Two years ago Barcelona off-loaded an over-weight, often injured and troubled Ronaldinho on Milan. This was a move that saw critics claim Serie A was now a dumping ground for Europe’s former elites.
Last weekend the Brazilian twice voted the FIFA World Player of the Year had returned to the game. His sublime hat-trick for the Rossoneri in a 4-0 thumping of Siena capped a display of freedom and style the world of football has missed almost as much as that trademark smile.
When Ronaldinho arrived at the San Siro it was difficult to imagine if the world’s former best player would ever recapture the mesmerising performances of his Barcelona days. He was unfit, carrying multiple injuries and had a reputation for moving more in the Samba clubs he resided in than on the pitch. He had ‘needed a new challenge’ according to his agent and the Milanese giants looked as though they could offer him that and a final chance to shine. Where better to go than a club that had kept players such as Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta and Filippo Inzaghi playing at a high level at an old age?
Carlo Ancelotti was the man charged with restoring this gifted and graceful player and at first the signing looked like a coup. A goal on his debut in the Derby della Madonnina saw the Milan faithful assume they had a superstar and another two goals against Sampdoria almost confirmed it. However, Ancelotti tactics pushed Ronaldinho into roles he couldn’t work in. With Kaka in the team acting as the link between midfield and attack, Ronnie was tried in tandem with the No 22 on the wing and in attack. His inability to fit into a more rigid position and work alongside Kaka effectively saw him eventually dropped and his first season saw him score 10 goals in 32 appearances, many of those in the second half of the season coming from off the bench.
His mood altered and his attitude worsened as he began frequenting Milanese night clubs and getting on the wrong side of Ancelotti who stated that: “Players like him do everything based on talent. I have trained a variety of magnificent players and the majority think that they can make the difference with their talent alone. That is not true. In the modern game if you do not stay in great physical condition and are not working in training then it is hard to shine during matches.”
This and similar quotes lead to friction with Ancelotti claiming that the Brazilian magician should have a better attitude towards training and should learn from the likes of the iconic Maldini and Seedorf. It looked like his career was about to take a nose dive that he could not pull out of.
The departure of Ancelotti to Chelsea saw the inexperienced Leonardo take over the reigns at Milan. Leonardo brought with him a touch of style, a touch of class and some thought hopefully a special team, although his results at the start of the season proved negative. His free-flowing football philosophy with three up-front seeing two wing forwards introduced mirrored the tactics at Barcelona and saw Ronaldinho back in the staring line-up. He had for all sakes and purposes been given another chance and the smiling South American has taken it with both hands. There is a sense that not only do the tactics and style of play suit him but so does the Coach’s attitude and his ability to create self-belief. This has now rejuvenated all the way through the club and on to the pitch. The Brazilian is smiling again when he plays and this is something that has been eluding him for too long. Ahead of this weekend’s highly anticipated Milan derby, il Corriere dello Sport asked of his ability to carry his form into the team’s biggest game of the season: I think so. Because I am going through a great moment of form on a personal level. Because Milan are playing well. Because for us, it’s an important game.”
This ability to relax and play is certainly getting the best from him with Ronaldinho clocking up nine goals and eight assists in only 18 games this term. Leonardo also reciprocates the love, telling the Press: ”Ronaldinho has always lived his career like this, transmitting passion and happiness. This is what he wants. He is the greatest footballer in the world and he has re-found his taste for football.”
With the derby this weekend, the Rossoneri find themselves within touching distance of their titanic neighbours Inter. The Nerazzurri destroyed them last time out 4-0 and Milan will be looking to not only avenge this but re-ignite the title race. Leonardo’s faith will be rewarded and Ronaldinho’s comeback complete should he help defeat la Beneamata on Sunday night.