Archive for the ‘AC Milan’ Category

AC Milan's coach Clarence Seedorf talks to Mario Balotelli during their Italian Serie A soccer match against Bologna in Milan

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.

Arsenal v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Second Round First Leg

Devang Desai, Richard Whittall and James Bigg sit down to talk about this week’s Champions League action, including red card misery for a pair of Premier League clubs, PSG’s chances of winning it all and Adel Taarabt’s rejuvenation.

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

AC Milan v Sao Paulo - Audi Cup Third/Fourth Place Play-Off 2013 - Pre Season Friendly Tournament

Bryan Cristante’s memory does not always serve him well. Asked during an interview last March to recall how he first started playing football, the 18-year-old Milan midfielder responded with a theatrical groan. “Seriously?” he replied. “I don’t even remember what I did on Saturday.”

One assumes that this Monday’s events will stay with him a little longer. Four-and-a-half years after joining Milan as an academy prospect, this was the day when Cristante finally made his first start for the senior team. Deployed on the right of a three-man midfield against Atalanta, he marked the occasion with a fine goal – a searing 20-yard drive that crashed off the inside of Andrea Consigli’s right-hand upright and into the back of the net.

That strike sealed a 3-0 win for the Rossoneri, following an earlier brace from Kaká. It also caused Adriano Galliani to lose the run of himself. “Bryan is not moving from Milan, I have already said as much to his agent,” said the Milan vice-president. “He will play in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid, too.”

Supporters will be delighted to hear the first part of that statement (although Galliani has misled us on such matters before), even if the club’s manager, Massimiliano Allegri, might be a little perplexed to hear team selections being made on his behalf for a fixture that is still more than a month away. One swallow does not make a summer, and it is far too soon to assume that Cristante could be ready for such a crucial game.

With that being said, the signs on Monday were encouraging. Besides scoring his goal, Cristante also hit the crossbar early on, and played with an impressive assuredness throughout. A physically powerful player, he was quick to impose himself on the game, winning tackles and demanding the ball from his team-mates. There was no sense here of a player overawed.

And why should he be? Cristante might not remember the details of his footballing journey to this point, but he will be aware that he has dominated in every age category so far. In 2008, at 13 years old, he was called up to train with Italy’s Under-15 team, becoming, according to contemporary reports, the first Italian ever to receive a call-up while not yet on the books of a professional team. He was still playing for Liventina Gorghense, an amateur club (albeit one affiliated with Milan), at the time.

(As an aside, Cristante could also have represented Canada, had he so chosen to do so. He holds a passport through his father, who was born in Toronto.)

The Rossoneri brought Cristante into their academy in 2009, and in his first season he helped to drive their Under-15 side to a national title. A year later, he did the same thing with the Under-17s. By late 2011, he had caught the eye of Allegri, who called him up to train with the senior team. After just two sessions, the manager named Cristante in his squad to face Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League. Introduced as an 81st minute substitute, the midfielder became the youngest player ever to represent Milan in continental competition, at just 16 years and 278 days old.

Despite not making another senior appearance until this season, Cristante’s upward trajectory continued. Last February he was named as the best player at the annual Viareggio youth tournament, where Milan finished as runners-up behind Anderlecht.

Since last summer Cristante has been training full-time with the first team. As Milan struggled through the early part of the season, fans began to wonder how long it could be before this much-discussed talent got another shot. He had made just one appearance before last weekend, a five-minute cameo in a goalless draw against Chievo.

Allegri dwelled on that question as well. He considered starting Cristante against Roma in December, and then again for the Milan derby six days later, but worried about asking too much of the teenager. He went with Andrea Poli and Sulley Muntari instead, playing on either side of Nigel De Jong. Milan drew with the Giallorossi before losing to their city rivals.

