Milan – A Resurrected City?

AC Milan

It has been 10 long years since the once star-studded Milan side ended a season at the top of the Serie A rankings. The Rossoneri, like everyone else on the peninsula, have been playing second fiddle to Juventus and their nine-year dominance of Italian football.

But during the 2010-2011 season, Max Allegri led the club, then under the ownership of Silvio Berlusconi, to their 18th title, relying heavily on experience with 15 members of his squad in their 30s. That title-winning season would prove to be a final swansong for club legends and World Cup winners including Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta, and Filippo Inzaghi. Clarence Seedorf and Ronaldinho would go on to ply their trade in Brazil the following season, while Massimo Oddo and Marek Jankulovski were also coming to the end of their careers.

In the years that followed Berlusconi would attempt to reduce the wage bill at the club. Gone were the days of splashing out on world class stars. Instead, they foolishly followed an unwritten policy of signing players whose best days were behind them on free transfers, and gambling on unknown youngsters.

The sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to the nouveau riche Paris Saint-Germain saw a changing of the guard in 2012. The French side replaced Milan as the club that attracted the brightest talent from around the globe and signalled an end to the free-spending Berlusconi era. It’s only now that the Rossoneri are finally recovering.

The club itself was soon sold but the change in ownership did not bring success or stability. Instead, it led to one crisis after another. Il Diavolo have added just one paltry Supercoppa Italiana to their trophy cabinet since their last Scudetto win, coming in a penalty shootout victory over Juventus in Doha in 2016. Milan only qualified for that game as runners-up in the Coppa Italia as Juventus lifted a domestic double in 2015-16.

This season, under the guidance of Stefano Pioli, Milan came flying out of the blocks, going unbeaten in their opening 15 league games, winning 11 and drawing four. It took until January 6 for Pioli’s charges to taste defeat, in a 3-1 home reverse against Juventus. By that point, the defending champions were left in Milan’s red-and-black dust.

Arguably the biggest catalyst for this change in fortunes has been the impact of Ibrahimovic. The 39-year-old returned to Milan in December 2019 after two years with LA Galaxy and quickly confounded doubts about his signing. If anything, he’s gotten better as he has gotten used to the pace of the Serie A game, scoring 15 times in 16 games in 2020-21. Two of those goals came in the Derby della Madonnina win over Inter in October, and his form was impressive enough that Sweden coach Jan Olof Andersson recalled Ibra to the national team after a five-year retirement.

Ibrahimovic’s influence has been felt off the field too, when assessing the growth of younger players such as Davide Calabria, Franck Kessie and Rafael Leao. In recent years, those younger players looked rudderless, with no leader to guide them. Ibra’s huge presence now reverberates around the training ground and the pitch, and he leads by example.

Milan may ultimately look back on 2020-21 with disappointment after their brilliant start gave way to an Inter insurgence, but they shouldn’t. Absent from the Champions League since 2014, qualification for that competition in itself is significant progress and a sure sign the Rossoneri are back where they belong.

Inter

Inter are the last Italian side to win the Champions League. Led by Jose Mourinho, that success in the 2009-10 season formed part of the treble, but unfortunately for supporters who had grown accustomed to winning things after the Calcipoli scandal neutered Juventus, it would be the last trophy of note – barring a 3-1 Coppa Italia Final win over Palermo in 2011.

Mourinho departed and so too did the players that ran through brick walls for him – Lucio, Maicon, Walter Samuel, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Wesley Sneijder, Dejan Stankovic, Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o. It was impossible to replace so many high calibre players in a short space of time, especially when president Massimo Moratti decided that seeing Inter realise his dream of the Champions League was the time to step back and put the club up for sale.

From there it was one false dawn after another. A host of coaches fell by the wayside – Rafael Benitez, Walter Mazzari, Gian Piero Gasperini, Frank De Boer, Luciano Spalletti and even the man currently rebuilding Milan, Pioli. Inter even had former boss Roberto Mancini back for a couple of years, but he couldn’t replicate the success of his first spell and soon moved on.

It was not until the arrival of the men that oversaw the rise of Juventus a decade ago – Beppe Marotta and Antonio Conte – that things fell into place for the Nerazzurri. Under current owners Suning, who purchased a majority share from Erick Thohir in 2016, the Biscione has been effective in the transfer market – Marotta’s domain as CEO, in conjunction with Conte’s contacts and clear idea of how he wants Inter to play.

Conte has called on his time as Chelsea manager to return to the Premier League to sign the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Christian Eriksen, as well as ex-Manchester United trio Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez. Not all signings have been successful, but England has been a fruitful market for Inter.

Regardless of where the players are signed from, Conte has a squad that matches exactly his demands. That’s a change from 12 months ago, when he publically complained about not getting the players he wanted. The coach’s preference is three technical, physical centre-backs, dynamic wing-backs – and he has arguably the most dynamic right-wing-back in the world in Achraf Hakimi – and an energetic midfield, perhaps best exemplified by Nicolo Barella. Leading the line is an enviable partnership of Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez.

Conte’s men were beaten to the honour of Winter Champions by Milan but had surged away from their city rivals by the time the final weeks of the season came into view. If Juve have had a strangle hold on the Scudetto since 2012, then Inter have had one hand on it since the middle of March. Their 19th title has been a long time in coming, but will have been worth the wait.

A Look Ahead

This upcoming season will present both teams with a different set of challenges. On the black and blue side of the city, they’ll have to try and build on the success of last season without the likes of Antonio Conte and Hakimi. While Simone Inzaghi is no Antonio Conte, his Lazio side was, at times, a well-drilled side capable of beating anyone. Both tacticians employ a similar formation with a 3-man defence with Inzaghi opting for more of an attacking midfield role in his lineup. Hakimi’s departure is a big loss, but a necessary one given the club’s current financial situation. Whether or not others will follow the Moroccan out remains to be seen, but it’s still early days as far as the transfer market goes in terms of who comes in and who leaves.

As for Milan, the situation is a more stable one as far as the coach goes. Stefano Pioli will be leading the Rossoneri for the third-successive season where they will feature in the Champions League for the first time in 8 years following a second-place finish last season. However, the club will have to deal with the loss of two key players on top of shoring up areas of the pitch they were lacking in last season. Whether or not they have the finances to do so remains to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t help that Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu left for free, the latter of which signed for city rivals Inter. France international Mike Maignan was brought in from Lille to replace Donnarumma while the search for Calhanoglu’s replacement continues. Fikayo Tomori and Sandro Tonali will return after their loans were made permanent, while Brahim Diaz is expected to join for another season on loan. However, the club still needs a striker as relying on Ibrahimovic is too much of a risk, especially at his age. Alongside a striker, they must also sign a left-back, a center-midfielder and a right-winger. A busy summer ahead for Maldini and co.

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