Saturday 7 May 2011

The Scudetto That Took Seven Long Years

Campioni d'Italia--Milan win their eighteenth Scudetto
Finally,  Milan's seven year wait for the Scudetto ends with an anti-climactic, but immensely welcomed 0-0 draw against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

For not an insignificant part of the last seven years, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani has accommodated the Rossoneri's domestic shortcomings by changing the subject.  While journalists would be trying to make sense of another underwhelming performance in Serie A, Galliani would be talking about one of those positive mid-week European performances.  Milan fans remember them because there were so many of them, and for a long time.

For the three seasons following their last Scudetto triumph, Galliani's mantra of 'The Champions League is our natural habitat' had currency: Milan reached the final in 2005 (in which an epic collapse prevented them from winning), played the semi-final in 2006, and won in 2007.  The record was staggering and allowed Milan to scorn the Scudetto, an attitude encapsulated in Massimo Ambrosini's less than ambassadorial moment moment atop the 2007 Champions League celebration bus.

Of course, Milan's contempt for the Scudetto challenge during the 2006-07 season was also determined by their points penalty for their involvement in Calciopoli, but the sentiment that Milan use the Champions League as an excuse has been voiced on many occasions.  Four forgettable, indeed at times embarrassing, European seasons following 2007 systematically exposed an ideology and team in decline, and, most dismayingly, a management in apparent denial.

It was not until the summer of 2010 that club owner Silvio Berlusconi decided to ease his seemingly dedicated austerity.  Perhaps it was Inter's treble that rankled Berlusconi into action; whatever his motivation, Milan were reconfigured.  In came Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and coach Massimiliano Allegri.  Out went Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Marco Borriello, coach Leonardo, and a counter-productive over-reliance on Senatori like Clarence Seedorf and Massimo Ambrosini.

The result has not been European success, but a much awaited Scudetto, won with a steady accretion of new ideas by Allegri and critical contributions from not only Ibrahimovic and Robinho, but also players like Ignazio Abate, Thiago Silva, and peripheral members like Rodney Strasser and Mario Yepes.  Even players like Seedorf, who looked cynical last season, have been rejuvenated by Allegri's method of distributing the burden of a season throughout his squad.  Indeed, Milan's Scudetto win is more telling than their 2007 Champions League win because it is a comprehensive assessment of the team throughout the season.

Allegri (right) led Milan with equanimity
Allegri's transition from Cagliari to Milan is laudable not just because he has landed a major trophy in his first season or because he could also achieve the double with a Coppa Italia win, but because he has assimilated in the peculiar glare of a big club so well.  Many raised eyebrows when he rather than a tried and trusted name was selected in the summer of 2010 to lead Milan, but Allegri withstood that scrutiny and also parlous moments throughout the season.  The way he handled a two-point lead going into the late-season derby against Inter was a definitive assessment of his Milan tenure.

His modesty throughout the campaign was edifying also.

"I'm fortunate to have come to Milan at a time when the club chose to invest," said a self-effacing Allegri recently.  Yes, certainly the investment has undoubtedly made his life easier, but it is under Allegri that Abate has become a marauding right-back that Milan have missed since Cafu, and under him Kevin-Prince Boateng was transformed into a convincing playmaker.

Milan's success was built on a defence held together uncompromisingly by Christian Abbiati, Alessandro Nesta, and Thiago Silva, who was even deployed in midfield in January to adjust for an alarming shortage in the middle of the park.  Further, when Nesta was injured, Yepes defied all expectation by ensuring that he deputized for him appropriately.  Milan's defence let in just twenty-three goals all season.  Today's 0-0 draw with Roma staged a microcosm of the defence's modus operandi.  Abbiati's point-blank save on Mirko Vucinic, Alessandro Nesta's crucial tackle to cut out Marco Cassetti's searching ball, Thiago Silva's unremitting attitude to prevent any danger, and Abate's indefatigability on the flank have been a feature all season.

During the last several months, the midfield was in constant flux due to injuries or suspension, but the level of application did not dip.  Gattuso, Ambrosini, Seedorf and Pirlo all contributed according to expectations, but so did  Mark van Bommel and Urby Emanuelson, the latter seldom used but bringing an urgency to proceedings when chosen for action.  Youth team products Strasser and Alexander Merkel also had memorable outings, which are promising signs for the future.

It was also in attack that Milan were tested all year.  Boateng deserves to strain superlatives for revealing his previously latent playmaking skill, but also the ability to be direct in front of goal.  Indeed, Boateng was more crucial in front of goal than he was in providing assists.  He scored three goals and assisted in two, but he was menacing throughout the campaign, drawing defenders to himself to allow others to do the damage.

The damager-in-chief, even if some may not like to admit it after his recent suspension, was Ibrahimovic.  The man, who has now won eight consecutive league titles in his itinerant career, managed eleven assists and fourteen goals.  He also regularly scored winners when Milan looked dependent on him: a lobbed winner against Genoa, the penalty winner against Inter in the fall, and an outrageous bicycle-kick winner  against Fiorentina stand out as his most memorable moments.  Petulant, yes, but never ever insignificant.

Ibrahimovic--moody but instrumental
The accusation that Milan were over-dependent on him proved somewhat unfounded in the second half of the season.  Without Ibrahimovic, Milan managed to beat Inter 3-0, and it was Alexandre Pato who stole the show that day.  Allegri took time to get the balance right, but he made sure that easy, critical labels would not apply to his team. Robinho covered ground all season, running forward with purpose, but also tracking back conscientiously.  Where his finishing well short, his tempo and skill in tight spaces compensated, and it is a credit to Allegri that he got a player who many consider to be erratic to play so assiduously.

Milan's glory also vindicates a carefully thought-out transfer strategy.  Galliani's decision to purchase Antonio Cassano in January meant that Milan did not miss the injured Filippo Inzaghi as much as they would have. Van Bommel's addition initially looked disastrous, as he earned card after card, but ultimately Galliani was proven right to bring in the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich player.  Van Bommel was finally able to channel his aggression productively in the latter part of the season.

Milan's eighteenth Scudetto ends Inter's hegemony over Serie A, which has stretched back to 2007, or 2006 if you consider that they were awarded that title because of Calciopoli.  It also puts Milan level with Inter in terms of Scudetti won.

For those who think that the Serie A this year was not as competitive as in recent times, and therefore think that Milan's win does not deserve plaudits, consider that Milan were playing in a league that consisted of the reigning European champions, a revived and possessed Napoli side led by Edinson Cavani, and a Lazio team that enjoyed the upper-reaches of the table all season.  Throw in teams like Udinese and Roma, both of whom gave not only Milan but the entire Serie A all sorts of problems, and people may be then able to contextualize Milan's emphatic win fairly and properly.

And now they must look to where they have always looked: the Champions League.  Galliani has already stated that the goal is to get back on top of Europe.  He has also added that the club's transfer season will be worthy of champions.  With a solid and capable team, tested over the rigours of a season, to build upon, Galliani may finally be able to see the value of winning not just in Europe, but also domestically.

After all, the Milan teams of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello did just that.

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