Ranking AC Milan's Best Domestic XI vs. Overseas XI of the Past 15 Years
AC Milan are one of the most storied clubs in the history of European soccer. And for the most part, the last 15 years have been good to them.
The Rossoneri have won a pair of Scudetti and two UEFA Champions Leagues during that time, and until the last three or four years, they consistently finished in the mix at the top of the Serie A table.
Many countries, Italy in particular, have been criticized in recent years over the proportion of foreign players featuring in their top leagues. Milan's crosstown rivals, Inter Milan, have a recent history of hardly fielding Italians at all.
Milan has tended to strike a balance in this regard, getting key contributions from a core of Italian players supplemented by high-impact foreigners.
That raises the question: What if, one day in training, AC Milan's Italian and foreign players divided and had a match?
That's the hypothetical situation we will be taking a look at in this article. We've combed through Milan's squads from the 2001-02 season to the current one, looking for the best players to fit into a 4-3-1-2 formation. We'll grade the players at each position against each other, and then evaluate which lineup would triumph in a one-off game.
Who wins, Italy or the world? Let's find out.
Goalkeeper: Christian Abbiati vs. Dida
Only two men have spent long periods of time in goal for Milan over the last 15 years. Luckily enough, the pair can be separated into each team.
Christian Abbiati has been a Milan player in one form or another since 1998. He's been loaned three separate times and has gained and lost the starting job about as much. He's played a total of 380 games for Milan in all competitions and was a part in varying degrees of three Scudetti, a Coppa Italia triumph and a Champions League title.
His opposite number is Dida, the Brazilian who spent 10 years with Milan, playing 302 games and starting on a pair of European Cup-winning sides. He was an excellent 'keeper who played 91 times for his country over 11 years and was one of the few players to avoid the ire of Brazilian media after the Selecao were eliminated from the World Cup in 2006.
While both have been important contributors to Milan, Dida was the better player. He was more athletic and an excellent penalty stopper. He saved six of the eight he faced in international play and came up big in the 2003 Champions League final, saving three Juventus penalties in the shootout—although referee Markus Merk was a bit loose with the rules about 'keepers staying on the line, both in Dida's case and that of Gianluigi Buffon.
Both of these men are solid goalkeepers, but Dida edges it here.
Right-Back: Alessandro Costacurta vs. Cafu
There, he decisively proved his career wasn't dead. He spent five years at the San Siro, playing in 161 games in all competitions and winning a Scudetto and a Champions League, remaining in the Brazil setup until he was 36.
He had already earned the nickname Il Pendolino after the high-speed trains that run through the Italian peninsula for his swift runs up the right wing. Milan certainly reaped the benefits of his play.
Picking someone to oppose him for Team Italy is difficult, because for a good segment of our time frame, Cafu was playing. The current contender, Ignazio Abate, is adequate but not a game-changer. That, and the excuse to include a deserving player on this list, has put Alessandro Costacurta on the right flank.
Costacurta played most of his career in the center, but he did play on the right on occasion, including the Champions League-winning 2002-03 season. He's an asset in that position, but it's not his natural role. Cafu has a clear edge here.
Center-Back: Alessandro Nesta vs. Jaap Stam
Jaap Stam only played for Milan for two years, but they were epic years. He was a regular starter in Europe and the league, and he helped lead them to the final of the Champions League in 2004-05 and the semifinal the next year.
Alessandro Nesta, though, is a Milan icon. He spent a decade in red and black, and he cemented himself as one of the best to ever play his position. He had a thrilling blend of Franco Baresi's technique and Claudio Gentile's physicality, with excellent passing ability thrown in.
Nesta set the bar for the defenders of his generation, and few people managed to get to it. He was one of the gold standards of the era and ahead of all but a handful of his contemporaries.
Center-Back: Paolo Maldini vs. Thiago Silva
This is a matchup of AC Milan's last great center-back and their ultimate icon.
