Nov 192017
 

by Stelios Karakasis

Welcome to another episode of ‘’In the Realms of the Unreal’’ with Vincenzo Montella. This time around we will be focusing on the positives of the defeat in San Paolo. A defeat that came as no surprise to anyone slightly following Italian football, a defeat in the hands of a much, much, much better team.

Losing to this Napoli side away by a one goal margin is not a disgrace, nor an illogical outcome. They are the undefeated leaders of Serie A, a team appreciated throughout Europe for their attractive strain of football, with a lethal front three of Insigne, Callejon and Mertens and Marek Hamsik behind them. So, one has to ask, what was Montella thinking on that Saturday night, playing a defensive line of three so high up the pitch? If that wasn’t his planning, it only makes it worse for him, and so does insisting on playing Fabio Borini as a right wing-back. It is clear by now that Borini lacks the requirements to play the specific role. Up front he tries to make things happen, he’s dedicated and hard-working but defensively he’s the equivalent of the Bay of Pigs, an experiment destined to fail. Yesterday, he was slaughtered by Lorenzo Insigne.

But that’s not Borini’s fault and in general it was another bad performance. Simply put, the notion that Milan should be pleased with the fact that they merely lost and didn’t get blown out of the San Paolo pitch, must surely trouble the whole organization. By the way, here’s what Milan have achieved so far in this season when faced with the teams that are placed above them on the table:

Lazio – Milan 4-1, Sampdoria – Milan 2-0, Milan – Roma 0-2, Inter – Milan 3-2, Milan – Juventus 0-2, Napoli – Milan 2-1. Lost all six games, scored four times, allowed fifteen goals, with a really good keeper protecting their goal.

Montella said after the game that patience is needed to reach even Inter’s level. That’s not a convincing defence, considering the nerazzurri finished below his team last season and Milan spent over two hundred million for players in the summer. It’s almost December, experimenting at will simply can’t pass as rotation, and if you are willing to get puzzled on this fine Sunday afternoon, revisit his substitutions in San Paolo.

Montella stated that there is visible improvement in the way the squad plays, they way it reacts, the way it fights. Well, either he’s really bad at reading what happens on the pitch, or he is not aware that the games are being broadcasted on television. He also feels optimistic. Says the worst part is over. Now, is it? We are about to find out. Come Christmas, Milan would have played against Torino, Benevento, Bologna, Hellas Verona and Atalanta, five games that are not unmanageable to win. Fail to gather at least twelve points from these fixtures and even qualification for European football next year might seem like a struggle. Not quite what was expected at the start of the season. Montella is in a difficult situation and, while not the only culprit, he has to take the blame for what his team is presenting on the pitch. Actions and words regarded, the man has taken off his jacket and painted himself a glowing target on the back.

There is a single moment in the match against Napoli, that pretty much sums up the sorry state of affairs Milan are in: It’s stoppage time and Alessio Romagnoli’s wonder strike has put the rossoneri on the scoreboard. 2-1. Moments later, and luckily enough, they win a free-kick not far from Pepe Reina’s goal. With the very last kick of the game, they have a chance to salvage two points, to unexpectedly avoid defeat with a spirited comeback out of nowhere. Even Gigi Donnarumma comes up. You need faith and decisiveness and a decent delivery in the box, so you can turn this thing over. It’s what mentally strong teams do. Is there hope? Well, evidently, not. Lucas Biglia kick is as bad and hopeless as it gets; it floats high and wide, it’s amateurish and bewildering and disheartening and all these bad, bad things and symbolic enough and it is game over, Napoli have won.

Lorenzo Insigne was right after the game, Napoli played with heart and grit. A stock phrase after a derby win, but totally true on this particular Saturday night. Milan, on the other hand, are still collectively searching for both of those much-needed traits among many other things, while Montella looks unable to motivate the players to even get off the team bus. Will things change for the better? Probably yes but it’s too early to say. Good sides are built according to plan, not bought in a single transfer window. It takes time, even if you are able to buy all the expensive materials at once. Does the future look bright? Again, it’s early to say. Just don’t bring your sunglasses with yet.

Nov 182017
 

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The international took the focus off of Milan somewhat. The Azzurri’s failure to qualify for World Cup 2018 remains the big story around Italy and much of the world too.  That is not to say the international break has been ‘Milan free’. There have been more stories casting doubts on the Chinese ownership situation with Li Yonghong being mentioned and investigated as far as the New York Times.

Montella’s tactics and failure have also been on the lips of many fans. With the table topping Napoli the next game there is little optimism that the season can be put back on track this weekend.

