AC Milan have started their new campaign on a high note, beating Siena 2-1, away from home, in an entertaining game of football. All "expert" predictions of stumbling on the first step, drawn from their disappointing preseason, have been rubbished by the way the Rossoneri played last Saturday, and there is a refreshing positivity in the Milan camp.
This Saturday, AC Milan will play against city rivals Inter Milan, in what is probably the toughest football derby in the world. Unlike Inter, who had a disappointing draw on the opening day, Milan will go into this derby full of energy and optimism.
Despite all this, even the most ardent of Milan fans will agree, that this is just the beginning of the season and as always, we can expect a lot of drama in the Serie A. As the Rossoneri prepare for their war, lets take a look at the different factors that will decide the fate of the Italian giants this season.
1. Winning majority of the points outside of the big four games
Encounters against Inter Milan and Juventus are always going to be tough. And when two strong teams collide, it is often the team that is that little bit better on that day that wins it. Points off a win or a draw against these two oppositions are always going to be crucial, but it's an absolute sin to drop points against teams outside of your major oppositions, and often those games can eventually decide your fate for the season.
Last season, Milan lost eight games and drew another eight. Though the loss against Roma in the second-last round of matches hurt the most, Milan also lost to Bologna and Genoa at the start, and Sampdoria, Udinese (whom Milan had drubbed 5-1 at home earlier) and Palermo.
Milan also dropped crucial points against mid-table sides, which they were expected to win.
This season, Milan will need to ensure that they collect maximum points from these matches and not slip up against a lesser opposition.
2. The Away matches
Every team plays stronger at home, but the best teams play well away from home as well.
Last season, out of the 19 away games, Milan lost five and drew six. Though their goal difference is positive, it is almost one-third of that at home. Milan clearly are more comfortable at home and score more at the San Siro.
But to win the title this season they will need to expand their comfort zone, be more adventurous away from home and convert those draws into wins. Even though the odd losses and draws are expected, Milan need to be more positive and take the game to the opposition and bag the points away from home too.
3. The right attitude
Far too many times, Milan have been accused of losing/drawing games from winning positions, or allowing the opposition to score right after they have scored or not putting up a decent winning streak together in the league (last season the max being five).
Coach Leonardo has laid plenty of emphasis on how he has some amazing players at Milan, but they will need to gel together as a team, and enter the field with the right frame of mind. Attitude change is all this team needs to start winning it big.
4. The performance of the Golden triangle
Imagine an offense with Ronaldinho playing just behind Alexandre Pato and Klass-Jan Huntelaar. Sounds menacing for the opposition, doesn't it?
Last year, it was the golden triangle of Kaka-Pato-Inzaghi who scored nearly 60% of Milan's goals. This year, a lot will depend on how well the front two—Pato and Huntelaar— can play together, score and create opportunities for each other.
Huntelaar will make his Serie A debut in the red and black this Saturday against Inter, as he missed the first match due to suspension. But this Saturday itself, we saw Ronaldinho and Pato play extremely well together. Ronaldinho anticipated Pato's movement well, and his passing was exquisite. Pato scored both of Milan's goals and has already put the Serie A on alert.
Huntelaar will need time to adjust to the tough Italian league, where defenders are anything but kind to the presence of forwards and where tackles are anything but refined and playful. But knowing the quality of "Hunter," he should start scoring big, as soon as he adjusts.
Ronaldinho is the key somehow. Both Adriano Galliani and Silvio Berlusconi, have said this earlier. The Brazilian playmaker has been a shadow of his glorious self at Barcelona, but is fast improving. If he gets back to his best or thereabouts, he can dazzle and shine and the Golden triangle will be a real force to be reckoned with.
5. Mind the goal!
Milan's first choice goalkeeper Christian Abbiati is out injured and will return sometime after September. The injury would have kept him out for more than six months by then, so he will take a few more weeks to get "match ready."
Till then, all will depend on Marco Storari and new signing Flavio Roma.
In the match against Siena, Storari played really well. Even though Milan conceded a goal they could have prevented, Storari was kept busy by the Siena frontmen for quite some time. And towards the end, Storari made a couple of really good saves.
Leonardo has a lot of confidence in the Italian and he will be in the goal for Milan till the return of Abbiati, unless he makes some major mistakes and allows Roma a look-in. Roma is a respected goalkeeper as well, but being the first-choice keeper for now, Storari will need to give his absolute best and be as miserly in the Milan goal as possible.
6. Keeping the two engines running
Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso are the two engines on which the Milan side works. Nesta is the brilliant, experienced defender who marshals the defenders and protects the Milan goal. Gattuso is the energetic, robust, fierce presence in the midfield, who can be seen breaking down opposition passes, fighting for possession and occasionally running down the right flank.
But last season, both of them suffered injuries. With Nesta and Gattuso out of the side, Milan are not their best.
These two guys always give their best on the field. But the biggest challenge for Milan is to keep them both fit throughout the season.
7. Winter reinforcements
The summer transfer window was a busy one for Milan. Superstar Kaka went OUT and Dutchman Huntelaar and American Oguchi Onyewu came IN. But with majority of the side on the wrong side of 30, and with Maldini retiring and Kaka's departure, some might say these signings were not enough.
Milan's activity in the January transfer window will be important. David Beckham is almost certain to return to Milan on another loan deal. Although a permanent move cannot be ruled out either, a loan deal at the very least is guaranteed.
Apart from Beckham too, Milan will need to bring in some reinforcements, based on the team's performance and squad fitness. Those signings will be crucial for the second half of the season.
8. The next generation
Milan have been criticised for having many old players, and the average age of Milan squad has always been at the receiving end of many jokes. But the reality is, AC Milan have a lot of talented, skillful, young players just waiting to burst out onto the scene.
22-year-old Italian midfielder/winger Ignazio Abate and 18-year-old compatriot striker Giianmarco Zigoni are two shining examples, with plenty of potential and loads of talent. Coach Leonardo used them a lot in the preseason games against notable oppositions, and both of them have received praise from the team veterans.
Similarly, Milan have the highly talented Uruguayan pair of Mathías Cardaccio and Tabare Viudez. Not to mention the returning Davide Di Gennaro.
Perhaps, the best among these is the 24-year-old Brazilian center-back Thiago Silva, who has gained immense trust of the coach and also has garnered plenty of praise from Nesta.
All these young players need to step up, and when given an opportunity, play to their fullest potential.
AC Milan have started on a winning note. But the road ahead will be a tough one. Apart from all these factors, the most important one is going to be the presence of that pure, unadulterated, wild passion to win the title wearing that glorious red and black, and do the Rossoneri fans proud.
If the players have that, nothing can stop Milan from winning.