When Ruud Gullit and co. were pulverising teams in Europe and celebratory smoke used to regularly drift across the magnificent San Siro stadium, who would have thought that those famous red and black striped shirts of the “rossoneri” could ever be described as “average”.
Somehow, Milan, the purveyors of fine football, threw it all away. They are still one of Italy’s top clubs, and one of Europe’s great football names, but they are now very much in the shadow of Juventus in domestic football and, internationally, way behind the Bayern-Barca axis.
Milan have had many ups and downs since the days when they mastered Europe, but this week, they face another faded giant, Ajax Amsterdam, knowing that one false slip could consign them to Thursday night fixtures in the New Year. And if Milan go out of the UEFA Champions League, it will put fresh pressure on their coach, Massimiliano Allegri and open up the barely healed wounds behind the scenes at the San Siro.
Milan have not had a good season in Serie A and the Champions League has distracted people from the problems at the club. Much of the discontent has been fuelled by the battle in the boardroom around Silvio Berlusconi’s bid to hand over control of the club to his daughter. This prompted vice president and general manager Adriano Galliani, a 28-year Milan veteran, to resign. Galliani later withdrew this, but it may not be the end of the story.
On the pitch, Milan have struggled this season in the league and endured their worst run in years. Two decades ago, Milan were what Bayern Munich are today in Europe, but the red shirts look somewhat faded these days. They have a young side, but much depends on the form [and antics] of Mario Balotelli, who has struggled to be at his best at times. Many people saw the re-signing of Kaka as something of a backward step, although the Brazilian has been in good form since he returned.
They’ve already lost five times in 15 games, however, and two of those were at home. What worries the fans is that Milan have gone from champions in 2010-11 to third place in 2013, and the decline looks set to continue. They haven’t won at the San Siro in Serie A since their 1-0 victory against Udinese on October and a run of one win in seven, a 3-1 victory at Catania, has started alarm bells ringing. Draws against Chievo and Livorno – surely only Serie A passers by – have not helped their cause. The tifosi – isn’t it great, the names the Italians use to describe their football? – even tried to barricade the ground in protest after a recent game.
While Milan are mid-table in Serie A, their Champions League form has put them within reach of qualification for the last 16. They’ve been beaten just once – 1-3 at Barcelona – and showed their quality in the last game at Celtic, a 3-0 win. According to the BBC, the Parkhead rout saw Milan “systemically dismantle” Celtic. But before the game, Milan’s nervous team was supposedly “cracking up” and at “breaking point”.
This week’s game against Ajax is vital to keep Milan’s season from really going off the rails. They drew 1-1 in Amsterdam earlier in the campaign. A similar result will be enough to send them through. But it won’t mean that Milan are genuine contenders – last season, the difference between Milan and, for example, Barcelona was evident when they met in the knockout stages and the Catalans overturned a two-goal deficit. For the time being, getting past the group and allowing Allegri’s side to concentrate, until the New Year, on rising up the Serie A table is the priority. Politics permitting, of course…