Paolo Maldini is simply one of the best players to have ever played the game. Watching him defend was like watching poetry in motion. He hardly needed to make a tackle. His positioning and understanding of the game was enough to keep opponents away from his goal.
He began his career at left-back, but by the time we're dealing with, he'd moved inside. He played in the center until he retired in 2009, his form never dropping.
Thiago Silva took over leadership of the line after Maldini hung up his boots. The Brazilian's tactical awareness is incredible. He's excellent in possession, one of the fastest defenders in the game and an excellent locker-room leader.
The forerunner of a new breed of center-back that also boasts the like of Leonardo Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani, Silva's departure in 2012 sent Milan's back line into a tailspin that was only arrested this summer when Romagnoli was purchased from Roma.
Silva is among the best defenders of his generation, but Maldini might be the best of all time.
Left-Back: Gianluca Zambrotta vs. Serginho
Serginho spent the early part of his career at several different Brazilian clubs before crossing the Atlantic to play for Milan in 1999. He spent nearly a decade at the San Siro.
Often referred to as Il Concorde, after the supersonic passenger jets, Serginho was a great asset to Milan. He could play either as a traditional full-back or a wing-back, and his crossing was something to behold.
He had many great moments in red and black, but the best had to have been in May 11, 2001. It's shortly before our time window opened, but it's worth mentioning his stat line from that day's derby against Inter: one goal and three assists in a record-setting 6-0 victory.
He was mostly a bit-part player by the end of his time in Milan, but he still totalled 185 league appearances.
Finding a left-back for the Italian side was tricky. Between Serginho and the likes of Marek Jankulovski and Kakha Kaladze, the position was mostly held down by non-Italians during our time frame. Maldini has already been used, so we'll go with Gianluca Zambrotta, who spent four years with the team from 2008 to 2012.
Zambrotta was one of the best full-backs of his day, but his best days came at Juventus. By the time he arrived at the San Siro from Barcelona, he was in the twilight of his career. By 2010, he was being used more as a utility player to fill in on either flank than as a regular starter. Certainly adequate, but he was not quite at the scintillating level he was at Juve.
Central Midfield: Clarence Seedorf vs. Massimo Ambrosini
Both men in this matchup captained Milan, Clarence Seedorf as an alternate and Massimo Ambrosini as full captain after the departure of Maldini.
Ambrosini was a solid player, but he wasn't an explosive creator, preferring to try to regain possession for his teammates. He played so well at times that Carlo Ancelotti had to alter his tactics to accommodate him on the field.
But he couldn't match Seedorf. The Dutchman was one of the most versatile midfielders of his generation. He could play as a playmaker or a holder. He could make pinpoint passes and dribble around defenders in equal measure.
Both players' legacies are sealed in Milan, but Seedorf was the more versatile and much better technically—and that's what gives him the edge here.
Central Midfield: Andrea Pirlo vs. Rui Costa
One of the best registas to ever play the game, Andrea Pirlo spent 10 years as the fulcrum of Milan's attack. Little more needs to be said.
One of the greatest dead-ball specialists in the history of the game, Pirlo's passing ability in his prime was superlative. He could hit a dime in a snowstorm from 70 yards. Had he not been unceremoniously dumped by Milan in 2011, who knows how different the Rossoneri's fortunes would be.
The world team's regista spot will be occupied by Rui Costa. One of Milan's best attacking players in the early part of our 15-year period, Costa ended up losing more and more playing time to Kaka as time went on. A trequartista by trade, Costa was capable of playing deeper, but it wasn't his strong point. That drags his grade down—although even if it were his strong point, Pirlo would be ahead in this matchup by a mile.
Central Midfield: Gennaro Gattuso vs. Nigel de Jong
Every team needs its enforcer. For much of the 21st century, that role was played by Gennaro Gattuso.
Gattuso was not the most technical of players, but he ran all day and put his nose in for every ball. Coming near him with the ball was asking to get hit—hard.
