Alongside Barcelona, AC Milan head into the 2013/2014 UEFA Champions League as favourites to progress from group H. But only just. The Rossoneri can no longer claim to be the feared side of old and have clumsily stumbled through the opening rounds of the new Serie A season. Second in a group of previous winners of the competition is the minimum requirement for Milan in this year’s Champions League; falling short of this expectation is not an option.
Milan will start the campaign after a mildly impressive end to the 2012/2013 season. After a disastrous start, the Milan giants finished 3rd in Serie A and cemented their place in Europe’s top competition once more thanks to tactical nous, emerging talents and of course Mario Balotelli; he scored 12 goals in 13 appearances since his January move from Manchester City. Although at times controversial, the Italian international’s contribution to the Milan cause cannot be questioned.
The influence of Balotelli was not available during Milan’s Champions League exploits last term due to his participation with Manchester City. However, Milan emerged from their group to reach the last 16 of the competition; a competition they have won on 7 previous occasions making them one of the most decorated sides in the competition’s history.
The round of 16 brought Barcelona to the San Siro in what was to be billed a walk in the park for the Spanish giants. This it was not, as Allegri’s men performed miracles and dominated the match to win 2-0. It was simply a tactical masterclass from Allegri who completely nullified any threat from Lional Messi and co.
Optimism was high for the return leg at the Camp Nou, but nothing could stop Barcelona clinching a 4-0 win; although not without a few scares as Milan could have made it a different story had they taken a chance or two. Eliminated, AC Milan did not go out without a fight and the victory over Barcelona in Milan would be a memorable moment for supporters in the season.
With the season over, and Champions League qualification secured, both fans and management knew that areas of the side would need to be reinforced. Allowing midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng to leave for Schalke for around £8.8m served only to weaken the side, such was his influence in the middle of the park and contribution to the goals tally; notably, a brace in the 3-0 win against PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League Playoff tie in August, ensuring progression to the group stage of this year’s competition.
Key arrivals this summer have been delivered at the San Siro with Andrea Poli arriving from Sampdoria for a mere £2.6m, Alessandro Matri arriving from Juventus for around £9.6m and of course Kaka, who made his return to Milan on a free transfer from Real Madrid. Kaka’s arrival has renewed fans’ hopes ahead of the new season, conjuring memories of his past performances both in Italy and European competition.
To say these key signings have not hit the ground running would something of an understatement as Milan suffered defeat in their opening day of the Serie A campaign against lowly Verona. A win at home to Cagliari followed, then a rather lucky 2-2 draw with Torino on Saturday mean Milan have been shaky at best. Kaka managed 70 minutes against Torino without contributing much, as a stoppage time penalty from Mario Balotelli clinched a point for Milan. Of course, Kaka’s lack of game time at Madrid means the Brazilian will need to be eased back into action to recapture fitness and gel with the new side.
Serie A form aside, Milan have a new plethora of options in attack which should be a cause for concern for Group H. As well as Balotelli, Stephan El-Shaarawy is a clinical finisher and finished last season with 18 goals. At only 20, the striker is a huge talent and is only likely to improve. Robinho, Giampaolo Pazzini and Matri also provide options, benefitting from Champions League experience; the latter having scored twice in Juventus’ 5-0 aggregate annihilation of Celtic in last year’s round of 16 tie.
In terms of midfield, Poli’s arrival strengthens it as well as Nigel De Jong’s return from injury; the Dutchman’s strength and tenacity in the deep midfield role used by Allegri is key to breaking up attacks and retaining possession. Captain Riccardo Montolivo and returning hero Kaka will add creativity and support for the front men.
Defensively, Mexes’ lack of pace could be a chink in the Milan armour, but teams will need to get past the defensive midfield wall likely to be in force through De Jong and Poli; not an easy task.
The summer has saw Milan strengthen greatly without compromising any areas. The have a good depth to the squad, a healthy mix of youth and experience and a coach more than capable of getting it tactically spot on. Although the start to their Serie A campaign has been tame, with new players to settle in and a number to come back from injury, the Milan faithful could see their side difficult to beat in this year’s Champions League.