In the first of a series of articles ahead of the new Serie A season, Adamo Digby takes a look at Milan. While their cross-town cousins Inter have won the last three titles, Milan have settled for fourth, fifth and third placed finishes over the same period. Unaccustomed to barren spells, Milan fans head into the new season unsure what lies ahead.
The first thing to take into account when analysing the Rossoneri is that Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, the clubs owner, has kept his chequebook firmly in has back pocket in recent years, taking it out only to indulge his own whims or in times of desperate need.
As such, his squad got old very quickly, as any does without constant refreshment. Accusations of a much too laid back atmosphere and player power under previous boss Ancelotti saw the team marginalised in Serie A and Europe.
As such the ex-Juve and Parma man was allowed to move on this summer, and Milan hope to do the same. The sale of Kaka was strictly to balance the books, and this is where the gamble starts. Previously, under Berlusconi, Milan have been among the most free-spending teams in Europe, perhaps only outdone by the Perez era Madrid.
Now, as the banking crisis affects his people, Berlusconi has to be seen to show restraint, to act like a leader, to show the way forward. Underage showgirls and an expensive divorce case aside, he seems to be doing well!
When it comes to his true love, AC Milan, he really has reigned in his spending. The loss of Kaka, and retirement of Captain Paolo Maldini forced him into some signings, but they were more low-key than we are used to from the men at Milanello. It now seems like a case of "going with what we have" for new coach Leonardo.
What Milan do possess is one of the most experienced and compact midfields in Europe. Led by the snarling tenacity of Rino Gattuso and inspired by the sheer class of Andrea Pirlo, this group is the basis for Milan success, in the past and now, as they look to the Kaka-less future. In addition to Pirlo and Gattuso, Milan boast formidable depth with Seedorf, Ambrosini, and Flamini.
In goal, Milan are have two problem, and three, if not four solutions. The first problem is injuries, as both Dida and Abbiati are expected to miss the start of the season. The second is consistency, as both are either world beaters or error-prone depending on the day. Milan look to have solved this in bringing Flavio Roma back to Italy from Monaco where he excelled. If he starts well, the other two may spend their time watching him from the bench, wondering how it came to this.
On then, to the defence. Derided in sections of the press for being so far over the hill, it has seemed like the most neglected area of Berlusconi's empire. However, a look at the names available to Leonardo shows that the talent is there, if the coach can find a way to get the players to show it. Nesta, Oddo and Kaladze have been joined by two players with huge potential in Thiago Silva and Oguchi Onyewu.
If they settle, hit the ground running and learn from their more famous collegues, it should give Milan the solidity they've lacked recently. Whilst a sad day for football fans, the retirement of Maldini should create competition for places, vital in getting the best from players of lesser talent. Favalli, Bonera, and Antonini, as well as Oddo will be expected to up their games considerably in order to gain a first team spot.
Finally the attack, where Pato will continue to shine. It is up to him to now prove himself, as without Kaka there to deflect the spotlight, its full glare will focus on "The Duck". He has two players alongside him who may have more to prove to the footballing world than any other pairing in the game.
Ronaldinho. Four years ago he was at the peak of the game, European and World Champion, European and World Player of the Year. Now a shadow of that greatness, he is the latest sufferer of Brazilian Burn Out to land in Milan. After Ronaldo and Rivaldo failed, can this last member of the Three R's find his way back to the top? For me its all about the smile. Seeing the joy in his play disappear is horrible to watch, but to witness a return would be great not just for him and Milan, but for football as well.
Klass Jan Huntelaar was, quite rightly, touted as being the next big Dutch striker, earning a big move to Madrid last term. It never worked for either party, and he finds himself in Milan, a casualty of the returning Galatico era at the Bernabeu. Finding the goal on a regular basis once again will show his class remains, and force his way onto the Netherlands National Team headed for South Africa.
This brings us onto what maybe the catalyst for this under-funded, under performing and under pressure team, the World Cup. Having so many players with points to prove and places to earn might just spark a complete turn around. Dida, Oddo, Ambrosini, Flamini, Seedorf, Huntelaar, and indeed Ronaldinho are all outsiders for their respective National Teams, but a return to form under the guidance of Leonardo may change all that. A successful season for Milan might just bring a summer of joy for these forgotten men.
Silvio Berlusconi has forced Milan to sacrifice much in order to bring the club out of debt. In bringing the balance sheet out of the red and into the black he has gambled with the prospects of success. A rookie coach and a new team, he did it before with Arrigo Sacchi, can it happen again?
Will it be a winning gamble, or will his fading stars continue their fall? No more bets, the wheel is spinning.