Written by Arjit
Ok Fellow Milanisti ! Let’s Discuss Milan ! Let’s Talk Some Red & Black !
CHAPTER I : GATTUSO WALKS AWAY
Let us all take a back seat and rewind here a bit just to refresh our memories. AC Milan had just finished the 2018-19 Serie A campaign in 5th place with 68 points on the table just missing out on automatic qualification for Champions League by a single point. The points tally achieved that season was the club’s highest since the 2012-13 season. The club owners Elliott Management were understandably left disappointed just like the fans since that was the closest the club had come in years to securing a place into Europe’s elite competition which we all know as the Champions League. Just as things were starting to look up, numerous media reports started doing the rounds that management had scheduled a private meeting with then manager Gennaro Gattuso. Soon after, news broke out that Gattuso would be stepping down from his role as manager which was later confirmed by the club via an official announcement. Interestingly, the announcement read that the decision was reached through mutual consent. The reports coming out of various media channels however painted a different picture, hinting towards disagreements between the club and manager. Gattuso had allegedly wanted the club to invest in experienced players to take the club forward. Elliott Management had other plans in mind. They wanted to invest in young players who showed potential of blossoming into future superstars at the club. This was the model Elliott had in mind all along ever since they took over the club in 2018. This led to a fallout between the two with Gattuso eventually departing from the club. The fans were livid since Gattuso had previously played at the club and hence was a fan favorite.
CHAPTER II : GIAMPAOLO EXPERIMENT FAILS
Out with Gattuso. In came Marco Giampaolo. The Swiss born Italian tactician had earned quite a reputation for himself in Serie A with successful stints at Empoli and Sampdoria. His teams were known for playing an attractive brand of football while achieving relatively good results. This was the kind of profile the Milan management had been looking for. The great Arrigo Sacchi himself vouched for this appointment. The club directors Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara swiftly moved and got their man. The fans were eager to see exactly what Giampaolo would bring to the club. The preseason was quite promising but that was it. An opening day loss to Udinese was followed by three more defeats in the next six matches. Come early October and Giampaolo was out the door already. He had lasted just 111 days, a club record for any manager.
CHAPTER III : PIOLI TAKES THE REIGNS
The Rossoneri’s search for another manager had started. Enter Stefano Pioli. On 9th October 2019, the Italian was confirmed as the club’s new head coach. There was however reported to be an exit clause in the contract which would allow the club to part ways with Pioli in case of failure to qualify for European competition come the end of the season. The contract termination would be mutually agreed, hence no severance pay on part of the club. The fans were not happy with the hiring. In fact, #PioliOut was trending in Italy even before Pioli had actually put pen to paper. The decision was seen by many fans and pundits as short sighted. Pioli’s resume didn’t help his case either. The Parma native had been a bit of a journeyman in Italian top flight including spells at Chievo, Lazio, Inter and most recently Fiorentina amongst others. His biggest accomplishment till date was Champions League qualification while in charge of Lazio. And so the reservations of the Milan fanbase were rather justifiable.
CHAPTER IV : ZLATAN REINVIGORATES MILAN
Things did not exactly start well. Pioli’s reign began with a stalemate at home to newly promoted Lecce. Then the 5-0 thumping at the hands of high flying Atalanta, also the club’s heaviest defeat in 21 years. Not exactly a record to be proud of for any manager. This coincided with rumors of Ragnick arriving at the club, which led to dismissal of club CFO Zvonimir Boban. A whole other saga for another time! Approaching 2020 however, results and performances had started to pick up. The players approached the second half of the season with much more confidence and swagger. The team had an identity that had been sorely missing earlier in the year. Everyone seemed to be pulling in the same direction. This upturn in fortunes could well be correlated to the arrival of a certain someone named Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big Swede was back at the club and #IZBack had taken over Milan twitter. The fans once again had hope and belief. The ‘Zlatan’ effect was in full flow and it started to show on the field. The players looked refreshed, especially the much maligned duo of Ante Rebic and Hakan Calhanoglu who seemed to be reborn. The team finally appeared settled in Pioli’s favored 4-2-3-1 system and the results were there for all to see. The harmony within the squad was unlike anything seen before in a long time and this was evident on the field of play. The team was winning and winning in style. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.
CHAPTER V : FOOTBALL TAKES A BACKSEAT
Then the unfortunate pandemic struck. The whole world went into lockdown and football authorities followed suit after some early resistance. The games would be played behind closed doors with no fans allowed in stadiums across Europe. The devastating effects of the pandemic were especially felt hard in the city of Milano. On 8th March 2020, AC Milan played host to Genoa in front of an empty San Siro. The atmosphere was strange and something just didn’t feel right from the get go. The incredible energy and support of the Rossoneri faithful was sorely missing in the stands. This showed in the team’s lackluster display on the day as they plummeted to a disappointing loss against a team batting relegation. The mood around the club was all doom and gloom again. The pandemic situation wasn’t getting any better either. It had in fact gotten worse claiming several casualties across Europe. The authorities did the right thing and suspended all football related activities for the foreseeable future. Football was all of a sudden brought to a halt. An unexpected stoppage time.
