They might be a lowly ninth in the table, but the smiles are back at Milan. The Rossoneri have been limping, lumbering under the weight of their own history, expectations and fractured relationships for so long. It's been harder and harder to remember them as they once were in the days of Carlo Ancelotti, a young Kaka and a Clarence Seedorf—who was still among the world's great midfielders.
The rot was obvious even before Carletto left. Change was needed, but as is too often the case—Manchester United and Inter are two more contemporary examples—success papered over the cracks.
When they won the Champions League in 2007, too much was made of the squad's age in the English-speaking media. There were players ready to retire, but it was still a fine team. There was Kaka, obviously, and the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, who still had plenty more to give. New players were needed, but those four alone would have given any rebuilding project a solid foundation.
Instead, there was only stagnation. Silvio Berlusconi needed to spend, but it wasn't something that only needed money. More should have been expected from the youth set up. It had, after all, given the Rossoneri Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta in the past. Three of their greatest players ever, without a singer transfer fee.
Primavera players who were ultimately let go, like Davide Astori—who has seven Italy caps to his name—could have been given more of a chance. Milan would be no worse off, for example, if Parma's Luca Antonelli was on the left in place of Urby Emanuelson.
Others who were kept, like current full-back Ignazio Abate, should have been given chances sooner. Abate spent too much time away, at Napoli, Piacenza, Modena, Empoli and Torino, when he should have been developing in Milan's first team squad.
The 2010 Scudetto was just Ancelotti's final Champions League win in a different guise. The 18th title was their first since 2004, and Massimiliano Allegri, the new man on the bench, was looking good. But it was just more paper over even deeper fissures.
Allegri never seemed to fit at the San Siro. He won the title, but never the unequivocal support of the board or the affections of the fans. And it didn't help that he had Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, his best players, sold out from under him when they should have been focal points for a new-look Milan.
Stephan El Shaarawy's rise through the ranks saved the club some face, as did the arrival of Mario Balotelli. The Italian striker was bought to prove that the Rossoneri were still a continental power on the field and in the transfer market—and possibly to win Berlusconi some votes—but two players do not a renaissance make.
Drastic change is needed, and Clarence Seedorf should be the one who forces it through. Questions remain about the soundness of Milan's logic, of course. They replaced Allegri, an experienced tactician who is among the favourites to be the next coach of Italy, with an untested rookie who hadn't even hung up his boots. But for the club and for fans, the time for doubting is over. The decision has been made—they need to stick to it.
Seedorf came in after Milan were beaten 4-3 by Sassuolo, almost single-handedly torn apart by Domenico Berardi, the Juventus youngster on loan in Reggio Emilia who found the net four times for the Neroverdi.
The side that the Dutchman found had just been embarrassed by the smallest team ever to play in Serie A—an abysmal low point for one of the game's most successful clubs. He wasted no time in ringing the changes.
Training changed right away. He introduced bonding exercises and made it clear that he wanted his Milan to be on the attack, always. The players were to express themselves, and above all, they were to enjoy playing football.
A recent interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport shone plenty of light on what Seedorf wants to achieve: plenty of smiles, a united team, six in attack, a liberated Balotelli. He also expects a commitment to preparation and physical fitness from his players to mirror his own—he was, after all, always the consummate professional. And he doesn't want to talk about Allegri, or what's gone before. It would, he said, be neither correct of him, nor very elegant.
He's hardly in the door, but he sounds like every bit the Milan manager. And the results are starting to come.
Milan were unlucky not to get more against Atletico Madrid, but rather than letting their heads drop—so often a problem under Allegri—they put in a fine performance against Sampdoria in the following game, winning 2-0. It was their second clean sheet in a row, something that had alluded them all season.
There's more shape to the play as Seedorf's tenure goes on, more link-up between the defence and the attack and a sense that everyone's doing their part.
That said, they're still only barely in the top 10, with no chance of Champions League football next season. The squad has too many talented but troubled players, any one of whom could threaten to derail a season. Balotelli's worth the risk and is showing signs that he's maturing slowly. But others will have to prove themselves.
Adel Taarabt's been impressive of late, but still has his work cut out for him if he's to earn a permanent move. it might be time for the club to cut their losses on Robinho, and a replacement for Philippe Mexes should be sought because the Frenchman isn't the world-beating, rock-solid centre-back that Milan need.
There are still enough fine players to build a squad around. Riccardo Montolivo is sound, and if they can get them both fit and on the field together, Milan have an excellent strike partnership in Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini. El Shaarawy's inconsistency is troubling, but he's young and should be nurtured. And Kaka... well, he's Kaka, even if that doesn't mean quite as much as it once did.
Seedorf needs players, but he also needs time. He's still learning the ropes and won't become Arrigo Sacchi overnight.
Juventus have shown that careful planning and patience will pay off, even if a club doesn't have the budgets of football's new petroleum elite. Milan have spent too long ignoring their decline. It's time to face it head on.