Home » AC Milan: Back in business and where they belong in Champions League knockout stages

AC Milan: Back in business and where they belong in Champions League knockout stages

Standing pitch-side at San Siro on Wednesday night was Clarence Seedorf. Mr Champions League has been incorporated into Amazon Prime’s Italian coverage of the competition this season, a no-brainer if ever there was one considering his unique status as the only footballer to win it with three different clubs.

The 46-year-old Dutchman was a member of the last great Milan sides, a throwback to the ones that made finals in Manchester, Istanbul and Athens, a cerebral presence in that majestic midfield alongside Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini.

Less well remembered is Seedorf’s brief and tumultuous spell as the team’s head coach in 2014. His moment came in the twilight of Silvio Berlusconi’s custodianship of the club. Berlusconi, up for election at the time, sacked Massimiliano Allegri after telling everyone on the campaign trail that his last scudetto-winning coach didn’t know a thing about football.

The decision went against the better judgment of his consigliere Adriano Galliani, whose influence was challenged for the first time in a quarter of a century. Berlusconi had promoted his daughter Barbara to the role of co-chief executive and valued her counsel. She recommended Seedorf as Milan’s next coach, a progressive choice although he was still playing for Botafogo at the time and could draw on no coaching experience. It did not go well.

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Milan have come a long way since Seedorf’s spell in charge (Photo: Filippo Monteforte/Getty Images)

The lack of a shared vision and power struggle within the club set Seedorf up to fail. He was fired four months later as Milan spiralled into a decline they only emerged from under Elliott Management four years ago.

Seedorf was the man in charge the last time Milan played in the knockout stages of the Champions League. On that occasion, they were eliminated by another former player and contemporary of Seedorf’s who was about to make a real name for himself in coaching — Diego Simeone and his incipient Atletico Madrid.

It was a fortnight in which the snarling and relatively unknown Diego Costa announced himself on the world stage, scoring three goals in a 5-1 aggregate win as Milan bowed out in the round of 16. Milan have not been back in the nine years since, an eternity in this social media age when five minutes feels like five whole centuries. Thank goodness Twitter wasn’t around when Milan failed to win the league between 1907 and 1951, to say nothing of when the club was relegated twice in the 1980s.

The last decade has been hard on Milan but there have been harder times in the past. Still, for a club that built its legend on winning the European Cup/Champions League seven times, the context often gets lost. Wednesday night at San Siro is unlikely to stop casual fans from wondering whether Milan are back or not. Winning the scudetto for the first time in 11 years didn’t satisfy them. Only lifting the Champions League will do that and that’s become even more difficult considering Italian football’s structural limitations, the entrance of state wealth clubs and the acceleration of the Premier League, which is now a de facto super league when it comes to spending power.

Milan have no choice but to grow in an organic and sustainable way, improving over time rather than overnight. Getting out of this year’s Champions League group was the latest step. It would continue the upward trajectory under Stefano Pioli, who signed a new contract until 2025 on Monday. He returned Milan to the competition last season for the first time in seven years. The draw pitted his young team against Liverpool, Atletico and Porto — a baptism of fire. Milan finished bottom and fell out of Europe altogether, enabling them to focus on the league.

As champions of Italy and a top seed this season, Milan’s chances of making the knockouts were greater. The players seemed readier, the squad deeper. “On paper, it’s a group that seems less difficult than last year,” technical director Paolo Maldini said after landing Chelsea, Red Bull Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb.

And yet Milan encountered some of the same problems. As was the case a year ago, first-choice goalkeeper Mike Maignan, a key figure in the title-winning campaign, missed the majority of the group stage through injury. Fikayo Tomori’s harsh sending-off against Chelsea mirrored what happened to Franck Kessie against Atletico last year when an early and inexplicable red card cost Milan big time. But in the end, none of that mattered. Milan overcame it all.

It was a mature group stage. The double-header against Chelsea paradoxically threatened to be deflating and pressurising. But Milan were unflappable, putting four past Dinamo Zagreb at the Maksimir Stadium and another four past Salzburg at the San Siro, a surprisingly one-sided result that showcased how much Pioli and his players had learned from the experience of playing Matthias Jaissle’s team in September.

As a performance, it bore resemblance to last season’s run-in when Milan played better as the stakes got higher. Olivier Giroud has a reputation as a man for the big occasion in Italy after flipping the Milan derby against Inter on its head in February. “Si e girato Giroud,” goes the chant in the Curva Sud — Giroud turned — an ecstatic memory of one of the seismic goals he scored in that game. On Wednesday, he was at it again. The Frenchman scored twice and assisted twice.

“It was the perfect night for me and the team,” he said.


Giroud was outstanding in Milan’s win over Salzburg (Photo: Piero Cruciatti/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Pioli reserved a surprise for Jaissle by developing an idea that set up Milan in a more pronounced back three, with Theo Hernandez and Ante Rebic wide and Rafael Leao closer to Giroud.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all though was Rade Krunic scoring what felt like the decisive goal at the beginning of the second half. The Bosnian midfielder missed a gilt-edged opportunity to make it 1-1 at Stamford Bridge and thus his header against Salzburg glowed like a redemptive. It was entirely consistent with the theme of Milan’s Champions League campaign.

This has been the season of the unexpected goalscorer in Europe because while Giroud has lived up to his reputation, Milan’s other headline acts haven’t found the net.

The goals have come from Alexis Saelemaekers, Tommaso Pobega, Matteo Gabbia and Krunic; less an indicator of the quality found in Milan’s roster, more an example of Pioli’s ability to involve and engage existing squad players.

It’s a testament to the spirit, environment and culture at Milanello that they are contributing these goals when they have effectively been found down the back of the sofa. Pioli continues to squeeze something out of existing players while extracting precious little, for now, from the players signed this summer.

Krunic’s inclusion came at the expense of marquee signing Charles De Ketelaere, Gabbia is playing more than Malick Thiaw, Yacine Adli has been largely overlooked by Pioli. It seems these players require the same patience shown to Leao and Sandro Tonali in the past and serves as a reminder that there’s more to come from Milan.

“This is only the first step,” Pioli said. “Mentally we mustn’t settle for it.” Milan have yet to deliver a statement performance against a top side in Europe and, more generally, have yet to play to their full potential in this competition.

Maldini was mindful of that when he told Seedorf and his old centre-back partner Sandro Nesta afterwards: “We started out on this journey four years ago. This season, we wanted to push. We wanted to get back on top in Italy again and bring back the European dimension that has always belonged to Milan. It’s not easy because we’re still a long way off financially (from the other contenders) but among the second seeds, we can be a ‘mina vagante’.” The mine bobbling along in the waves, packed with explosives, that’s best to avoid if you don’t want to be sunk.

The 54-year-old Maldini was elated. “I’m still hungry for more and enjoy seeing that the team and the club are, too. We have got to be there,” he said of the knockout stages.

“Last season everyone gave that extra 0.5 per cent to beat Inter and win the league. It will happen in the Champions League.” We’ll see what the draw holds on Monday. For now, it’s just great that the Champions League’s second most successful team is back in the business end of the competition.

(Main image: Pioli has masterminded Milan’s resurgence. Photo: Tullio Puglia – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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Edward Wilson