There was a feeling after the final whistle went on the stalemate Milan derby in the San Siro on Sunday night that it was AC who secured the moral victory. A dominant display, only bearing the fruit of Stephen El Shaarawy’s first half strike, that was repelled only by a string of good saves by Samir Handanovic in the Inter goal, could have been construed that, had the match taken place in a boxing ring, Massimiliano Allegri’s side would have won on points.
It does indeed point to a bright future. Gone have the old guard that seemed to have been clinging on at the San Siro through sentiment only. Gattuso, Seedorf, Van Bommel, Nesta and Zambrotta have all passed while 35 year old club captain Massimo Ambrosini and 38 year old centre-half Mario Yepes have both been used sparingly. It is indicative of the age-shift that Phillipe Mexes, at the age of 30, was the oldest outfield player in Milan’s line-up that drew with Inter on Sunday.
The transition has not just been limited to the elder citizens, as Alberto Aquilani, Djamel Mesbah, Urby Emmanuelson, and Maxi Lopez had all outlasted their stay, while the high-profile exits of Alexandre Pato, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Antonio Cassano had threatened to subject the club to a spell of regression.
Allegri, who has managed to fend of the struggles promised by their drastic upheaval, now points to the likes of Mattia De Sciglio, Kevin Constant, M’baye Niang and the Barcelona youth product Bojan Krkic to light the way forward.
To deal with the departures, Milan bought effectively over the summer months, bringing in Zapata, Francisco Acerbi and Nigel De Jong, all for fees of around £3 million, while Giampaolo Pazzini arrived for €7 million as part as the deal taking Cassano to Inter. The Italian striker has gone on to score 10 goals.
Riccardo Montolivo, who impressed in last year’s European Championships with Italy, joined on a free together with Sulley Muntari to bolster the midfield, while Allegri also invested in the future, spending just £2 million on the talented 18 year old Niang and loaning in Bojan from Roma with an option to buy him at the end of the season.
After the summer of refurbishment, the season did not start well for Allegri who only managed to win 2 of his first 8 matches to leave Milan peering over their shoulder in the bottom half of Serie A. Now, things are very much on an upward curve as the Rossoneri have lost just 2 of their last 18 matches to position them third, a point ahead of Lazio and rivals Inter as the chase for the final Champions League qualification spot begins to heat up.
It is not only the league form that is cause for optimism, but their recent 2-0 win over Barcelona in the second round of the Champions League which puts them on the brink of progressing to the quarter-finals of a competition they have not won since 2007. It is these results and proficient performances that have Milan running on the ominous momentum of eight matches unbeaten since the turn of the year.
It is a side that stays true to Allegri’s 4-3-3, using the vibrant movement of Pazzini, El Shaarawy and now Mario Balotelli in attack, ahead of the combative midfield of Antonio Nocerino and Ricardo Montolivo who can win the ball back and move it forward quickly. Either Ambrosini or De Jong are appointed to anchor the midfield, offering experience in protecting a defence that has shipped just six goals in their last eight games and provided the solid foundation to the victory over Messi, Iniesta and co. last week.
The quality is not just restricted to their starting eleven as, going deeper to reserve, Allegri can call on the energy and work-rate of Ghanians Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng, the two scorers vs Barcelona, in midfield, the versatility of Daniele Bonera and Kevin Constant in defence and the lightning pace of young M’Baye Niang when defences have been worn down late on. It is testament to the strength in depth at Allegri’s disposal that the quality of Robinho and the strong experience of Mathieu Flamini have just been afforded a handful of appearances.
With such strength in all areas of the squad, the 45 year old coach can order a high level of pressing, key to winning the ball and initiating attacks in the opponent’s half, without concern of his players tiring. Should Allegri turn to the bench, he is assured there is always quality available on it, a huge advantage in a league that now allows twelve substitutes.
It is the recent upturn in form that will have painted the long-term in a lustrous shade of red and black, the Scudetto looks out of reach this season as it head back into the hands of Juventus, but Allegri’s well-rounded squad are beginning to show the promise that it will not be long before they are competing for the championship again.
The form of 20 year old El Shaarawy, who has hit 16 goals this term, in tandem with 22 year old Balotelli, who has had the impact of 4 goals from his first 4 games since joining in January, will hint that another era of league dominance, replicating the success of the 1990′s Milan, could also be in the pipeline if the young Italian strike force can produce the future their precocious talents suggest.
If they can finish the job against Barcelona in two week’s time, perhaps the focus of finishing in the Champions League places of Serie A may shift over to actually winning the competition for the first time in six years, but Allegri will be cautious enough to keep that as a long-term aim for a job that has been under-mined by a plethora of player-changes and the most volatile of transitional periods.
It is those conclusions that all connected with the Rossoneri would have taken from the 1-1 draw with Inter on Sunday evening, that it is still a work in progress and it is beginning to power in the right direction.
For Allegri, who has recently summarised the turnaround most effectively with “we are now able to aim for targets that until recently has seemed out of reach”. After his travails of the summer, that is a remarkable achievement in itself.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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