News of the formation is likely to disappoint again. Indications are that Montella experimented with a few different line ups but that Suso will start behind Kalinic. This didn’t work earlier in the season and it is questionable that it will now. The midfield is missing Biglia, who is not fully recovered but available on the bench, but welcomes back Bonaventura. The aforementioned is likely to line up with Montolivo, Kessie, Borini and either one of Rodriguez or Locatelli in a crowded midfield hoping to stop the dynamic 4-3-3 of Maurizio Sarri’s team.

The back three should be the familiar Bonucci, Romagnoli and Musacchio but it is also possible that Zapata will start in place of the Argentinian, again.

Napoli have a big absentee in Faouzi Ghoulam but of course represent a very tough test hosting Milan.

Oct 152017
 

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The season has been derailed to the point of questioning the coach and formations. The international break meant that Montella perhaps has time to restart the season and put the team back on the better path with which the season started. The week 7 0-2 loss to Roma wasn’t the worst performance seen by Milan fans by any stretch but far more is expected than 7th spot in the Serie A standings.

Inter have had a more reassuring start to their season and under Luciano Spalletti have performed well enough for their fans. Led by Mauro Icardi the team sit second.

The aforementioned formations and tinkering has settled on a 3-5-1-1 for week 8 and this is at least in part due to Kalinic’s injury. The Croat has an injury that is expected to be short term and misses the derby. Suso and in front of him Andre Silva should start. The latter has performed well and is very deserving to lead the attacking line. The middle five is expected to remain predictable and will be Rodriguez, Bonaventura, Biglia, Kessie and Borini. The back three has to remain the best three available as there are little other options. Romagnoli, Bonucci and Musacchio haven’t played mistake free but will of course start.

 

Oct 012017
 

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Week six’s loss to Sampdoria is already threatening to unravel a season with high expectations. The 2-0 away loss increased the pressure on the team to the point of putting Montella’s job in question. This game vs Roma and the next vs Inter after the international break are to be crucial for the team and perhaps the coach’s position. Why has it reached to this point this early in the season?

The back three looked and has looked mistake prone in most games this season. Starting Zapata vs Sampdoria was also adding to the likelihood of disaster and so it came to be as his poor header or clearance gave the ball away for Sampdoria’s first. The midfield hasn’t looked great and the forwards are somewhat under-performing. Montella’s rotation of attacking players is not allowing for continuity either. Suso has struggled and has seen on and off action in place of pure strikers like Kalinic and Andre Silva. The 3-5-1-1 has not helped and should not be used. Suso should arguably be a starter every week but not in that formation behind a sole striker.

The midweek game vs a supposedly weak HNK Rijeka team has added to the air of crisis. That game which some hoped would provide a retrieve from the slump was only rescued by a last kick Cutrone goal after Milan had thrown away a 2-0 lead courtesy of Bonucci and Romagnoli mistakes.

Roma have their injury worries with but have more than enough to provide a tougher test of course and the likes of Edin Dzeko and El Shaarawy can very easily take advantage of mistakes at the back. The 3-5-2 persists for now as the options and time are too short for any possible change. Kalinic and Andre Siva could start together up front and the midfield is probably the best it can be with Rodriguez, Bonaventura, Biglia, Kessie and Abate in front of the back three. The back three must include Musacchio as the team can surely not afford another Zapata trademark costly mistake. Bonucci and Romagnoli must be at their best and perhaps this is the time to draw back the high defensive line a bit. Neither of the three have shown the ability to keep up with an attacker that beats the offside line and runs by them.

Sep 242017
 

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Two penalties delivered the three points vs newly promoted SPAL 2013 and now the season tally is four wins and four shut outs in five games. The game was promising, despite the goals not being from open play and the 3-5-2 – with both Andre Silva and Kalinic starting – looked good and fluid for long stretches.

Sampdoria provide a tougher test and indications are that the 3-5-2 will revert to the 3-5-1-1 with Suso regaining his role behind Kalinic. Calabria and Montolivo have joined the injury list that of course includes a long term casualty in Conti. Calhanoglu didn’t have the best game vs SPAL and cedes his place to Bonaventura. The latter was a sub for the Turkish international in the week 5 match. Biglia was briefly a doubt for week 6 with word that Locatelli is going to replace him but the Argentine seems to have recovered quickly once again. Abate, Rodriguez and Kessie will complete the middle five. The Ivory Coast international had another great game – and took the second penalty – and keeps growing in stature.

In defence Zapata was a somewhat surprise starter last time out and will likely retain his spot at the expense of Musacchio. Romagnoli, Bonucci will be the other two at the back of course. Gigio Donnarumma will be in goal of course as well.

Evergreen Fabio Quagliarella and Duvan Zapata lead the Sampdoria attack.

