rather, what Silvio Berlusconi thinks they can achieve, realistically or otherwise. 

The president is never shy to remind people that his club is the most successful in the world, and though he'd like Milan to challenge Juventus for the Scudetto, it's the glitz and glamour of Europe's biggest club competition that he's really interested in. 

Allegri dramatically secured the side's place in this season's Champions League on the final day, and will be eager to prove himself worthy of his job in the tournament after being treated poorly by Berlusconi for much of the past 12 months. 

Last term, Allegri's men put in a memorable shift at home against Barcelona before allowing their two-goal cushion to evaporate in a desperately one-sided return leg at the Camp Nou. Mario Balotelli, cup-tied after being signed from Manchester City in the winter window, watched from the stands and left many Milanisti to wonder what might have been if only the mercurial front man had been eligible. 

There'll be no such problems this term, and even if another high-profile forward—like Carlos Tevez, for example—arrives at the San Siro, it will be the Italy international leading the line for Milan. For both club and country, Balo has formed a solid partnership with his friend and fellow Milan-supporter Stephan El Shaarawy, and the pair will be one of the competition's most talked-about duos in 2013-14.

Elsewhere, things aren't so rosy. And if Milan are to bridge the gap between themselves and the rest of the continental elite, key changes must be made. 

The area most ripe for immediate improvement is behind closed doors at Milanello. The fiasco that surrounded Allegri's position would be unthinkable at the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester United or even closer to home at Juve.

If Berlusconi expects his coach to "respect" the club and the direction in which it should be going, he and Adriano Galliani must ensure that next time round Allegri has nothing but football on his mind.

Even under perfect circumstances, Milan have a mountain to climb this season, and undermining the manager's credibility with insults and flirtations with other candidates helps no one. 

They also can't expect Allegri to improve without some investment. The controversial transfers of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva last summer caught everyone by surprise—including Allegri.

Disastrous early season form aside, Milan dodged a bullet on those transfers. Somehow Allegri managed to galvanise what is an unbalanced and inexperienced side, getting them to play good football and overachieve in the league at the same time.

But while slashing the wage bill by letting go of the club's two biggest earners now looks like a prudent bit of business from Galliani, there was no way of knowing at the time that El Shaarawy would take up where Zlatan left off in front of goal.

Silva's presence is still missed dearly at the back, where Milan need reinforcements. Cristian Zaccardo and Mario Yepes are packing their bags and are unlikely to be missed. 

Cristian Zapata, who had a solid first season while on loan, has been confirmed as a full signing and is a positive sign of improvement in defence, but more is needed. Another solid centre-back such as former Rossonero Davide Astori or Torino's Angelo Ogbonna would improve things greatly. 

The latter is being heavily linked to Juventus this summer, but with Milan reportedly interested in signing Alessio Cerci from Torino according to Tutto Sport (in Italian), Galliani might convince the Turin outfit to throw Ogbonna into the bargain as well, rather than selling him to their city rivals. 

Cerci's addition, meanwhile, would give Milan some genuine width and allow Allegri to consider some tactical changes ahead of a busy campaign. Too much tinkering will hamper rather than help, but Milan could certainly do with being more balanced and fine-tuned. 

Riccardo Saponara, who arrives from Empoli, is an interesting prospect who will provide plenty of creative and attacking intent behind Balotelli.

The young trequartista from Emilia-Romagna is highly rated in Italy and has been likened to Kaka. His signature would strengthen Milan's core of young Italian talent and further highlight the change in philosophy at Milan from celebrity-obsessed to a focus on development and investment. 

It looks likely that Saponara will take the place of either Kevin-Prince Boateng or Robinho in Allegri's plans next term. Milan will miss neither. 

Jose Mourinho hit the nail on the head recently when he dismissed links between Chelsea and Boateng, saying, per football-italia.net: "“We want football players, not fashion models." 

Boateng is a talented player and will find a home easily elsewhere, but he's not always the most committed worker in the squad and Mourinho's joke that "Last year he had more hairstyles than goals" should sting deeply because it's entirely true.

Robinho is much the same. Neither suit Allegri's vision—or make convincing cases for inclusion in a Champions League assault. A roster of young, hungry players free from the distractions of work-shy senior stars is a better formula for success than a squad weighed down by ageing, jaded celebrities distracted by their own sense of self-importance. 

Milan also look likely to add Andrea Poli to the lineup per a report by Stefan Coerts of Goal.com, bolstering the midfield and injecting yet more youthful, Italian talent into the squad.

The former Inter man had looked likely to join Juventus, so convincing him to come to Milan instead is a real coup for Allegri and Galliani. It also suggests that, in the transfer department at least, the club are moving in the right direction and are working hard to make sure the coach has the reinforcements he needs. 

Once his key signings are made, Allegri must figure out what his best team is and stick with it. I've written at length in the past about Milan's identity crisis, and it's one they cannot afford to have come August. 

The final piece in the puzzle will be confidence. Milan were impressive in the way they overcame a poor start to the season last winter, but if they're going to be serious Champions League contenders in time around, they'll need to act like it across the board. 

The squad's young, and in the case of Balotelli at least, prone to outburst. They'll need to grow up fast.

Allegri, too, needs to mature and develop a tactical confidence that's been lacking in the past. He has the ideas, and the players to match, but sometimes seems to lack conviction. In that regard, Berlusconi's meddling only makes things worse. The 76-year-old will need to show some uncharacteristic maturity as well. 

Its early days and teething problems are likely. But if Milan can skip adolescence and assimilate the new faces quickly, they'll be a force to be reckoned with in Europe. 

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