AC Milan Can Compete for a Champions League Spot This Season

Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

AC Milan coach Filippo Inzaghi waves during the presentation of the upcoming 2014-15 season at the AC Milan headquarter in Milan, Italy, Thursday, July 10, 2014. In background are midfielder Riccardo Montolivo  and forward Giampaolo Pazzini. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Luca Bruno/Associated Press

For once, the carnival has moved from Milan. All the attention rests on Juventus. Antonio Conte resigned as coach, Max Allegri took over and now the future of Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba is a question that will take weeks to answer.

Usually it is AC Milan that fills the pages of newspapers with stories of in-house bust-ups and politics. When Clarence Seedorf managed the team, killing his playing career dead to make the return to Milan, there was an apparent internal struggle for power—results didn't matter so much any more. CEO Adriano Galliani didn't really jump out of his seat when Milan came back to win games. It was all about Seedorf.

He ended up leaving, with damage done to his image. He was made out to look like a tyrant, with captain Riccardo Montolivo saying "there wasn't much harmony" in the squad, according to quotes from Seedorf was always a bit of an autocrat as a player, but he was smart, and he knew the colours of Milan and what they meant. Milan removed him from their Hall of Fame. It was a bitter divorce.

Pippo Inzaghi has since become coach, replacing a former teammate. It was tough to reconcile for fans. But with Inzaghi comes some serenity. Everyone can get behind him.

Inzaghi has followed Pep Guardiola's path, first coaching for a couple of years at the youth level and then moving to the first-team. The transition is much more gradual this way. Inzaghi looks more like a manager who deserves a chance, while Seedorf came more out of the blue.

His first words were also reassuring. The goal is togetherness. This team has been fractured for years, fans split on coaching and players. "Our target is to bring the fans back to San Siro," Inzaghi told Sport Mediaset (h/t Football Italia), "and make sure they recognise this team."

The mood is lighter. Milan have signed defender Alex and winger Jeremy Menez, but it is the former that is most exciting. Just because he was a free transfer does not mean he is poor.

Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Not many Milan players could start for Paris Saint-Germain, but Alex did. He had a passing rating of 93.9 percent last season, and according to that was the highest of any player in Europe. Alex could bring some stability to a back-line lacking confidence since the departure of Thiago Silva. (It's no coincidence that Alex is taking Thiago Silva's old number, 33.)

He will most likely partner Adil Rami, who reportedly paid €500,000 to seal his permanent transfer to Milan from Valencia. That is a sacrifice that shows there is still a desire among players to play for Milan, even if it's not such a sparkling club anymore.

Rami did look static at times during his initial months on loan at San Siro earlier this year, but he had the courage to step into action and push forward. Sometimes he looked like Thiago Silva with those runs and with those crucial tackles. 

So maybe Milan can compete this season. Stephan El Shaarawy returns from multiple injuries, and he is effectively a new signing. He played just seven games all last season. He could produce some magic with Mario Balotelli—if the 23-year-old forward stays focused.

The two had some trouble when Balotelli arrived early in 2013, but this is their second pre-season together. There is room to grow here. The probability of Milan selling Balotelli is low, considering a poor showing at the World Cup. (One thing has remained the same at Milan through all this turmoil: They do not sell low.)

Finally, there is room for a purchase. It has to be big. Galliani said in passing that a signing will arrive, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) and it could be any number of players. There is a glaring need on the right wing, and Torino's Alessio Cerci could fill that hole. But the Rossoneri could trun to Real Madrid's Isco, PSG's Ezequiel Lavezzi or Lucas Moura.

Maybe it's time for Milan to spend. Kaka is gone. That's €4 million in wages freed up. If Robinho leaves, that's around another €3 million saved. Urby Emanuelson, Antonio Nocerino, Alessandro Matri and Valter Birsa are all playing elsewhere this season. There is room for a big buy.

This team was not nearly as bad as the standings showed the past couple of seasons. It was poorly run and poorly coached. With Inzaghi is hope. At the very least it's a break from the circus that has been Milan.