AC Milan made their first Coppa Italia semi-final in four years on Wednesday night. Their 2-1 victory over Carpi—the Serie A debutants who held them to a goalless draw in the league a little more than a month ago—had several effects.
The first, obviously, is the trip to the semis, which is their first since Juventus eliminatead them at that stage in 2011-12. The second was the salvation—for now at least—of coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, who has been under intense pressure and would almost certainly have been dismissed had the result gone the other way or even if the win had been a sloppy one.
The third—and less immediately apparent—effect of this win could have a big effect on Milan long term. There are still games to play, but Milan is now in prime position to make a return to European competition.
This is the second year in a row that Milan hasn't been in Europe. Unlike Juventus or Internazionale, who have both bounced back from seasons without continental competition to get immediately qualified in the recent past, Milan's hiatus has been extended. The effect on the team's prestige—and its pocketbook—has been extreme.
After an investment of more than €80 million in the transfer market this summer, the hope was that the Rossoneri could compete for a Champions League place this year. While that's still possible, it isn't likely. Ten points and five teams separate them from the top three.
The list of teams they would have to leapfrog is daunting. They must jump upstarts Empoli and Sassuolo—the latter their bogey team over the last two-and-a-half seasons—before getting to a Roma side that may be rejuvenated under a new coach and Fiorentina, who may be playing the best football in the league.
And that's just getting to fourth—to break the top three they'd have to get past a rampant Napoli, a resurgent Juventus or a resilient Inter.
The Europa League, though less prestigious and less lucrative, is a thoroughly attainable goal. In fact, it's now likelier than not that they will be playing on Thursdays next year, thanks to Wednesday's result.
Tournaments are just as much about luck as they are about skill, far more so than league play. The draw and the results around them have just as much influence on how far a team goes as what they do with a ball. In this tournament, everything outside of Milan's control has gone fantastically well. Not only did they end up on the side of the bracket that avoided the majority of the heavyweights but they have been taken by a rash of upsets.
The other quarter-final on this side of the bracket will pit Serie B Spezia, conquerors of Roma, and Lega Pro team Alessandria, who beat Palermo and Genoa to become the first third-tier team to make the quarters since 1983-84. Obviously, that means Milan is certain to play their semi-final against a team from a lower division.
While that has been no guarantee for Milan, who needed extra time to beat Crotone two rounds ago, the semis' two-legged format makes it more likely that the better team on paper will rise to the top. If it does, Milan will make their first final since they last won the trophy in 2003.
Given the fact the current top three make up three-quarters of the other side of the bracket (and the one that isn't Milan would more likely than not be playing that game against a team already qualified for Europe through the league), that means the Europa place earmarked for the Cup winner would go to them whether they win or lose.
While playing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is infinitely preferable to playing on Thursdays, returning to Europe in any form would be a major step forward. Having some money from Europe is better than none at all, and a trip to the Europa would give vital experience to a team who only has one player, Carlos Bacca, who has extensive experience going deep into Europe. Giacomo Bonaventura, Alessio Romagnoli and Gianluigi Donnarumma would all get to experience such a high level for the first time.
The Europa League can be used as a stepping stone to greater things. Juventus is proof positive of that. Their 1995-96 Champions League title was set up by their UEFA Cup triumph, the Europa League's predecessor, three years before.
Two years ago the Bianconeri were bumped from the Champions League to the Europa, but they pressed through to the semi-finals and was going toe-to-toe with Barcelona in the Champions League final the next year.
If Milan makes the Europa League next year, they can use any success in that competition as a springboard to bigger things—and maybe add to their trophy case the one major Cup that has eluded them throughout their illustrious history.
After the last two years, Milan should welcome a return to any European competition, and Wednesday's win established a clear path to that. If they take advantage of the chance, the Rossoneri will be able to take a major step in their rebuild.