CHAPTER VI : GOOD NEWS ARRIVES
The agonizing wait for European football to return continued. The media was awash with conflicting reports as to when would that exactly happen. Finally, confirmations arrived. Football maniacs around the world were treated to the news that the likes of Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and Bundesliga would all be returning in the month of June. Serie A would be resuming on the 18th. Milan, however, would be kicking off a bit earlier due to their involvement in the Coppa Italia which had been scheduled for June 12. The return of football action would come as a welcome relief for the Italians considering what they had gone through lately. Although Milanisti around the world were thrilled at the prospect of watching their beloved Milan take the field again, doubts still remained over the team’s fitness levels. There certainly were question marks as to how the team would get on after such a lengthy break, keeping in mind that the team hadn’t had many training sessions to prepare. The club training center Milanello had only reopened for group training on May 18th as per the Italian government directives. Despite this, the vibes coming out of the club were all positive. The club had handled themselves with real class and dignity throughout these difficult times raising money via ‘Fondazione Milan’ in their fight against the global pandemic. The fans were hoping for a similar kind of effect on the field. All eyes were now firmly set on June 12th for Milan v Juve.
CHAPTER VII : CLASH OF THE TITANS
The wait was over. Football was back. The long anticipated Coppa Italia clash featuring two giants of Italian football was upon us. It was almost the perfect way to get the season underway once again with a classic Milan v Juve game. Mind you this was the return leg of the Italian cup semi-final after both teams had shared the spoils (1-1) in their first meeting back in February. The stakes were obviously high with a place in the cup final firmly on the line. The stage was all set for a spectacular showdown at the Allianz Stadium. The Rossoneri had key players suspended for the match thanks to yellow card accumulation including the likes of Zlatan, Castillejo and Hernandez. This was a huge blow considering Juve also held the away goal advantage in their favour. The team nonetheless battled to a (0-0) draw in a tightly contested game in which they had been down to 10 men for the most part following Rebic’s red card around the 16th minute mark. The players had answered the fans’ call playing on par with Juve despite being a man down for the best part of the match. Juve did advance to the finals but the boys in red and black had shown determination, pride and desire in abundance. Maybe a sign of things to come in the future.
CHAPTER VIII : AN INCREDIBLE TURNAROUND
It was now time to kick things off in the league once again. The race for the Europa League qualification was still on with Milan right in the thick of things. On 22nd June, Milan travelled away to Lecce, a side against which Pioli’s Milan adventure began. What a coincidence. The team ran out 4-1 winners with a dominant display on the night. The best start that fans could have asked for. Interestingly though, this would later turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg in the larger scheme of things. In fact, the Devil was out for more blood after conquering its first opponent. Milan would click into gear and go on to record impressive wins over Parma, Cagliari, Bologna, Sassuolo and Sampdoria. The progress was very much evident as the team had struggled against some of the aforementioned sides earlier in the season. The team would also triumph against both the Roman clubs in a fairly convincing fashion. The results were significant as they would represent the first 3 points of the campaign against a top four opposition. But things were about to get even better. Milan hosted Juve at the San Siro in the first week of July. The Bianconeri headed into the fixture looking to extend their lead at the top of Serie A. Though things would pan out differently. After initially going 2-0 down, Milan would turn the match on its head with a stunning comeback scoring 4 goals in the space of 18 min. The game would finish 4-2 and the Rossoneri would close the season in style.
CHAPTER IX : INSPIRED POST LOCKDOWN FORM
Milan had gone undefeated since the resumption of play in Serie A, a stretch of 12 games with 9 wins and 3 draws. The remarkable run also included few scalps along the way against the likes of Roma, Lazio and Juve. Furthermore, the team played out a 1-1 draw against Atalanta in quite a competitive game. The team had been hammered 5-0 by the same side back in December which actually proved to be the turning point of the season. The team had come a long way since then. The team coming into the end of season had an identity and pattern of play that was clearly noticeable. This did not bear any kind of resemblance to the team that had started the season so poorly. The players had developed a different kind of mentality of getting stuck in and not giving up in tough situations. The experienced heads of Zlatan and Kjaer had made a huge difference to the otherwise extremely young squad. One could feel a strong sense of unity and harmony within the squad. The players had slotted in nicely into the new formation of 4-2-3-1 which seemed to get the best out of each one of them. Everyone appeared composed and comfortable in their roles on the pitch. They also looked more fit and sharp as compared to other teams in the league. Moreover, key players stepped up and started delivering high level performances on a consistent basis which was good to see from a fan’s perspective since lack of consistency had been the team’s Achilles heel.
CHAPTER X : PROVING DOUBTERS WRONG
There was one man more responsible for all this positive change than anyone else, Stefano Pioli. The Italian had arrived under some difficult circumstances yet managed to steady the ship with time. He was not a very popular choice, evident by the underwhelming reception he received upon his arrival. He did not complain whatsoever but rather decided to focus on the job at hand. Not to mention the endless rumors about Ragnick in the Italian media, which he handled with total class and dignity. Pioli had an answer for all the questions thrown at him and despite all the hurdles, he had managed to transform the team’s fortunes completely from the time he took over. In the end, the Milan management took notice and deservedly handed him a contract for two more years to build on his work. Kudos to the management as well for not ripping up the script once again but instead opting for some much needed continuity and stability. The club can finally kick on and build on the foundations of this season in their bid to secure a top four finish in the upcoming Serie A season. Watch out you all, it might just be the time for the Champions League action to once again return to the red half of Milan, the one with 7 European titles.