For once, Silvio Berlusconi steered clear of tactical conversations. Dropping in by helicopter on Milan’s players at training this week, the owner’s main piece of advice related to their interest in jewelry. “You are all handsome, tall, and strong,” said Berlusconi during his brief address. “Do you really need to wear an earring?”
It was a light-hearted remark, intended in good humour but also in-keeping with the former prime minister’s conservative views on personal presentation. Berlusconi has made headlines in the not-so-distant past by threatening to shave off Stephan El Shaarawy’s Mohawk and ordering Milan’s then manager Massimiliano Allegri to comb his hair before press conferences.
He can have no such concerns with his latest tactician. Clarence Seedorf was named by Italian GQ last December as the fourth-most elegant footballer of all time, the magazine noting that he had “always distinguished himself with his sobriety and refinedness”. Perhaps that is why Berlusconi was so confident that the Dutchman would make a good manager in the first place.
More likely it had to do with Seedorf’s cerebral approach to the game, the fact that even during his playing days the Dutchman had always demanded clarity and precision from his coaches. But Berlusconi was also reaching for something less tangible. He was looking for someone who could remind his team of what it took to win trophies.
In that department, Seedorf has few peers. He won Serie A, La Liga and the Eredivisie over the course of his playing career, but it was in continental competition that he truly distinguished himself. By conquering the Champions League with Milan, Real Madrid and Ajax, Seedorf became the only player ever to lift the big-eared trophy for three different teams.
Berlusconi hoped the manager could transmit to his players that something extra that had allowed him to prevail so often on the biggest stage. The owner takes great delight in reminding us that his is “the most titled club in the world” – a claim founded on a crude adding up of all successes in international club competitions, including the now defunct Intercontinental Cup – but knows that his team must buck the trend of their recent decline if they are to carry on adding to that tally.
Of course, winning the Champions League with this Milan team would be a tall order for any manager. The side that Seedorf inherited were 11th in Serie A at the time of his appointment, with just 22 points from 19 games. His primary goal was simply to stop the rot. Nobody gave Milan any real hope of besting Atlético Madrid, a team battling Barcelona and Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, in the Champions League last-16.
But as the tie moved closer, so hopes began to rise. The Rossoneri’s performances under Seedorf had hardly been overwhelming – their 10 points from five league fixtures having been earned more through the intermittent brilliance of Mario Balotelli than anything else – but the Champions League, as we hear so often in from Berlusconi’s right-hand man, Adriano Galliani, is “in Milan’s DNA”. Surely, with Seedorf at the helm, they would raise their game?
So it proved, the Rossoneri serving up possibly the best 45 minutes of their season at San Siro, outmanoeuvring their opponents consistently during a first-half in which only Thibaut Courtois’s fingertip saves could prevent first Kaka and then Andrea Poli from opening the scoring. The latter stop, from a close-range header, was simply jaw-dropping.
But then, with a grim sense of inevitability, the game began to turn. Milan tired in the second half, leaving more room for their opponents, and lost Balotelli to a shoulder injury with just over 10 minutes left to play. Even so, the two sides seemed to be trundling towards a goalless draw before Diego Costa powered home a late game-winning header for the visitors, seizing his only real opportunity of the evening with aplomb after a corner had looped into his path via the head of Ignazio Abate.
It was a crushing blow for the hosts. Atlético have dropped just four points all season at the Vicente Calderón, scoring 41 goals and conceding only seven. Surely Milan cannot expect to go there and leave with the victory that they would need to progress in the competition?
Seedorf believes they just might. “This was only the first half, the lads are right to be optimistic and to believe that they can win in Madrid,” insisted the manager at full-time. “I know the Calderón, I have enjoyed myself a lot in that stadium.”
He knows a thing or two about defying expectations, too, having done so himself plenty of times in his playing days. In 2006-07, he was part of a Milan team that was supposed to be winding down, packed with ageing stars and barely able to scrape into fourth place ahead of Palermo. And yet in the same season they won their seventh European Cup, claiming revenge against Liverpool in the final.
Two rounds earlier, the Rossoneri faced a situation not so different to the one they are up against now. Having drawn 2-2 with Bayern Munich at home in the first leg of their quarter-final, they travelled to Germany knowing that they would have to score and most likely win at the Allianz Arena in order to progress. They duly sailed to a 2-0 victory, with Seedorf grabbing the first goal.
He will no doubt share that experience with his players over the coming days, and yet from an objective standpoint, a repeat seems hard to imagine. Most obviously because that Milan team, featuring not only Seedorf but also the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Paolo Maldini and a far more youthful Kaka, was simply a lot better than the one they have today.
But also because history suggests that the odds are stacked high against Milan. While the away goals rule might render a high-scoring draw almost as damaging to a home side as a narrow defeat, there is something more psychologically damaging about the latter result. The simple fact is that only five teams in the combined 59-year existence of the European Cup and Champions League have ever progressed in the knock-out phase of the tournament after losing the first leg of a tie at home.
Milan were, in fact, the first team ever to manage that feat, reversing a 4-3 deficit against Germany’s FC Saarbrücken in the first round of the first-ever tournament, back in 1955, to eventually win 7-5 on aggregate. But not even Berlusconi has been involved with the club for long enough to claim a hand in that victory.
Of course, it is possible that the Rossoneri will find a way back, scoring early in Madrid, perhaps, and changing the complexion of the tie. Then again, it is also possible that Milan’s players will wake up tomorrow morning and decide all at once to put those earrings aside. Deep down both Berlusconi and Seedorf must know that the outcomes they seek are looking very distant indeed.