His partnership in the middle of the park with Pirlo, which bordered on the realm of ESP, was a key driver in Milan's success in the first part of the last decade and Italy's 2006 FIFA World Cup triumph.
For the world team, the enforcer is Nigel de Jong, who beat out fellow Dutchman Mark van Bommel for the place based mainly on how much longer he spent at the San Siro.
After battling back from an injury-riddled first season at the club in 2012-13, he spent the next two seasons as a fixture in midfield, helping to lock down the middle of the park as the Rossoneri began to rebuild. By this season, he'd fallen out of favor with coach Sinisa Mihajlovic and only appeared five times before moving to the LA Galaxy of MLS in the winter transfer window.
In a battle of hard men, Gattuso has the edge. He played a whopping 468 games in all competitions for Milan, and he had a bit more finesse than De Jong. He possessed a cannon of a shot that every once in a while gave goalkeepers trouble.
Most important is the fact he was about more than just beating people up as a defender. He had great positional sense and awareness and used them to great effect. He was famous because he was one of the best midfield defenders of his day. De Jong is best known for karate-kicking an opponent in a World Cup final.
De Jong: B-
Attacking Midfield: Giacomo Bonaventura vs. Kaka
It's actually quite hard to find an Italian who played the attacking-midfield role with any regularity over the past 15 years. Between Rui Costa and Kaka, the post was held by foreigners almost exclusively until the latter left for Real Madrid in 2009.
The nod goes to Giacomo Bonaventura, who is AC Milan's best player and their most effective trequartista when the team deploys a formation that uses one.
But no one in the last 15 years has held a candle to Kaka. His performances in a Milan shirt earned him the Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards in 2007. In 308 games over two stints with the club, Kaka scored 105 times and provided 61 assists.
The idea that anyone would beat him to this spot is unrealistic.
Striker: Alberto Gilardino vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Now we get into the area where foreign players have been better.
Alberto Gilardino had a good time at Milan. He scored 44 times in 132 games for the club. But he's not Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
And the Ibrahimovic who came to Milan after a falling out with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona was in his prime. He scored at the insane clip of 56 goals in 85 matches and, in 2010-11, led the Rossoneri to their first Scudetto since 2003-04.
Regardless of how well Gilardino may have played, Ibra has the edge on him any day of the week.
Striker: Filippo Inzaghi vs. Andriy Shevchenko
Filippo Inzaghi was not the most talented forward, but he worked the hardest. And that resulted in a prolific scorer. Only three players have scored more goals in the Champions League than Inzaghi, who notched 126 times in 300 matches in all competitions over his 11 seasons with Milan.
But when you're compared to the second-most prolific scorer in the history of AC Milan—Andriy Shevchenko trails only Gunnar Nordahl for that honor with 175 to the Swede's 221—it's hard to expect to come out on top.
Shevchenko was the most feared striker in the world for years under Ancelotti's tutelage. He was the Capocannoniere twice and battled through some injuries to put up insane numbers.
Inzaghi is a worthy alternative to Shevchenko, but the Ukrainian comes out on top here.
So who wins this hypothetical matchup?
Most of the players here are genuine stars, so the devil is in the details. The world team has a frightening strike pair in Ibrahimovic and Shevchenko, one that becomes truly terrifying with Kaka in the hole behind them. The question is whether they would get past the immovable wall of defensive pairing Maldini and Nesta.
In the end, this comes down to the midfield. While Kaka would cause problems, having Andrea Pirlo is a big boost, especially considering the fact the world team would be playing Rui Costa out of position. That could mean Shevchenko and Ibrahimovic would not get the service they need to deliver on their promise. Pirlo, on the other hand, would be well covered, as he always was when Gattuso was on the field.
It would be a close game, probably one with a lot of goals on either side. But in the end, the solidity of Team Italy in defense would trump the world's incredible attackers, and Pirlo would win the all-important regista battle against Costa.
The Italian XI would come up with a 3-2 win.