It is a measure of the lacklustre season that Milan has endured that there is more going on off the pitch than there is on it. The club seem to have confirmed their automatic spot in next season’s Champions League. Genoa and Fiorentina do have considerably easier remaining fixtures, but the nine point gap that separates the latter from the Rossoneri (as well as another team in the shape of Juventus, who are now the ones in danger of losing their automatic qualification spot) should prove to be too much to overcome. The match between la Viola and Milan is the final game of the season, and barring a monumental collapse, the timing of the fixture is clearly not suited to applying pressure on their league position.
The optimists are also out in force, with laughable claims that Milan can actually challenge for lo Scudetto after watching the gap to Inter close to seven points. Now although the Nerazzurri are notorious for their inability to kill-off a championship race, even considering the possibility of throwing away such an advantage is silly to say the least. Coach Carlo Ancelotti does not appear to be interested in entertaining the idea, simply repeating his desire to keep second place.
Indeed, it is the Coach who is attracting more attention than the end of season run-in. Rumours of his departure, and potential destination, are forthcoming by the day. Chelsea are the club that are continually mentioned, and it is one to which Carletto has been linked before. Roma is the other name that keeps popping up, yet this has more to do with his inability to stop talking about his desire to Coach them in the future. In any case, it is important that he stays, if only for a lack of genuine quality to replace him. The fact that Massimiliano Allegri and Leonardo, the technical director-cum-scout currently working for il Diavolo, are two of the primary candidates linked so far only serves to highlight this issue. The former, as good a Coach as he is, and as successful as he has been this season with unfancied Cagliari, is not good enough for a job the scale of the Via Turati hot seat. Leonardo meanwhile is a ludicrous option, a man who has no coaching experience and does not even have the requisite qualifications needed to take the role.
One of the great things about the Rossoneri is the sense of the “Milan family,” the links within the organisation to the past and the affinity they have for the club. As well as the current Coach, who spent five successful years at San Siro, former players Mauro Tassotti and Filippo Galli are assistant coaches, whilst Villiam Vecchi works with the goalkeepers. This theme continues into the youth departments, most notably with Alberico Evani (who coaches the Primavera team) and Stefanio Eranio, who is currently head of the Giovanissimi Nazionali (under-15’s) that are sitting third in their championship. The former Milan and Derby County player also led these youngsters to victory in the Torneo Annovazzi (Carletto Annovazzi Memorial Trophy) two weeks ago with a somewhat satisfying 1-0 victory over rivals Inter.
There is something to be said therefore, about keeping it ‘in the family,’ so to speak. It makes the club special. Yet appointing Leonardo and then surrounding him with experienced assistants simply is not the direction needed. Much talk has surrounded a possible promotion of Tassotti, who has been working under Ancelotti since he joined in 2001. No doubt the success of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, a club legend and local icon who was promoted from Coach of their ‘B’ team to take the reins of the first-team, has influenced this latest rumour. Indeed, Vice President Adriano Galliani and owner Silvio Berlusconi may be thinking along these lines, but it would be a huge risk. For every success story like Guardiola, there are half-a-dozen failures.
The simple option, and by far the best, is to ensure Ancelotti stays. Calcio seems to have a problem with stability, and in particular a Coach who has been in control for any length of time. While this is characteristic of football in the peninsula, the hierarchy would do well to look overseas and learn from Manchester Utd and Chelsea – two clubs who have taken differing approaches with managers, nicely demonstrated by the long-term success of the former over the latter. If Sir Alex Ferguson can rebuild a team, there is no doubt Carletto can do the same. Whilst not entirely blameless for the struggles over the past three years, he has shown signs in recent months of having learnt his lessons with regard to tactics (playing two strikers springs immediately to mind). In fact, he has done remarkably well when you consider that there is still a lingering air that he did not get the players he wanted last summer. Despite Galliani’s claims on the contrary, this squad was never in a position to challenge. The well documented age issue means the players are incapable of performing at a high, consistent level twice-a-week, something that is always necessary at a club of this size in the first half of the season. Performances and a string of positive results have correlated with the exit from the UEFA Cup. The solution is, as it always has been, to bring the average age down.
This objective is made a lot harder by the news that emerged from the club on Friday that losses of £58.7m (€66.8m) had been posted this year. Naturally, and unsurprisingly, this was reasoned as the failure to qualify for the Champions League, and again emphasises how the competition has become more important as a cash cow for the clubs than it is a trophy to add to the collection. The knock-on effect this will have on transfers in the summer mercato can only be evaluated once the window closes in August, but you do not have to be an accountant to understand that big signings are unlikely. This is reflected in the players now being linked – Udinese centre-back Felipe for £8m, and the latest overhyped Brazilian forward Grafite.
The biggest concern here, rather than the underwhelming nature of these supposed transfer targets, is that San Siro seems to be turning into a Brazilian colony. Not content with a squad that contains five Brazilian players (six when Thiago Silva becomes eligible next season), and potentially a Coach of the same nationality if Carlo does decide to leave, the club feel that more are needed. It is understandable when the previous success with Brazilian players is accounted for. However, it is essential the majority Italian base of the squad is kept intact. 13 players are Italian, but Paolo Maldini is retiring, Giuseppe Favalli is likely to be shown the door and the futures of Massimo Ambrosini and Alessandro Nesta are unclear. A stage whereby there are as many Brazilians as Italians is not healthy. Nobody wants to see a squad that resembles Inter’s South American hotspot (13 of them in the one squad). The tifosi, like all fans around the world, need to be able to identify with their heroes.
As it is, they still have a large number to identify with for the remainder of the season, and can continue to do so this weekend when they travel to Sicily to take on Catania, a team who started the season well, and then dropped like a stone. Having mentioned briefly the tactical learning Carletto has undergone as this season has progressed, he is forced to ignore this once more as he is expected to play with only one striker in Filippo Inzaghi (unless Andriy Shevchenko is given an extremely unlikely starting spot), as Alexandre Pato has joined an incredibly lengthy list of injuries. The lack of strikers has not stopped the double Champions League winner from putting into practice one of the other lessons he has picked up this year – do not start with Ronaldinho and Kaká in the same team. Clarence Seedorf was given the nod last week, and having witnessed an effective attacking display, something that has been unfortunately all too rare this campaign, expect the “cocco di Ancelotti” to start again.
Let us end on an optimistic note, and what better way than to use the thought process of those silly enough to believe this Scudetto race is still open. With Inter facing a tricky home game against Lazio on Saturday evening, a team who are coming off the back of a morale-boosting victory away to Genoa (only the second team to do so this season), the chance for further dropped points exists. Milan have to win all of their remaining games to stand a chance, but a Rossoneri victory the following day would certainly make things interesting again at the summit. Excitement at the top of the Serie A table? I did tell you it was laughable.