By Kris Voakes
“The Champions League is in our DNA,” boasted AC Milan’s official Twitter page on Sunday night moments after the club had qualified for the competition for a fifth straight season. Though the sentiment was well-meaning, now more than ever the corny old line is a long way from the truth.
The statement came after one of the least Champions League-worthy performances you are ever likely to witness, but lady luck ensured that the Rossoneri claimed the all-important third place in Serie A which sends them into August’s play-offs with a bit of hope for the future.
Had they not been gifted a generous penalty in the 83rd minute against Siena they almost certainly would have missed out, with Fiorentina’s 5-1 cruise at Pescara having left them on the verge of the Europa League. Instead, the myth that Massimiliano Allegri and his side have Europe’s prized competition “in their DNA” can continue.
The truth, though, is that they remain a long way from the kind of finished article they’d need to be in order to cause any kind of trouble in the latter stages of the tournament. A club who two seasons ago were champions of their country and looked well placed to have a decent shot at European glory are now a long way from the same model.
Without their 2-1 win over Serie B-bound Siena, they would have been in huge trouble. Beyond the short-term negativity of missing out on the Champions League, there would have been longer-term consequences to losing the chance to rake in the riches a season in the competition can bring. Of course, depending on the play-off draw and the 180 minutes that follow, Milan could yet be staring at that exact same scenario.
While Vincenzo Montella’s side were taking to their own task with ease at the Stadio Adriatico, the Rossoneri had no tempo and no purpose to their display. They appeared stultified by the need to see off opponents with nothing to play for rather than liberated by it. Massimiliano Allegri couldn’t seem to get his players going at all after an opening 15 minutes in which they looked likely to overrun Siena.
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That it took Mauro Bergonzi’s decision to award a spot-kick to break Milan out of their funk cannot be overlooked, but Fiorentina fans crying foul will do well to remember the same referee’s generosity in November when he sent off two Lazio players and awarded the Viola a penalty in a similarly controversial win for the Franchi outfit. While the timing was more dramatic this time around, the end result was the same.
The sequence of events had Adriano Galliani out of his seat and then some. The Milan vice-president will be more aware than most just what the victory means for his club, with the alternative barely worth thinking about. This was a “season of transition” he said, but had the top-three spot not been attained then the transition would have become much more laboured.
Transfers can now be made with Champions League football in mind. Contracts offered will now be longer and more secure. The Europa League is not a place for a giant of a club to exist for too long, and as each season passes it becomes more and more vital for those who rely heavily on prize money and TV revenue to be a part of the major action the game’s most glamorous competition has to offer.
Milan fans need only take one look across the city to see what the consequences would have been had they finished fourth instead of third. Inter’s spiral into the abyss could well have been replicated. How long could the Rossoneri afford to go in the Europa League before players like Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy feel the need to be elsewhere? Nobody of a red and black persuasion wants to find out the answer to that question.
The relief being felt after Sunday night’s win is obviously massive, but it cannot now be misplaced. The near-miss that was their victory over Siena needs to serve as a warning.
The sales of last summer, undying faith in a coach with no tactical gravitas, over-reliance on a teenager and riding of luck down to the last very nearly saw them miss out on what has to be their very minimum expectation each season. And a failure to address any of their issues this summer can only result in more of the same next term. Milan’s DNA test is still to come.
- Walter Mazzarri waved goodbye to Napoli after leading them to second spot in the league, but leaves behind a very good platform from which to build. Never blessed with great defenders or a top goalkeeper, Mazzarri still somehow managed to make a strong defensive unit out of his side, while he got enough from his midfield players to support star men such as Marek Hamsik, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi on the way to two Champions League qualifications. He very nearly left the club the last time Napoli reached the promised land in 2011, but after Antonio Conte was handed the Juventus position Mazzarri backtracked on his plans to move on. This time it is for real, marking the end of a magnificent spell for the club not seen since the days of Diego Maradona. He will be a hard act to follow.
- Where to start with Inter? Just when you thought that Nerazzurri fans would be put out of their misery by the final whistle of a 2012-13 season which has rapidly turned into a disaster, their side deliver one of the most heartless, gutless, directionless performances seen in Italy in many a year to succumb to a 5-2 home defeat against Udinese. The 16th defeat of their campaign was certainly not their most important, but perhaps was the most revealing. When players needed to stand up, take account and show some spirit, they had nothing in them. The Beneamata finish the season in ninth place, 18 points off the Champions League spots and 12 behind European football of any sort. Catania, who could claim only three away wins all term, finished four points above them. There will be a million more stats which put Inter’s malaise into perspective, but the 90 minutes at San Siro on Sunday were all the more stark. Andrea Stramaccioni has a battle on now simply to hold on to his job, but whoever is in charge in 2013-14 has an almighty responsibility in returning the club to the top end of the football spectrum. Quite where the Nerazzurri go from here is anyone’s guess.
- Of course, Udinese’s win provided another major triumph for Francesco Guidolin and his side as they clinched a Europa League spot one year on from a round of summer sales that had many tipping them for relegation. After the heartbreak of missing out on the Champions League group stages thanks to THAT penalty miss by Maicosuel against Braga, it would have been easily for the Zebrette to feel sorry for themselves and coast to a mid-table finish. Instead, they have overachieved yet again thanks to the goals of Antonio Di Natale and the supreme leadership of Guidolin. The former Palermo, Parma and Monaco coach has ensured that Di Natale is not their only asset, helping to mould talented players acquired from lands far and wide into a magnificent team worthy of their place in the top five. Having had his hands tied behind his back in last summer’s market, this season’s achievement is arguably an even bigger one than the two Champions League play-off spots which preceded it.