Back in the 1990s, it was fair to say we on the west of Europe had something of a love affair with Il Calico. Serie A was the most glamorous league in the world. Our appetite for Italian football was satisfied by Network Two’s highlights show of a Tuesday evening, supplemented by Channel Four’s live match coverage Sunday afternoon. There was also James Richardson’s Saturday morning show, as he spent the best part of an hour flicking through the pink Italian newspapers, sipping his espresso and enlightening us with the events in Italian football over the past week. With Setanta now showing Serie A games once again, it gives us the opportunity to rekindle our love for the Italian game. It has been an interesting start to the season, with AC Milan leading the way 17 rounds in.
After the Rossoneri’s meagre exit 7-2 on aggregate to Manchester United in last season’s Champions League, it was thought that the end was nigh for many of the old guard. United’s younger legs and faster minds made the Milan side more than show their age. For the likes of Rino Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Nesta, it looked like their number was up. Even David Beckham’s attempt to steal the limelight by donning a green and gold scarf in protest to the Glazer’s regime at Old Trafford at the final whistle could not disguise that AC Milan were in need of a major facelift. However midway into the 2010/11 campaign, they are a different proposition, with Nesta in particular having recovered the form of his mid-20s when he had very few, if any, equals as a central defender in world football.
Whilst Nesta keeps it tight at the back, it’s at the other end of the pitch that the real attraction is to this revitalised Milan. A forward line featuring the talents of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Flippo Inzagi and Ronaldinho would have most coaches licking their lips at the prospect of such a wealth of firepower at his disposal. But Coach Massimiliano Allegri has had to find a way to accommodate any number of these players into a functioning and cohesive unit. Ibrahimovic was considered damaged goods after not living up to expectations at Barcelona following his big-money move from Internazionale, despite a more than respectable return of 20 goals in 41 appearances for the Catalans. His return to Italy has been a roaring success with nine goals and seven assists in his 16 Serie appearances to date.
Injuries to Inzaghi and Pato forced Allegri’s hand to an extent that he decided on a frontline of Robinho and Zlatan, with Genoa loanee Kevin Prince Boateng floating behind this most flamboyant of strike partnerships. All three netted during consecutive 3-0 league wins over Brescia and Bologna, but a 1-0 pre-Christmas home defeat to Roma showed that the mix of the side is not just perfect yet. Against a mobile Roma midfield, Gattuso, Ambrosini and Seedorf struggled to match the energy of Daniele De Rossi and Fabio Simplicio.
Whilst the signings of Zlatan and Robinho gave a new excitement to AC Milan, Antonio Cassano’s impending arrival to the San Siro has been met a certain degree of caution. The 28-year old’s talent has never been in question, but with a temperament that would make Milan’s stock of mavericks seem like choirboys, Cassano may be an unsettling influence on what is a delicately balanced dressing room. Then again, it may be the final piece of the jigsaw and led to Ronaldinho’s exit from the club. A brief flurry this time last year gave false hope that the Brazilian was nearing something like his best, but a miserly one goal return this season and lazy, inconsistent displays mean that a return to Gremio looks on the cards. A sad end to this exceptional talent’s career in Europe, though you get the sense that he has only himself to blame for his demise.
An awkward looking Champion’s League Group was managed quite comfortably, despite the meagre looking total of eight points from the six group games. A 20-minute spell against Real Madrid, when they were 2-0 down so early on, and the Rossoneri looked as though they were in for a trimming against a rampant home side. However, Milan regained their composure and even had Madrid under pressure for a period before the game petered out the finish 2-0. Allegri realised that such a cavalier approach would not do and almost became the first man to defeat Mouriho’s Madrid in the return game at the San Siro. Pedro Leon’s late equaliser savaged Real a 2-2 draw, which was followed by a seven game unbeaten run before a 2-0 home reverse to Ajax in a dead-rubber final group game. Tottenham Hotspur provide the opposition in the first knock-out stage and their pace and daring will cause Milan some problems. However Milan have been here countless times before and they may be the ones to pull the rug from under Harry Redknapp’s feet.
Mid-table Cagliari away is up next for Milan, who will be hoping that victory will get them back on track following the Roma defeat. With only two league titles since 1996, Inter in disarray after the Benitez era and their exploits last year and Juventus still finding their Serie A bearings after Moggi-gate, Milan will feel this could be their year. Nearest challengers Napoli and Lazio may not have the experience to stay pace in the title race. After all, with Ibrahimovic on aiming for his eight consecutive title with his fifth club, who would bet against him.