As Milan prepared to take on Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie this week, the Italian media did their best to make the task of overturning a 1-0 deficit at the Vicente Calderon seem like an achievable one.
The Rossoneri, they pointed out, had dug themselves out of tight spots before. Indeed, they had been the first team in European Cup history ever to win a tie after losing their first leg at home. Back in 1955, in the first round of the first edition of the tournament, Milan were beaten 4-3 by FC Saarbrücken at San Siro, only to smash their opponents 4-1 in the return fixture.
But the Italian club could not turn the clock back by six decades on Tuesday night—not even by seven years. Milan won their most recent Champions League title in 2007, with the help of 10 goals from a young Brazilian named Ricky Kaka. Now 31, he was back on the team-sheet this week, and for a brief moment seemed as though he might be their saviour once again.
After Diego Costa’s early goal in Madrid had extended Atletico’s aggregate lead, it was Kaka who gave Milan hope, heading home an Andrea Poli cross in the 27th minute to make it 1-1 on the night. He very nearly repeated the feat moments later, this time flashing a header just over the bar from six yards. Perhaps if that had gone in, things would have unfolded differently; as it was, Milan crumbled to a 4-1 defeat.
It was a photo of Kaka, head held in his hands, that Gazzetta dello Sport selected for their front page the following morning. Somehow it felt like the most poignant image of an evening that had reaffirmed the grim reality of Milan’s plight. A club that has hidden too long behind its own nostalgia is in danger of falling into catastrophic decline.
Milan’s disastrous domestic campaign has hardly slipped under the radar, but until this week the Champions League had at least provided a distraction. Now all that remains is to survey the wreckage of this season. With two months left, the Rossoneri are out of all cup competitions and sit 11th in Serie A. Their 35 points from 27 games are less than half of what league leaders Juventus have amassed.
At this stage, it would require an impressive turnaround for Milan even to be involved in Europe next season. Third-placed Napoli, 20 points clear, are effectively unreachable. That leaves a place in the Europa League as Milan’s only realistic goal. Vice-president Adriano Galliani said earlier this season that it made him sad to even think about playing in the continent’s second-tier competition, but changed his tune on Wednesday, insisting that it must be the team’s main target.
Even getting there, though, will not be straightforward. Milan are eight points behind sixth-placed Parma, whom they host at San Siro on Sunday. A victory would go some way towards bridging the gap, but it will not easily be achieved—the Ducali are unbeaten in 15 games.
Milan, by contrast, have been treading water. It is still early to judge Clarence Seedorf as a manager, but his early results have not been overwhelming. In fact, the Rossoneri have been doing worse than they did under Massimiliano Allegri. So far, the Dutchman has four wins, six defeats and one draw to show for his 11 games in charge. His predecessor began this season with eight wins, eight defeats and 11 draws.
Some might argue that it would be no bad thing for Milan to miss out on the Europa League. Fewer commitments next season would allow them to focus their energies on Serie A. Juventus won their first title under Antonio Conte in a year when they did not have European football to contend with. Roma and Inter have each benefited from not having to deal with the constant churn of midweek games in this campaign.
But for Milan the picture is complicated by two factors. The first is simply that they have, as a club, defined themselves by continental success under Silvio Berlusconi, who took great pride in reminding us that Milan’s 18 international trophies made them “the most titled club in the world”—at least until Egypt’s Al Ahly claimed their 19th last month. Galliani, similarly, has often asserted that the Champions League is “in Milan’s DNA.”
The Rossoneri have not missed out on European competition since 1997-98, and to do so will be a tremendous blow to the club’s psyche and prestige. The even more damaging aspect, though, might simply be financial. Milan has been able to balance their books in recent years through a combination of sales and wage-bill reductions, but the loss of European TV income and prize money will leave a sizeable hole in the club’s budget.
That is all the more critical given the very many and obvious deficiencies with this current team. Milan’s defence, exposed ruthlessly by Diego Costa et al, is in shambles, especially at centre-back, where none of Philippe Mexes, Daniele Bonera, Cristián Zapata or Adil Rami appear to be up to standard. The midfield lacks dynamism, new arrival Michael Essien performing sluggishly and far too carelessly in possession since joining in January. He was the man who gave away possession for Atletico's first goal.
Even up front, where things might look better on paper, there are plenty of concerns. The biggest one comes in the form of Mario Balotelli. A player who was supposed to be the saviour of this club is instead at risk of becoming the figure who holds them back, his anonymous and increasingly disinterested performance in Madrid indicative of his form all season in the biggest games.
The situation is not beyond saving. There is still enough talent in this squad that it ought to be higher up the table, competing, at the least, with the likes of Parma, Verona and Lazio for that last Europa League spot. But the real concern for Milan right now is the lack of a coherent plan for making things better.
When Barbara Berlusconi first began to assert her authority earlier this season, challenging Galliani’s methods in the transfer market, she argued that the club needed to invest in youth and scouting rather than continue to plug gaps with ageing and expensive older players. For a time it seemed as though her view would prevail, with Galliani threatening to walk away from the club that he has served for decades—albeit only if he could get a substantial golden handshake first.
But instead, an uneasy compromise was settled upon, with Barbara Berlusconi being named as a second vice-president, supposedly with a focus on the business side, rather than the football side of the club, but clearly with some degree of overlapping interests. As a result, the club now has a two-headed power structure, and potentially two competing ideologies for how it should be run.
For Milan, the greatest danger is inertia. What is needed now in order to emerge from this crisis is strong, decisive leadership, both to overhaul the squad and set clear and realistic goals for their inexperienced manager to achieve. Without those, there is a very real prospect that one bad season will become many. The longer the club stands still, the harder it will be to turn back that clock.