Since 2000, in many ways, AC Milan has been the trendsetter at the top of Italian club soccer. In the past decade, the San Siro club's transfer policy has influenced the way other clubs in the country operates.
When Milan decides to import Brazilians to lead the team, other Italian clubs scour all of South America looking for their versions of Thiago Silva or Alexandre Pato. If Milan decides to stick with aging veterans, using top fitness coaches to keep them going, other top Serie A clubs like Inter and Juventus follow suit.
Now, with the recent sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain in a deal reportedly worth around 62 million euros, many claim that Milan and Serie A's decline has manifested, that neither can attract the top stars that it did in the 1990s. Milan midfielder Mathieu Flamini disagrees with that point and argues that Milan will continue to be a top power.
"Milan is one of the biggest teams in the world. It is a club that has won everything and it will always be a huge club," Flamini told Goal.com in a phone interview. "It is going to be an important year for Milan and everyone wants to prove that we have the quality at the top level."
Milan is in the New York City area preparing for its final preseason match of its United States tour, going against Real Madrid at Yankee Stadium. Glancing at the roster, it's clear to see that several mainstays have departed the club since its second-place finish in Serie A last season.
Longtime veterans Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso are no longer with the club. Yet, the team has been aggressive in recruiting younger cheaper alternatives as Adriano Galliani has told Italian media that it wants to model itself after Barcelona and Arsenal.
Italian national team midfielder Riccardo Montolivo has joined the club on a free transfer from Fiorentina and the club is reportedly close to signing both Montpellier defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Manchester City forward Edin Dzeko. Flamini couldn't divulge too much about either move but is excited about the possible addition of Dzeko.
"What I can say is he's a great player. From where we are, we don't have much access to other team's players," Flamini said. "But he's a good player and if he can join our team, it will be a great addition to the quality of the team."
Flamini also expects bigger contributions from Brazilian forwards Pato and Robinho this season.
A lot was expected from Pato when he joined Milan as a 18-year-old in a 24 million euros transfer from Internacional. Although Pato has scored 51 goals in 113 appearances for the club, last season was a major setback in his development as he scored only once in 11 league games. Robinho also struggled for form last season, with his numbers dipping from 14 goals in the 2010-2011 season to six goals in the following year.
From what he's seen of both in preseason, Flamini thinks the duo are motivated to replace the scoring void created by Ibrahimovic's departure. The towering Swede scored 42 goals in 61 appearances for Milan over the past two seasons.
"Yes, they have more on their shoulders now, but I'm sure they will like it," Flamini insisted. "Everyone is very together [at Milan]. It's important to work hard and play together."
Flamini still has a lot to prove on his own at Milan. Injuries and inconsistency have robbed the Frenchman of the stellar form that made him a star at Arsenal. Many fans complained that the former Gunner didn't live up to the lavish wages; he was making at 5.6 million euros a season. That's why it is particularly surprising that Flamini decided to take a pay cut to stay at Milan when his contract ended last season, instead of searching for greener pastures. Flamini revealed that he was disappointed with his bouts with injuries over the past two seasons and wanted to prove that he could succeed at Milan.
"For me, it was important to stay because last year I didn't have the opportunity to play because I got injured. I didn't want to leave under this condition," Flamini stated.
With two vital midfield cogs in Seedorf and Gattuso leaving, Flamini is expected to cement a consistent role but he won't get ahead of himself.
"My goal is to be ready by the end of August because we start our season then," said Flamini. "I'm just focused on my preparation."
Until the season starts, Milan will continue to operate under the shadows of the two stars that left for France's capital and, adding fuel to the fire, Ibrahimovic marked his preseason debut by claiming PSG is better than Milan. But that might not be a bad thing. For a club that usually has such high expectations, Milan has been able to quietly rebuild without much scrutiny. In Flamini's mind, depending on how the team reacts this year, Milan could actually grow to be a better team than it was last season.
"I think it's very simple: If you play for Milan, you want to win everything," he said. "Juventus won the league going undefeated; we want to win it back. Everything is possible, especially when you see Chelsea winning the Champions League despite not finishing in the top three in their league."
He added, "The coach [Massimiliano Allegri] is very confident too. Of course, we lost two huge champions. Zlatan and Thiago are key players. But I am sure we have enough quality on this team to perform and to do well.
"We have enough quality to play for every cup. Starting with Serie A and Champions League. Milan is a big team with big players. we have enough quality to play for every cup."
It looks like Milan might be setting another trend.
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