Milan’s mettle faces Arsenal’s artistry
Posted on March 21st, 2012
Yes we can. That’s how La Gazzetta dello Sport welcomed the draw for the Champions League knockout stages in December.
No other country had as many representatives in the last 16 and Serie A had reason to be cautiously optimistic.
At the time, there was a good feeling about AC Milan playing Arsenal. True, in 2008, they had been eliminated by the Gunners, but now there was cause to believe things would be different.
The goalscorers from that encounter, Cesc Fábregas and Emmanuel Adebayor, were gone, while Arsenal’s 7-1 defeat to Manchester United in August left many across Europe with the impression that they no longer posed the same threat as before.
Milan, by contrast, were riding high. They went into Christmas joint top of Serie A on an 11-match unbeaten run and looked every bit Italian champions.
Coach Massimiliano Allegri had tailored Milan in such a fashion that his work was even compared with that of designer Giorgio Armani.
They were the “favourites”, according to former boss Carlo Ancelotti, even if in recent memory, Italian clubs have almost always faltered when faced with English opponents.
Eight knockout ties with Premier League sides in the last four editions of the Champions League have brought seven eliminations. The only exception to the rule was José Mourinho’s Inter who beat Chelsea en route to the treble in 2010.
Allegri knows this only too well. Dumped out of the competition by Tottenham last season, Milan lost 1-0 at home and couldn’t overturn the deficit.
It was the only blemish on an otherwise impressive debut season for Allegri. He led the team to the Scudetto at the first attempt. It had become a priority at Milan. Seven years had past since their last league title, during which time Inter had won five-in-a-row.
But at a club defined by its success in the European Cup [Milan have won it seven times], Allegri knows that it’s there where he will ultimately be judged. “I have to improve in Europe,” he admits.
The odds of doing so, however, have grown longer since the end of January.
Milan have hit a bad patch. Saturday’s gutsy come-from-behind win at Udinese was the stuff of champions. But it was also Milan’s first victory in four matches, a streak that includes two defeats at San Siro. While they’re now top of the table, Juventus are two points behind with two games in hand.
Performances have been criticised by those whose opinion matters. “I saw Milan last night,” Arrigo Sacchi said after their 2-0 defeat to Lazio, “and I had doubts that some of the players were not my age.” It’s a harsh assessment. Milan are no longer geriátricos. They have rejuvenated the team greatly in the last 18 months.
What Sacchi was getting at, though, was the laboured nature of their play and how it doesn’t chime with the philosophy outlined by owner Silvio Berlusconi when he bought the club in 1986. Milan play at the Scala del Calcio, after all, and as such they should put on a spectacle.
Since Allegri’s appointment, however, they have undertaken a new path. Il Corriere della Sera put it this way: architects have been replaced by carpenters. Andrea Pirlo has gone. Mark van Bommel has come in. Milan are more physical and less technical.
“You can’t always dine on lobster and caviar,” Allegri claims. “Every now and again you have to be satisfied with a ham sandwich.”
It would be a mistake, though, to suggest Milan aren’t capable of good football. Results of late have been conditioned by a horrendous injury crisis, which the famous MilanLab was established to prevent.
Against Udinese on Saturday, 10 players were unavailable, some long-term, like Antonio Cassano, recovering from heart surgery, others short-term, but no less important to the team like Christian Abbiati, Alessandro Nesta, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Alexandre Pato.
That quartet is expected to be back for Arsenal. But cracks remain. Milan’s best player and top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Gulliver as he’s become known, because he’s a giant among Lilliputians, flipped last week perhaps out of mental tiredness at carrying the team on his back.
He was sent off in Serie A and received a three-match ban for slapping Napoli’s Salvatore Aronica. Then he was caught on camera raising his hand again, this time to Juventus’s Marco Storari in the Coppa Italia. Ibrahimovic has yet to be punished for that incident.
His suspension in Serie A means he will be fresh for Wednesday’s game. Arsenal know how dangerous he can be. Ibrahimovic scored twice for Barcelona at the Emirates two years ago, yet that still hasn’t put an end to the scepticism around him in England.
Not showing up on the big occasions is the criticism. It’s not completely justified.
Ibrahimovic has scored title-clinching goals in Serie A and winners in two of the world most important derbies, the Madonnina and the Clásico on his way to winning, if one counts the two revoked from Juventus after Calciopoli, eight consecutive league championships in three different countries.
But scrutiny of his record in the Champions League knockout stages is legitimate.
Adding grist to his doubters’ mill is the curiosity that Milan have collected just nine points from a possible 27 against the other top six teams in Serie A this season. Milan have become a team in Ibrahimovic’s image. Some say they’re flat-track bullies. The question is: can Arsenal’s kids stand up to them?
This article first appeared on BBC Sport