AC Milan went into Saturday's game against AS Roma knowing that nothing less than a victory would put them in position to gain sixth in the table and ensure themselves of entry in the UEFA Europa League regardless of whether they beat Juventus in the Coppa Italia final on May 21.
With Sassuolo ahead of them they would need help, but whatever the situation, victory would be vital.
Or at least the fans and pundits knew that. Someone had obviously forgotten to convey that message to the players.
Milan put up absolutely no fight against the Giallorossi and sunk to a 3-1 loss in front of their home fans. There was no spark, no fight. Even before Sassuolo put Inter to bed by the end of the first half of their game, the Rossoneri showed no urgency to seek out the victory they needed. It was a disgraceful performance—and the responsibility for it starts at the very top.
Silvio Berlusconi's decision to fire manager Sinisa Mihajlovic on April 12 and replace him with youth-team coach Cristian Brocchi was the catalyst for Milan's rapid fall.
It was in part a knee-jerk reaction to a bad month of form, but there was a deeper story to it. Berlusconi expected a return to the UEFA Champions League this year—an expectation that was unrealistic when Milan compared to the likes of Juve, Napoli and Roma.
He also disliked Mihajlovic's on-field style. A notorious meddler who is obsessed with how good his team looks on the pitch, the owner constantly criticized his coach and his more proactive style throughout the year.
After he was dismissed, Berlusconi took to Facebook to defend himself from fan criticism, saying, among other things (h/t Football Italia), "Let us be clear, aside from the results, we have never seen Milan play so badly."
The move has turned into a world-class miscalculation. Milan certainly haven't played attractive football. They've only scored more than one goal once since Brocchi took over, and they've barely managed to create any chances. The results haven't been any better—aside from Saturday's implosion they failed to win any of their three consecutive games against the teams currently occupying the relegation zone
That stretch included an embarrassing 2-1 loss to rock-bottom Hellas Verona, who had already been relegated but battled back from 1-0 down to win the game at the death. That was sandwiched between a goalless draw with Carpi, and a 3-3 draw against Frosinone that saw Sassuolo pass them for sixth.
In firing Mihajlovic—a manager that was popular in the locker room and having more success than the team had had in two years—and replacing him with someone who simply wasn't ready for a job this big, Berlusconi effectively threw away Milan's season. When Mihajlovic was sacked his team was four points up on Sassuolo. Within three games Brocchi managed to squander that lead and let the Neroverdi pass the team.
Berlusconi's interference has finally broken his own team's back. It almost gives credence to the drastic accusations made in a statement by Milan's ultras after the Frosinone game.
In the statement (h/t Football Italia) the groups pointed out that Milan were already committed to a lucrative tour of pre-season games in the United States—one that would directly conflict with the preliminary rounds of the Europa League that they would have had to play in had they qualified for the competition in sixth.
For the ultras, Milan's results against lesser opposition like Carpi and Verona was evidence that the club would decline the Europa League unless they qualified by winning the Coppa Italia final, which would put them directly into the group stage.
This is an extreme accusation, and one that will take more than just the suspicions of fans to prove. But the fact that the club allowed such a conflict to be created in the first place is a sign of bad management. Either no one at Casa Milan was paying attention to next season's calendar or they are still so stuck in the past, when the Champions League was given, that they never thought to consider whether the Europa League would conflict with pre-season tournaments.
Between mismanagement in the front office, unfit coaches and disinterested players, it's taken slightly less than a month for Milan to go from registering a major step forward on their rebuilding plan to finding themselves back at square one. The work they did to get to where they were before Mihajlovic was fired has gone for nought. The season has basically been thrown away.
The only saving grace could come next Saturday if Milan pull an upset and actually do beat Juventus for the Coppa. That would put Milan back into European competition and give players like Gianluigi Donnarumma and Giacomo Bonaventura valuable experience on the continent—experience that could help them improve not only in Europe but in Serie A as well.
But that seems unlikely. Milan have been toothless in attack, and Juventus own the league's best defensive record. They're also used to situations like this, having won five consecutive league titles and last year's Coppa in their current run of success. Milan did give them two of their most difficult games this season, but that was Mihajlovic's team—there's no way of knowing whether the disorganized mess that Brocchi has presided over the last four weeks could replicate those results.
Unless they do, a season that would have been successful has very quickly become a stunning failure.