Then came the winter break, and more time to ponder. Muntari would be suspended for the Atalanta game after being sent off in the dying moments against inter, and Riccardo Montolivo was still not yet ready to return from a muscle injury, but the manager still had other options, with Poli, De Jong and Antonio Nocerino all available. In the end he dropped the first of those in order to make room for Cristante.

His subsequent performance has left Allegri with fresh dilemmas, albeit ones that the manager should welcome. Cristante offers Milan a different set of attributes to the likes of Poli or Nocerino. His 6ft 1ins height, combined with his experience of playing at centre-back on occasion for the youth team, is an asset to a side that still gives up too many goals from set-pieces. He can contribute at the other end, too. Monday’s strike was no fluke, as anyone who saw his similarly brilliant effort against Barcelona’s youth team in November can attest. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guQNf-jSI1U)

More than anything, though, what Cristante can offer Milan right now is the naivety of youth. On paper, the Rossoneri ought not to be any weaker a team this year than they were last season, when they finished third, but somewhere along the way they seem to have misplaced their self-belief. Ground down by disappointing results, too many players have grown afraid to take the initiative, stumbling nervously through games that they should be dominating.

Cristante, by contrast, has a confidence that borders on excessive, a willingness to attempt the ambitious pass or shot any time he is in possession—even if sometimes he shouldn’t. His critics might call it arrogance, but that seems unfair on a player who also has the work ethic to match. Coaches depict him a consummate professional, one who shows up to work early every day and stays out after training to get a little extra work in.

None of this, of course, guarantees a great career ahead. Cristante’s development has caught the eye of several other leading European clubs, with both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen said to have made enquiries after seeing him at Viareggio, but until he has played a significant number of senior games, it is impossible to say whether he will live up to his potential. The recent examples of Rodney Strasser and Alexander Merkel, whose careers have not yet lived up to the high expectations placed upon them when they first emerged at Milan, provide a note of caution.

But after such a miserable start, Milan needed this injection of hope, a reason to believe that things can indeed get better. Galliani has been talking for some time about the importance of developing more young players in order for the club’s business model to become self-sustaining, and his new co-vice-president Barbara Berlusconi made the same point forcefully with some thinly-veiled criticisms at his work in recent months.

What could be better than the emergence of a player who Milan paid just €25,000 to acquire? The Rossoneri had been looking to reinforce their midfield this January, and were reportedly willing to offer co-ownership of Cristante in a bid to land Radja Naingglolan from Cagliari. That the Belgian signed for Roma instead could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If nothing else, Cristante’s potential transfer will be higher today than it was at the start of this week.

Milan’s supporters, though, would prefer him to stay and develop with the club he supported as a boy. Cristante, who signed a five-year contract last March, would like that, too, although he is impatient to play in more games. “If Galliani said that he will stay at Milan, then that is what will happen,” said the player’s agent, Giuseppe Riso, this week. “We only hope that Bryan manages to find more space in the team from here to the end of the season, because only by playing can a kid get better and gain experience.”

As with any club entrusting a starting place to a young player, Milan would be taking a gamble. But right now they sit 11th in the table, two points closer to the relegation zone than they are to a Europa League spot. It does not feel as though they have an awful lot to lose.

FBL-GER-BUNDESLIGA-DORTMUND-TEAM

Just call them The Unpronounceables.

Asked for his reaction to Borussia Dortmund’s new signings, Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge revealed that he didn’t know them very well and that he found their names difficult to say. Better to exercise some restraint than go the whole Joe Kinnear. To help Kalle learn, Bild kindly published audio files of the correct pronunciation.

Of course, you’d have to be quite naive to believe Rummenigge is ignorant of who Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sokratis Papasthathopoulos really are. He didn’t say he’d never heard of them, as claimed by some. Nor was he bitter at Dortmund announcing Robert Lewandowski would be staying for another year. He probably already knew that anyway.

No, this was probably nothing more than posturing. His intention was presumably to project the image that Bayern aren’t at all bothered by Dortmund even though for the first time since their emergence from the brink of bankruptcy just short of a decade ago, they have spent with real power.

