In a matter of hours Milan will kick off their Champions League campaign against French side Auxerre at home in the San Siro. If you were to ask what were Milan's chances in winning this year's Champions League three weeks ago, the answer one would have received from most would have been slim to none.
In football, much can change in three weeks, even in one week for that matter. For Milan and their supporters, everything did indeed change in one week when Silvio Berlusconi finally bowed to pressure from the fans to invest in the squad—and invest he did. Berlusconi, just days before the close of the transfer window, quickly snapped up Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Barcelona before luring Robinho back to European football.
Both players are exceptional talents and have the ability to win games single-handedly. Both players will certainly lift Milan to a higher level and for this reason Milan are now being counted as favourites to win both in Italy and Europe.
However, last weekend's shock loss to Cesena has given Milan and those that created the hype surrounding the team a reality check of sorts. Though it was indeed a terrible result, it is one that may serve Milan well in the future. Indeed, tonight may just provide the first glimpse of what new coach Max Allegri has done in order to resolve some of the obvious issues that were apparent in Saturday night's loss to the Serie A minnows.
Things will surely get better for Milan this season, that is for certain as long as the likes of Ibrahimovic and Robinho find their feet within the team and the likes of Pato, Ronaldinho, and Pirlo continue to be protagonists.
What is not certain is exactly how Milan will fare in both Europe and Italy this season. Certainly, Milan have signed two players that will make the Rossoneri a much more competitive outfit compared to last season, even the season or two before.
But a closer inspection of the Milan personnel and one finds it hard to see just how this team will compete on two fronts with success in both.
The much heralded "Fantastic Four," which includes Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato, and Ronaldinho (criminally, Inzaghi is not included), promises much on the attacking front and in this respect, Milan have few concerns, apart from the obvious one of getting these four players to actually play like a "Fantastic Four."
It is in defense and midfield, however, that Milan still have rather grave issues that cannot be resolved until at least January.
For instance, in midfield there is a real dearth of quality and depth. Andrea Pirlo is a sure starter as he continues to be the dictator of play for Milan, playing deep in midfield. Captain Massimo Ambrosini, it can be presumed, will start most games if he is fit because of his status.
Kevin Prince Boateng and Mathieu Flamini, two players with bundles of energy and commitment, but perhaps not exactly world class, are the only two other options in midfield if Allegri wants a player under 30 years of age.
Clarence Seedorf, now 35 years old, has retained his spot to complete the midfield trio but at his age, he cannot be expected to play in every game nor complete the ones he takes part in. As for Gattuso, the less said the better.
Defense is also not without its problems. Only when Alessandro Nesta plays do Milan look capable in defence. Without him, it is a completely different story. If Nesta stays fit all season, then Milan have a chance in all competitions. But, this will not happen. Nesta is injury prone and this year he is 34 years of age. Neither Sokratis or Thiago Silva can make up for Nesta's absence, as was highlighted last weekend against Cesena.
At full back the story is not much better. Luca Antonini is the only consistent performer. The likes of Ignazio Abate and Marek Jankulovski are not going to help Milan's cause and Gianluca Zambrotta, like Gattuso, is well past his best.
At closer inspection, it is rather irrational for Milan to be labelled as favourites in this year's Champions League. Milan may well have enough to compete on one front this season, but competing on two fronts may just be a little too much.
That said, Milan should have enough to get past the group stages. Against Real Madrid, Milan have always fared well, though with Mourinho at the helm at the Bernabeu this season, it might be a different story. But Milan should see themselves past the likes of Auxerre and Ajax, with the first test against the former just hours away.
At worst, Milan should make the last 16 and at best, they could reach the semifinals. But, if judged on paper and preseason form, Milan should not be included as one of the favourites. That title belongs to Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two teams with the strongest squads in Europe and two of the best coaches, who between them, have won the last two Champions League editions.
In any case, however, here's to hoping Allegri's Milan prove my thoughts wrong.