After the draw earlier this year, AC Milan sporting director Umberto Gandini mused that “we could have drawn worse” upon learning that the Rossoneri had been paired with Atlético Madrid in the first knockout rounds of this year’s Champions League. Well, considering they could have gotten the likes of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, or a Paris Saint-Germain led by former striker Zlatan Ibrahimović, then certainly indeed, los Rojiblancos certainly weren’t the most daunting prospect they could have faced.
Well, they soon came to realize that there indeed was no “easy” opponent. Defeated in their own stadium thanks to Diego Costa’s late header and simply outclassed in the second leg as the same Costa grabbed himself a double in a 4-1 rout, Clarence Seedorf’s men finally exited the tournament without putting up much of a fight. And, to be honest, even the most ardent Diavolo supporters would not deny that it was inevitable and even secretly concede that it was for the best for the club self-described as il più titolato del mondo.
In short, Milan were outclassed, outplayed, and outwitted as los Rojiblancos sealed their place in the quarter-finals for the first time since 1997 and the very same side is now in the semi’s, their first appearance since 1974. Yes, Diego Simeone’s men have indeed been quite the revelation in La Liga, and are still keeping pace with the big duo of Barcelona and Real Madrid. But the score-line clearly reflects how far this storied club has fallen since their last victory in 2007; and indeed, had they faced off against the “big brother” of Atlético—Real Madrid—who knows what kind of massacre fans would have been subjected to?
To be honest, the 7-time CL winners were quite fortunate to be even participating in the first place. Yes, one positive aspect after the tumult of last season was the amazing rise of Stephan El Shaarawy whose 14 goals had fired the Rossoneri into a decent 7th place position before the Christmas holiday before seeing his form dip, perhaps coincidentally with the arrival of Mario Balotelli in January.
But given that the 2012-2013 campaign was supposed to be their annus horribilis, they were indeed fortunate to qualify for third place at the expense of Fiorentina. And given how the two sides have fared so far in the league—one having secured European football; the other not even certain of a top half finish—one can’t help but wonder perhaps how the Viola may have fared in the continent’s premier competition this year.
The feeling of “riding one’s luck” indeed continued during their continental campaign, where they only bettered their last year’s performances in the group stages by one point (9 vs. 8) and were very fortunate that Ajax could not take advantage of their numerical advantage after Riccardo Montolivo’s early dismissal. With Napoli and Juventus both dumped out, the feeling was indeed that perhaps it was not the best Italian side that had gone through, especially given how the Bianconeri and Partenopei have performed so far in the league this season.
Certainly, Juventus had only themselves to blame for their early exit—failing to get maximum points against Copenhagen and Galatasaray earlier on; whilst Napoli’s failure was simply due to being put into the “Group of Death” where a dozen points, normally enough to get through to the next rounds was cruelly not enough for the Southern Italian club.
Truth be told, no one realistically expected Milan to be competitive having sold their best attacker and defender in one fell swoop during the 2012 transfer market. Especially since they failed to bring in adequate replacements. And while El Shaarawy’s sudden uptick in form combined with Balotelli’s bright start appeared to paper over the cracks, this season they have been brutally exposed. Vulnerable in defense, and devoid of creative nous in attack, fans have seen them lose to sides that not too long ago they would have easily made mincemeat of.
Take for example, their 4-3 capitulation to Sassuolo that put the final nail in the coffin of Massimiliano Allegri’s tenure at the club. 2-0 up in the span of less than 15 minutes and it appeared that a proper hiding for the Serie A debutants in front of their own fans was in order. After all, Inter easily put seven past them in the earlier stages of the season and the Neroverdi have the most porous back-line of all 20 teams in the competition this season.
What happened next is something that will certainly give Rossoneri fans indigestion just thinking of it and make Sassuolo’s supporters want to party like they certainly did when their team won Serie B last season. Not even the likes of top duo Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo have been able to score a poker against the team that once claimed top notch defenders such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, and Thiago Silva amongst their ranks.
Now, whilst none of these world-class players were anywhere near that pitch on 12 January, there was certainly no rhyme nor reason why a 19-year-old Domenico Berardi was able to have the best night of his young career as he became the first ever player to fire in four past a side that yes, has seen their best days gone by, but still were playing a team that has never featured in Italian football’s top flight until now.
In fact, after Berardi’s 32 minute rampage was over, Milan did manage to pull one back through Montolivo’s late strike, but it was a moot point—the damage had already been done. Out went Allegri, in came former midfielder Clarence Seedorf. Devoid of any sort of managerial experience even at the youth levels, the four-time CL winner and former Dutch international was somehow expected to turn things around. And, despite the daunting task ahead, the player, who reportedly enjoys a close relationship with owner Silvio Berlusconi declared that he “couldn’t say no to Milan” and that it was “his duty to help” the team where he won two out of four of his CL trophies.
Yes, the financial implications of Milan’s Champions League exit will be felt, but at the very least—they still managed to make more than Juventus and Napoli who didn’t even make it to the first knock out stages. And as they were also sent out of the Coppa Italia by Udinese, the Rossoneri no longer have any hope of lifting any sort of silverware this season. They are still eight points off that last Europa League spot and indeed it is somewhat feasible that by putting together a string of good results and hoping some other teams slip up along the way that they just might pull off another “mission impossible”.
But given their performance in Madrid, it does not look in their best interest to be in any kind of European competition next season. Just look at the case of Roma who has had the entire term to regroup and focus on their league campaign, or Juventus who has enjoyed a renaissance as they look to maintain their stranglehold on the Scudetto come May. In order to properly rebuild, an organization needs to be able to sit back, evaluate, and re-focus—away from the intense scrutiny and spotlight that comes with playing football on the continent’s biggest stage.
Hence why, as painful as it may be to the club’s supporters, bowing out of the Champions League this season is definitely one of the best things that could have happened to them. It saved them the inevitable humiliation at the hands of a more dangerous opponent and will allow them to perhaps salvage whatever remains of this year’s domestic campaign. Indeed, the Rossoneri seem to have gotten back on track over this past month, winning four games on the bounce for the first time all season and should be able to secure a top-half finish if the rest of the games go their way.
And that would perhaps give them perfect launching pad for starting off the 2014-2015 campaign on more solid footing.