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Stephan El Shaarawy, Keisuke Honda Prove There Is AC Milan Life After Balotelli

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Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2014

AC Milan actually won a trophy. They dropped it on the ground seconds later, a perfect metaphor for life with the team lately: Even when something goes right, it goes wrong.

The TIM Trophy isn’t anything special. Games were just 45 minutes long. But still—Milan managed to beat Juventus and swarm Sassuolo. They played with pace and were brisk on the counterattack. Stephan El Shaarawy chased balls and ran on to passes, while Keisuke Honda distributed and scored for himself. 

Andrea Poli played like a tornado of energy, as he usually does. Diego Lopez made a couple of confident saves with his body. And Mattia De Sciglio sent in balls that actually hit a designated targetcrosses that actually worked. (The same could not be said for Ignazio Abate.)

There was a lot of positivity about a team that just lost their most talented player and their biggest burden. Life indeed has started without Mario Balotelli, whose transfer to Liverpool is imminent, according to reports in England and Italy, per The Guardian. Coach Filippo Inzaghi wished him luck. 

But those words were few. Inzaghi sees more improvements. He sees an opportunity. Milan have grown this summer, starting with humiliating losses in Canada and the U.S. to Olympiakos and Manchester City and finishing their preseason with a trophy in their hands. 

REGGIO NELL'EMILIA, ITALY - AUGUST 23:  Stephan El Shaarawy of AC Milan celebrates after scoring the second team's goal during the TIM Preseason Tournament between US Sassuolo, FC Juventus and AC Milan at Mapei Stadium - Citta' del Tricolore on August 23,
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Preseason results do not guarantee regular-season success. Look at Manchester United: They did not lose a single preseason game—in fact they won all but one—and yet they are winless in the Premier League. But Milan, a team struggling with record-low season ticket sales, need the publicity.

Inzaghi told reporters that he is prepared to start the year with his current squad without a major signing. Perhaps because he feels he has gained something while losing another.

“We are certainly losing a great player,” Inzaghi said on Sunday, per Football Italia, “but we gain something more in team spirit and hunger.”

It is now all about togetherness; there's no room for mavericks or distractions. On the weekend, Milan played a little lighter on their feet, as if freed of something holding them back.

For a team known to be slow, Milan were quick. 

Before the game, photographers lined up in front of Inzaghi to capture his photo. He paused and did not think much of it. And although he looks like he’s aged already in the few months he has been manager, Inzaghi never looks puzzled. He knows what it takes to win with Milan, and he knows what it’s like to handle the pressure. 

Honda was just as inspired. He looked almost bashful receiving the award for the man of the match. But he played calm, like a veteran of Serie A. He strung together passes, and teammates orbited around him. He was given time and space, and he used it. 

Then there was El Shaarawy, slipping into small lanes. He lost the ball a few times but still fought for it.

These two can play off each otherHonda the springboard and El Shaarawy the spring. They both have fashionable hair. They look like they understand each other.

Without Balotelli, there is a little less haze and a bit more clarity. Things are simpler, if a bit harder on everyone else.

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