If Siena were too weak an opposition team to judge whether Leonardo’s Milan are capable of challenging for honours this season, then a Week 2 clash against Scudetto holders Inter will certainly provide us with the opportunity to really run the rule over the side. The Derby della Madonnina is upon us, even if it does feel a bit too early for this sort of game. Indeed, you could argue that such is the timing of the match, that a defeat, for either side, is possibly not that damaging in the long run. Of course, local bragging rights are at stake, so victory will mean plenty to the tifosi of bothe sides – but it is not as essential as the game between these two teams that took place in February last season where Milan’s title chase was effectively ended. Arsène Wenger’s words on Arsenal’s trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United this weekend are of particular relevance here: “Even if we lose points against Manchester United, we can catch them up – you still have 35 games to go.” In the case of the Rossoneri, they would have 36 games to catch up any dropped points. The other title contenders, Juventus, host Roma in Week 2, a tough game where points can potentially be lost. All things considered, there is perhaps no better time to be facing José Mourinho’s men.
Recent history points to a Milan victory – il Diavolo have not lost the ‘home’ derby for three years – although a more circumspect prediction would probably point to a draw. Tactically, both teams are expected to utilise the same system – a 4-3-1-2 – so individual quality will be decisive. Milan has the edge in attack, especially if Ronaldinho can build on his performance against Siena, whilst Inter are a superior outfit defensively. The tactical similarities between the two are likely to favour the Nerazzurri overall, because they have the correct blend of players to make the system more effective in the midfield, even if they are lacking creativity. Over the 90 minutes, their collective should be enough to come away with a draw.
Away from Serie A, Milan’s triumphant return to the Champions League was dampened somewhat with a tough group stage draw. In probably the hardest of the eight groups, Leonardo will visit the Santiago Bernabéu (Real Madrid), Stade Vélodrome (Marseille) and the Letzigrund Stadion (FC Zurich) in his quest to drag his side to the knockout rounds. Whilst they will be visiting some of the finest stadiums in Europe, the task of accumulating enough points to finish in the top two will not be easy. The players should be familiar with the Swiss side, having faced them twice at the start of last season in the first round of the UEFA Cup, winning 3-1 in Milan, and 1-0 in Switzerland. Six points from these two games will be imperative for progression from the group. It then boils down to home form against the remaining two teams. 10 points is generally considered the threshold for qualification, so at least one more victory will be required.
Real Madrid appear to have become a team that Italian sides love to play in recent years – two group stage defeats to Juventus in 2008/09 and a home defeat to Roma in the 2007/08 campaign suggest that Milan should not hold too much fear in travelling to the Spanish capital. However, the Merengues are something of an unknown quantity at the moment. A new Coach and potentially five new players in their starting line-up make this a very different squad of to the one that was seen off relatively comfortably by Juventus last season. Not to mention of course that the Rossoneri will almost surely be facing their former Golden Boy Ricky Kaka as he returns to the San Siro, this time in a white shirt. Meanwhile, Marseille inflicted a home defeat on Liverpool two seasons ago, and will not provide points easily for the Rossoneri.
The European campaign will test Leonardo’s squad to the limit. We have mentioned many times in this column that the players cannot perform optimally twice a week. It has been evident for two seasons, and it will not improve with the majority of key players in the team still the wrong side of 30. The likes of Ignazio Abate, David Di Gennaro and Oguchi Onyewu will have to step up and perform, most likely in Serie A as the Brazilian Coach rests players for crunch Champions League group games. Failure of the squad to adapt could impact in both competitions – a shock group stage exit would not be a surprise, despite the quality Milan possess, whilst missing out on Europe’s premier club competition next season would have disastrous results financially. If the tifosi thought this year’s summer mercato was poor, it would be infinitely worse next year should this scenario play out. Over to you Diavolo.