An estimated 49.5m euros have been invested in the acquisitions of the aforementioned players. You have to go back to 2001 when Dortmund bought Marcio Amoroso from Parma and Jan Koller from Anderlecht to find a spree of similar proportions. That splurge was most definitely a reckless one. This, by contrast, isn’t.

Although more than double last year’s expenditure, three-quarters of this summer’s outlay is financed by the 37m euro they received from Bayern for Mario Götze. As for the rest, well, some of the revenue from their run to the Champions League final could pay for that. Rather than overreaching, their strategy has been sustainable and responsible. What else would you expect from a club for whom memories of 2004, when they were 120m euro in the red, are still fresh. But let’s get back to what Rummenigge said.

Bayern and Dortmund have found other things to argue about rather than Rummenigge’s apparent disregard for Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Sokratis. Not for the first time, Jürgen Klopp got under Bayern’s skin with his characterisation of Dortmund’s rivalry with them as like that between someone armed with a Bazooka and a Robin Hood figure holding just a bow and arrow.

“Dortmund have to be careful they don’t preach water and drink wine instead,” Rummenigge said. “They have a contract with Opel. But I have seen a picture in Bild showing that someone [Aubameyang] drives a Ferrari. It looks like they should put that bow and arrow down.”

Rummenigge wasn’t alone in not knowing Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Sokratis all that well. Dortmund’s Marco Reus admitted as much to Kicker. On Aubameyang, he said: “I don’t really follow the French league. That’s why I didn’t have him on my radar. I have now seen a couple of his goals. He is certainly very, very fast and dangerous.”

Rather interestingly, this affair hasn’t escaped the attention of the papers in Italy. Is it because the Bundesliga is being covered more closely after last year’s all-German Champions League final and the presence of Pep Guardiola on the Bayern bench? Partly yes. But it’s also because while Rummenigge didn’t know Dortmund’s signings well, Milan were very familiar with two of them. Aubameyang and his brothers were in their academy. Sokratis was a member of the squad that won the Scudetto two years ago.

“They’re Milan rejects,” wrote Alessandro de Calò in an editorial for La Gazzetta dello Sport. This wasn’t to say Dortmund have gone and bought a couple of duds. Far from it. They’re too shrewd for that, as the signings of Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski have shown in the past. No. This was a criticism of Milan for disregarding and undervaluing the talent they had under their noses. “It’s no laughing matter,” de Calò added.

Aubameyang admits he wasn’t ready to break into the first team at Milan. He trained with them a few times but never made a competitive senior appearance. A change in policy, whereby youth players like Mattia De Sciglio and now Bryan Cristante and Andrea Petagna are given a chance, came too late for Aubameyang.

He was loaned out to Dijon, Lille, Monaco and then Saint-Etienne who signed him for just 1.8m euro in the winter of 2011. Eighteen months later, the French club have made a nice profit, selling him to Dortmund for 13m euro. If Milan had kept Aubameyang and given him a chance, maybe they wouldn’t have had to spend 15.5m euro on Stephan El Shaarawy, 3m euro on M’Baye Niang or 21m euro on Mario Balotelli.

They missed a trick. True, there was great competition at the time. Sokratis experienced that too. Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva were ahead of him in the pecking order and rightly so. But if Milan had taken the long view on a player who has only just turned 25, and not sold him back to Genoa who then let him go to Werder Bremen maybe they’d have more options in defence now.

Of course no one can predict the future and Milan had their reasons. But these two cases offer a reminder that you should think twice before giving up on a player. The Dortmund side that won the Champions League in 1997 was full of Serie A cast-offs from Jürgen Kohler, Andi Möller and Paulo Sousa to Stefan Reuter and Mathias Sammer, four of whom had played for opponents Juventus. Other players adjudged to be flops like Dennis Bergkamp at Inter, Patrick Vieira at Milan and Thierry Henry at Juventus all went on to become legends at Arsenal and were players who defined their generation.

