There’s a little-known phrase in Italian which sums up the current AC Milan team.
“Deve bere di latte per arrivare a mio livello”
No, it’s not nine Italian words for ‘shit’.
Literally, it means, ‘you have milk to drink before you get to my level’. The essence of it is that this current crop of Milan players still has a long journey and some serious maturing to do before they get anywhere near the level of the Champions League-winning sides of old.
Patience is Key
Let’s be fair, the Gattuso era might still be in its infancy, but the performances so far have already made some achievements to be proud of. For the first time in some years now, the ‘devils’ in red and black are a team to be feared, not scoffed at. It’s given the fans something to be passionate about, not embarrassed. The Curva Sud ultras are back in full-voice, not muted or even worse, not even bothering to leave the house. What Gattuso has brought is a spark that has ignited a fire in the belly of the team, burning through opponents and up the league table.
But, what the 5-1 aggregate loss to Arsenal proved, is that while a youthful team has brought an energy which is revitalising the club, they lack the one trait which can’t be coached. Experience.
Welè and a Turkish Delight
Arsenal, who by now are an experienced squad in European football, out-classed their Italian opponents. In the first leg, they soaked up the incredible atmosphere and pressure created by 73,000 rossoneri fans in the San Siro, weathered the early storm and were clinical with their chances. Milan were impressive in their commitment and ideas, but lacked the quality of a final ball.
In the second leg, they were again impressive in their organisation and bold in the fact they played two strikers. However, the attacking duo of Andre Silva and Patrick Cutrone both don’t quite belong on the biggest stage yet. No doubt champions of the future, their youth was visible and snatched at chances where a cooler head may have made a better decision. Decisions which only come with years of scoring goals at the top level. Where’s Pippo Inzaghi when you need him.
Hakan Calhanoglu opened the scoring at the Emirates with a superb long-range strike. Bend, dip and pace were all in perfect measure and left David Ospina with no hope. A pun which I’m disappointed no-one has used yet, it was a Turkish delight.
Then, in the 38th minute came what can only be described as a crime against football. Danny Welbeck inexplicably dived under minimal contact from Ricardo Rodriguez, with the penalty shout coming from an extra assistant two yards away from the incident. The only explanation is that the Swedish referee had some unfortunate spasm in his arm which made him point to the spot. At this point, Italians must think Swedes are out purely to crush their dreams.
The inevitable point is raised that, should the penalty not have been given and Milan enter the break 1-0 up, the game is completely different. Sadly, football doesn’t care for hopeful hypotheticals and the penalty was scored by Welè. Someone better be keeping that seat on the plane to Russia warm for him.
Regardless, Arsenal looked a different level to Milan on the night. Their movement was slick, the passing incisive and the midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere accommodated each other perfectly. At no point after the penalty was there a sense Arsenal were in any danger. Believe it or not, Mesut Ozil just about handled Fabio Borini at right-back.
A howler from Gianluigi Donnarumma meant Granit Xhaka’s strike gave Arsenal the lead and a header from Milan’s Public Enemy No.1, Welbeck, made it 3-1 late on. In the end, a 5-1 aggregate result is perhaps harsh on what was a valiant effort from Milan.
A Long Road Ahead
What the scoreline accurate represents, is the gap between this current Milan side and where they want to be at the end of this very expensive journey. The team will find solace in the fact that they can now put all their efforts into achieving top-four this season. With the little squad depth there is, exiting a competition they were unlikely to win could be a blessing in disguise as every league game becomes crucial.
Milan sit five points behind Inter, with a derby to still to be played, and six points behind Lazio in fourth, with a game in hand. Considering they were 17 points away from top-four at Christmas, and given the form of the team recently, nine games unbeaten in the league, Gattuso’s players are daring to believe that they can return to the Champions League next season. As the manager himself put it,
“In football and in sport, there’s nothing better than changing the course of history.”