So he did it. Something none of us ever believed would happen. He has been poor for nearly 18 months now – for both Barcelona and Milan – but few genuinely believed Ronaldinho would be legitimately dropped, without an injury excuse, by Leonardo. Yet on Tuesday evening, against Marseille in the Champions League, the Brazilian Coach dropped his compatriot to the bench. The result was a 2-1 victory that deserves praise.
The French outfit were dismissed, rather easily, as third place finishers in this group. This is a team who beat Liverpool, at Anfield, only two seasons ago in this competition, and their squad has improved since then, as indicated by their €18m purchase of Luis González in the summer. Combined with Milan’s decline and obvious struggles this campaign, and there is no guarantee of the Rossoneri progressing from the group. It makes the away result, always important in European competition, very satisfying indeed. Only Liverpool has beaten them at the Vélodrome in the past two years. One word, used by their Coach Didier Deschamps, describes the performance – clinical. Il Diavolo had more possession of the ball, but fewer shots. They had three shots on target (five in total), and scored twice. Marseille had four on target (14 in total), scoring once. It helps when you have a striker as brilliant as Filippo Inzaghi – his brace took him to 44 Champions League goals – but the difference in these figures highlights the gap in the level of experience that was evident between the two sides on Tuesday.
It is huge in European football, incredibly easy to underestimate, yet so vital to the outcome of matches and tournaments. There will be no more experienced a side than Milan in the 2009/10 competition. Of course, experience alone will not win you the trophy. The squad does not possess the quality necessary to go all the way, and as soon as they meet a side where the gap in experience is not so large, this deficiency will start to tell. The away victory, in tandem with the experience of the players, should hopefully propel the squad to 10 points, a mark that is considered the threshold at which qualification is ensured, although this is not always the case. In 2004/05 Dynamo Kyiv finished third with this figure (in a group where Roma finished bottom). Milan’s group, on paper, has the right blend of teams, and the whipping boys in Zürich, for this to happen again. The return game against the French could thus prove important to ensure they do not become as unlucky as the Ukrainians.
Amongst all the delight and flickers of positivity, Leonardo is now left with a problem. Does he bring Ronaldinho back into the starting XI, or continue to leave him out? The midweek European performance was good, certainly nothing more than that, and you could argue it was only ‘moderate’. Ejecting the No 80 from the team does not change the fundamental problems with the squad of players, problems that have been discussed to death for months now. What it does do is take out a player who is offering precious little, and replace him with one who provides a much greater contribution, thereby improving performance levels. Yet, in the long term, attempting to keep the former Barça man away from starting matches will not do the club any good. He may well warm the bench for the next four or five games, and the team will probably go and win each fixture. But Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo (whoever takes the trequartista position) cannot, and will not, play every game this season. One, or both, will suffer injury or require a rest, at which point the Brazilian will be required once again, causing the performance levels to drop. It is a real conundrum for a fledgling manager, and there is a danger of a vicious cycle developing if he is reactive about the issue, as opposed to pro-active.
Regardless of who the Coach picks, it is difficult to reduce the expectation of a home win on Sunday. Bologna were one of two sides to actually beat Milan at San Siro last season (the other being Roma), but a repeat is hard to envisage. If nothing else, the impetus of the midweek result should provide enough for whichever XI take to the field to secure victory against a team who will struggle this year, particularly if the impressive Seedorf keeps his place – the only member of the team who looks capable of creating anything for the strikers. The real indication of what Leonardo considers his best team (and whether Ronaldinho is a part of it) will come in October, when he takes his players to the Santiago Bernabéu to face Real Madrid. Until then, regular inconsistency in the starting XI will be the only consistent aspect to his team selection.
Milan Club Focus 2009/10
Pre-season expectation – August 18, 2009
Leonardo breathes as Brazilians relieve pressure – August 25, 2009
Kaka returns to the San Siro – August 27, 2009
How to play 4-3-1-2, a lesson from their rivals – September 1, 2009
Reshuffle the current squad, regain the winning mentality – September 4, 2009
International week (Georgia-Italy, Italy-Bulgaria)
Leonardo’s time to react – September 7, 2009
Livorno springs opportunity to end crisis – September 11, 2009
Serie A slides down priority list – September 15, 2009
Leonardo lurches into decision-making territory – September 18, 2009