Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
Daniele Bonera and Ignazio Abate slouched in front, hands on their knees, exhausted. It had been a hard day, and it was a hard result. Milan 0, relegation candidates Atalanta 1.
The boos were ringing in their ears. Some ecstatic Atalanta players were exchanging jerseys with their illustrious opponents. A souvenir to remember one of their most famous victories. A second home defeat in as many games meant Milan have three points from their opening three fixtures this Serie A season. It's their worst start to a season since 1930-31.
Their other defeat, on the season opener on August 26, came against Sampdoria, another side expected to battle relegation this season. No wonder coach Massimiliano Allegri is favoured to get the sack in the near future.
With their Champions League campaign scheduled to get underway tomorrow at home against Belgian side Anderlecht, things could hardly have been more difficult for the seven-time European champions.
Or hardly more different.
"Manchester United obliterated Roma and all but erased the reputation of Serie A," exclaimed The Guardian. It was April 11, 2007, the day after United had hammered Luciano Spalletti's free-flowing side 7-1 in the second leg of the 2006-07 Champions League quarter-finals. With an aggregate score of 8-3 (Roma had won the first leg 2-0), United had emphatically sealed a semifinal spot in the Champions League. "No one believed it possible to treat an Italian club quite like this," the British newspaper purred. "[United's] burden now is the widespread expectation that they will beat Bayern Munich or Milan in the last four and go on to the Champions League final".
They need not have bothered.
Milan, who beat Bayern in the quarter-final, lost the first leg at Old Trafford 2-3, but were content to come away with two away goals. Then they produced a footballing masterclass to blank Sir Alex Ferguson's men 3-0 in the second leg, reaching the final with an aggregate of 5-3. "The biggest difference," a disappointed Ferguson would say after losing the semifinal, "was the level of experience and you gain that by keeping the same team for many years as Milan have done".
But Milan kept the same team for too many years. Its legs ran out, and with it, its time. Even Ferguson, for whom the gold standard when it came to performing in Europe in recent years is Milan, does not resist change. He regularly infuses new blood into the team even when winning championships, always planning ahead, ever-cautious of inertia.
However, half a decade after that glorious night at the San Siro, many of the Milan side that outclassed United were still at the club this summer. An experienced line-up had become geriatric. With the management at last realising they cannot ward off change forever, a clutch of club legends, including Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Gennaro Gattuso, either retired or were moved on. Experienced pros such as Mark Van Bommel and Gianluca Zambrotta were also released.
To replace the experienced campaigners who departed, the club resorted to a strange, dangerous strategy: buying mid-career underachievers with questionable records at the highest level and little known match-winning ability. And they also sold their two best players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva. A large part of the money earned from their transfer to French giants Paris Saint-Germain, around euros 60m, was not reinvested in strengthening the squad. Instead, the present squad is a mix of players brought on loans, co-ownership agreements and free transfers.
"We have a psychological block," Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini, the only one who started that semi-final against United to still remain at the club, said after the Atalanta match. "We do have to change quickly and try to call on those characteristics in past years we didn't need because we had champions who would resolve games by themselves."
It was a striking acknowledgement of the team's current potential. Milan have very few players capable of turning a match in their side now, and all of them seem either injury prone or inconsistent.
Alexandre Pato, the Brazilian wunderkind, is perpetually injured and is in the midst of a three-week layoff. Giampaolo Pazzini can't score unless there is a proper supply of crosses and even then couldn't score against Atalanta, weeks after he netted a hat-trick against Bologna. Ricardo Montolivo impressed for Italy at the 2012 Euros but is yet to replicate his Fiorentina form for Milan, Kevin-Prince Boateng will never be the world-class attacking midfielder his club want him to be and Robinho more often than not flatters to deceive.
Add this to Allegri's preference to play with two defensive midfielders and the club's failure to sign a quality left-back, which could have given the side more width and hence, more creativity, the resultant fare is drab and boring. Milan, owned by media baron and former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, often point to the better tax rates in neighbouring Spain as a reason for their inability to sign top drawer talent, but recent purchases by the 'rossoneri' seem more down to lack of drive and endeavour than money.
Francesco Acerbi, a central defender, was bought for euros 4m in a co-ownership deal with Genoa. Kevin Constant, a left-sided midfielder, was signed on loan. Bakaye Traore, a little-known defensive midfielder, signed on a free transfer from French club AS Nancy. Bojan Krkic, the Spanish forward, was signed on loan from Roma. The highest transfer sums spent by Milan this summer to reinforce the squad were euros 7m (plus Antonio Cassano) to bring in Pazzini from Internazionale and euros 5m to sign Dutch international Nigel de Jong from Manchester City. Both proven performers, but the parsimony of the club management has immensely weakened the squad in other areas.
With a thrust on youth and the unbridled optimism it brings with it, with no concession to the sacrifices necessary to win championships, Milan aim to recapture the glory of yesteryears. But they should not expect it too soon, because they have too little.