Let’s not get carried away. Aubameyang and Sokratis aren’t in that class and probably never will be. Even so, there are some Milan fans out there who are wondering how both apparently are good enough for last year’s Champions League runners’ up, but weren’t considered worthy of their attention.

Ciro Ferrara.

Ciro Ferrara.

It’s a regular feature of football history of course that when one club is successful, others try to replicate their success. Barcelona wanted to play the way Ajax did in the late `60s and so they brought in Rinus Michels in 1971 then later Johan Cruyff the player in 1973.

The two won La Liga only once together in their time at the Camp Nou but the cultural impact they had on the club and the legacy they left, which Cruyff would reinforce on his return as coach, showed that over the long-term a foreign style can become the adopter’s own and even stronger so if it coalesces organically with local identity.

Many, however, don’t take the long view or commit fully to change. They want a quick fix and follow like sheep whatever the latest fad or craze is. This approach can have disastrous effects.

In Italy, for instance, during the late `80s and early `90s, Juventus, feeling under pressure after a number of years without a league title, looked to go down the route Milan had taken.

Milan had appointed Arrigo Sacchi, a relative unknown with no background in football, and won the Scudetto, back-to-back European Cups and earned themselves a place in posterity for the style with which they played and the revolution they started.

In response, Juventus completely overhauled their structure. The Old Lady felt she had to get with the times. Long-standing president Giampiero Boniperti was gone. So too was coach Dino Zoff, even though he had just led the team to a UEFA Cup and a Coppa Italia.

It was decided Juventus needed to find their own Sacchi. Rather than looking for the best coach out there, they’d hire the most different, someone who fit the Sacchi profile of “I never realised that in order to become a jockey you had to have been a horse first.”

That coach was Gigi Maifredi.

A former champagne salesman, he wasn’t exactly the toast of Serie A but had guided Bologna to eighth place the previous season, playing a Sacchi-like 4-4-2 with zonal-marking. Imagine what he could achieve with more resources, including Roby Baggio, or so the thinking went.

It was a disaster. Juventus finished seventh. Maifredi was considered a failure and got the sack. Giovanni Trapattoni, the coach who’d won everything with the club through the late `70s to the mid `80s, was brought back.

That has always served as a lesson. Imitation might be the highest form of flattery but it can also be flawed.

When Barcelona won La Liga and the Champions League back in 2009, many looked at how they had promoted from within, handing the job to Pep Guardiola, a former player, someone who knew the club inside out, who understood what it meant to wear the shirt and how the team should play so as to honour its traditions.

Others tried to follow suit. Juventus replaced Claudio Ranieri with Ciro Ferrara. Leonardo succeeded Carlo Ancelotti at Milan. It was called the ‘Guardiola Effect’, although the appointment of Leonardo was more in the style of Fabio Capello, who’d been behind a desk like him before being offered the job.

Ultimately, Ferrara was out of his depth and was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni in the spring as Juve ended up in seventh place. Leonardo walked having grown disillusioned with Silvio Berlusconi, whom he likened to Narcissus, after producing some fantastic but flaky football.
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Ugliness at the San Siro

And I’m not talking about Milan’s third kit which is an affront to common decency. Sulley Muntari was shown a red card in the 41st minute for antics that can only be described as foolish. Muntari was trying to prevent the referee from giving Mario Balotelli a card. Holding the ref’s arm, losing his mind etc. obviously didn’t help things. Balotelli has been the target of racist taunts from Roma fans, chants so glaring the public address announcer has told them to stop or risk having the game suspended. It’s 0-0 at halftime.

Update

The game ended in a draw, but the stench of stupidity remains.


Video via James Dart

Image via @Milanello

Image via @Milanello

Milan defeated Torino 1-0 at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza thanks to Mario Balotelli’s goal in the 84th minute. The enigmatic striker is getting booked by his own teammates now.