AC Milan: Will the Rossoneri Qualify for the Champions League This Season?

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AC Milan: Will the Rossoneri Qualify for the Champions League This Season?
Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Filippo Inzaghi's AC Milan side have endured a difficult pre-season so far, losing all three of their matches in the Guinness International Champions Cup in America and conceding ten goals in the process.

The results surprised few followers of the Rossoneri, given the team's severe underachievement over the past year and counting.

Still, the early optimism following Inzaghi's appointment as manager led some to believe the club was on the upswing and that major changes would be made to the way the club operates.

So far, there hasn't been much tangible progress on the field. 

However, it is dangerous to read too much into the results of pre-season friendlies given the propensity for managers to test unproven players and mix-and-match tactics in an effort to identify potential strengths and weaknesses in the team.

With less than a month remaining before Milan open their Serie A season against Lazio, it is abundantly clear that the squad needs strengthening and more time to gel.

Alessio Cerci is a long rumored transfer target of Inzaghi's, according to La Stampa (h/t Forza Italian Football). Such a move would presumably hinge upon Milan's ability to get rid of Robinho

In Inzaghi's 4-3-3 formation, Cerci could be a great fit as a right winger opposite Stephan El Shaarawy and supporting Mario Balotelli or Giampaolo Pazzini up top.

Given Milan's recent austerity, however, this move is far from a certainty, especially if another club steps up their interest in Cerci.

In addition, Milan have been strongly linked to Real Madrid's Diego Lopez and Genoa's Mattia Perin, according to Sky Sport Italia (h/t Forza Italian Football). Either would be an upgrade to Christian Abbiati in goal.

As the month of August moves along, moves will undoubtedly be made to strengthen the team as Milan aims to restore their place as one of Italy's premier sides.

The question, after last season's disappointment, is whether they are capable of finishing in the top five or six in Serie A.

When looking strictly at the squads of sides in Serie A, only Juventus, Roma and Napoli have undoubtedly better teams, top to bottom, than Milan does.

Fiorentina and Inter appear to be on par with Milan, while teams like Lazio and Torino, who finished essentially level with Milan last year, have far less talent in their ranks than the Rossoneri.

Of course, talent is only one part of the equation, as all Milan fans can attest. Balotelli, in particular, is a maddening example of a player with supreme talent but with major flaws in his game. Inzaghi's greatest challenge will be harnessing the talent that new Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri and former Milan boss Clarence Seedorf couldn't last season.

Just a surface glance at Milan's roster reveals several big name players, such as Balotelli, El Shaarawy, Riccardo Montolivo, Keisuke Honda, Adil Rami, Alex and Mattia De Sciglio. Between these players and others, there is abundant international and Champions League experience.

Other teams like Roma and Juventus have moved to bring in experienced players to complement their young talent as they prepare to make runs at the knockout stages of the Champions League this year. It is vital to have a balance between youthful exuberance and experience at the highest levels of club football.

Again, judgments made off the pre-season friendlies must be taken with a grain of salt, but the matches against Olympiakos and Manchester City in particular reinforced the notion that defensive organization is a gaping weakness for Milan, as well as midfield creativity.

Again, there is talent in defense for Milan, with Rami, Alex, De Sciglio, Cristian Zapata and Ignazio Abate in the ranks. A new, hungrier goalkeeper than Abbiati could make a difference in terms of organizing the defense. Perin in particular would be an important signing for the immediate and long-term future of the club.

With Montolivo out for several months, Milan will have to rely on Nigel de Jong and youngsters Bryan Cristante, Riccardo Saponara and Andrea Poli to hold the fort in midfield.

Given the inexperience of some of those midfielders, and the need to bed in new players like Jeremy Menez and potentially Cerci in attack, it is prudent to temper expectations for Milan this year.

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If Inzaghi is able to establish a defensive identity for Milan and get the midfield to efficiently link defense and attack, a top five place is absolutely achievable for Milan this season.

Much depends on the development of the young midfielders who will have to display consistency and quality week in and week out for Milan to have a chance at one of the top three or five spots.

The Champions League places may be too much to ask for this year, but with a big jump from Balotelli and El Shaarawy, in particular, it can't be ruled out.

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