AC Milan waved goodbye to elite level European competition six years ago as a spent force.
The Rossoneri were knocked out of the Champions League in the last 16 stage by eventual finalists Atletico Madrid. Clarence Seedorf, the only player to win the competition with three different clubs, including Milan, was in charge but powerless to stop the final stage of their demise. Italy’s most successful club on the continent with seven titles had long been a shadow of the club Seedorf represented.
It was at that point when the Silvio Berlusconi project, which began in 1986 and went on to turn the club into the very best in the world, had run its course. Three years later, the former Italian Prime Minister sold Milan to Chinese investors and moved on but it was a false dawn. Complications over the ownership have halted progress and ultimately stopped the club getting back to a position of strength within Italian football. By 2015, they were little more than a mid-table side; it was unthinkable that such a fate could befall a sporting institution with their history. Just eight years prior, they were lifting their last Champions League title and four years before that secured an 18th Serie A title.
Their fall has been rapid and, as so often is the case with “sleeping giants”, the rise far more complicated. What made their very last Champions League appearance so sad was that it felt like a funeral, one last send off for the club they used to be. Seedorf had been drafted in as a rookie manager on the basis of his playing reputation and little else. Kaka, who had won the Ballon d’Or in 2007 before securing a big-money switch to Real Madrid two years later, had returned a pale imitation of himself. Atleti won 4-1 on the night, 5-1 on aggregate.
The unique approach to Milan’s prior success lay at their training complex, Milanello. Rather than gearing everything towards the next generation, they preferred preservation of the old. Seedorf, the man he replaced in the dugout Filippo Inzaghi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso, another future Milan manager, benefited from conditioning techniques which allowed them to play on well past their peak at a very high level.
Andriy Shevchenko’s 2006 sale to Chelsea barely knocked them off their perch but when Carlo Ancelotti and Kaka left, life began to get difficult. Ronaldinho and Robinho failed to bring their best to the San Siro, while Alexandre Pato flattered to deceive against extremely high expectations of his potential. Thiago Silva was perhaps the only Brazilian to truly settle and he, alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Andrea Pirlo, helped guide the club to the league title in 2011.
The following summer, all three departed. Ibrahimovic and Silva headed for Paris Saint-Germain, while Pirlo was inexplicably allowed to join Juventus on a free transfer. That move signalled a changing of the guard. Pirlo inspired Juve, still feeling the effects of the 2006 calciopoli match-fixing scandal, to a level of dominance that is yet to be stopped. The Bianconeri have won Serie A for nine seasons straight; Pirlo will be looking to make it ten himself having been named manager in August.
Finally, though, it looks like there could be light at the end of the tunnel. Ibrahimovic, aged 39, returned to the club last season and has maintained an astonishing level if fitness and quality, only comparable to those of Maldini, who retired aged 40, in Milan circles. Stefano Pioli, the manager, is something of an Italian football journeyman. He is viewed as a safe pair of hands, and that is exactly what he was for the club.
In the summer, it was expected that Ralf Rangnick, whose reputation as coach and sporting director is among the best around, would take over, but he failed to emerge. Quietly, Pioli got on with things; four games into the new season, AC Milan have a 100% record, including Saturday’s Derby Della Madonnina against Inter, one of the biggest derbies in European football, and sit at the top of the table
There were few raised eyebrows when Ibrahimovic scored twice to secure the victory. Inter’s recent history has mirrored their neighbours’ in many ways, with a fall from grace encapsulated by the lack of Champions League football and the regularity of being confined to the Europa League. But a second-placed finish to Juve last season, as well as an appearance in the final of the secondary European competition, showed great progress under Antonio Conte. With Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez making up a genuine world class frontline, they are slightly ahead of Milan in their recovery.
That was why the victory was a watershed moment; it turned a good start to the season into a great one and shows that AC Milan are making their own progress again. Because of their history, the great teams they once had and the plethora of superstars who wore their shirt, the desire for them to become a force once again is universal.
Football has changed since AC Milan were last the team to beat. Money has become a real factor in who builds the best squad, more so than even ten years ago. It is a long road back to the top but after years of mediocrity and struggles, it is great to see than they are finally being taken seriously once again.
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