Sep 202017
 

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A 3-5-2 or more accurately a 3-5-1-1 looked smoother, more confident and effective vs Udinese and week 4’s 2-1 win was one to add some optimism. The questions before the match also centered around Andre Siva’s omission – in favour of Kalinic – as the Portuguese had just come off a hat trick performance in the Europa League game in Vienna. In any event Kalinic delivered a brace and was a VAR review away from a hat trick himself.

Newly promoted SPAL 2013 visit the San Siro for this midweek game. One question before this match has been if Montella will stick with Kalinic or give a start to Silva and the answer has been given. Silva will start. The other question is if Suso is suitable for the in behind the striker role. Versus Udinese Suso didn’t look at his best and misplaced passes. Indications are that Suso will start again but perhaps the formation will be tweaked and include both he and Calhanoglu behind Silva. This would sacrifice Bonaventura and make it a 3-4-2-1. Kessie and Biglia would form a solid spine with Calabria and Rodriguez around them. The defensive trio will remain Musacchio, Bonucci and Romagnoli but Zapata has a chance to start as well.

The SPAL 2013 team features three names familiar to Milan fans. Marco Borriello, Bartosz Salamon and Alberto Paloschi are members of the Emilia-Romagna based team and may all start.

Sep 172017
 

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The week 3 loss at Lazio was a wake up call of sorts. The shape of the team and the collapse of the team in the 4-1 loss was not something any fan wanted to see this season. Ciro Immobile, not exactly the most highly rated player by opposing fans, tore through the uncomfortable looking back four and his hattrick reminded everyone that perhaps Bonucci is best used in a back three instead of four. The back three was indeed used vs Austria Wien in the Europa League opener in midweek and the result, a 5-1 win vs admittedly weaker opposition, re-enforced the back three’s need.

Week four is Udinese at the San Siro. The team features rising star Jakub Jankto and the midfielder’s name has already been rumoured and wanted around Italy and Europe. The team is led by Maxi Lopez and will face a Conti-less Milan. The right back damaged his knee ligaments after returning from a short injury lay off and is out until the Spring. His absence makes the 3-5-2 formation less formidable and Abate needs to do very well and provide his best offensive work. The front two will be much debated, the indications are that Suso and Kalinic will start vs Udinese but many will call for Andre Silva’s inclusion, if not for any other reason than his hattrick at Wien in midweek. Perhaps he will start in the upcoming midweek week 5 match vs SPAL. The midfield five will form a good spine with Kessie, Biglia and Calhanoglu in the middle (plus Rodriguez on the left). The aforementioned Turkish international had a man of the match performance at Wien where he provided a goal and two assists. His creativity will be key.

Sep 102017
 

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Two wins and six points and the Europa League group stage. The very early weeks of the new era have gone well. Bigger tests await and Lazio is the first of those.

The 4-3-3 formation favoured for much of Montella’s time will remain for now and while questionable will feature players that many want to see on the bench. Montolivo will hold a spot in midfield for example. Biglia and Kessie form a solid midfield partnership and may be good for the former captain.

Up front Borini is another player who doesn’t inspire much confidence but playing as the left player in the front three allows him to contribute down the flank and provide balls for Cutrone. The latter’s form will continue to keep Andre Silva out of the starting eleven for the time being. Suso, whose rich contract extension is set to finally happen, will start on the right.

Musacchio will continue to keep Romagnoli out of the eleven. Conti injured during national team play will be replaced by either Abate or Calabria. Rodriguez and Bonucci will be the other, of course regular, members of the back four.

Lazio have started the season with four points. Nani was set to get his Lazio debut but is not ready. Felipe Anderson is also missing from the Lazio lineup.

Sep 022017
 

Spring 2017 brought the much awaited new era for Milan. The previous, and highly successful of course, era led by Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani had faded into unwillingness and inability to maintain the grand expectations and status of the team. The Chinese, led by Li Yonghong, finally took over amid uncertainty and indebted to a hedge fund (Elliott). Marco Fassone in his role as would be CEO and Massimiliano Mirabelli as sporting director had laid the groundwork before the official take over and during the numerous delays that led up to the take over.

The two men in charge took off rapidly during the spring and into the summer with the task of rebuilding the fallen giant. The numerous trips and meetings of the aforementioned duo had provided them with a knowledge of the market and transfers and deals came fast. Rumours exploded as well and not just about players who might come and go but about the make up of the sale and the feasibility of the hedge fund deal. The deal was and is surely a gamble for a league and team that has been falling in world football standing. The hysteria, especially fan excitement, was sometimes tempered with the news that the Chinese government will continue to tighten capital exit from China. Indeed it was the same issue that had delayed the deal and made the hedge fund’s presence a necessity. Would the hedge fund take control of the team in October 2018 if Chinese funds are blocked and the high interest loan not repaid? That question is still not answered and everybody hopes it never comes into play.

The new look Milan embark on the quest for domestic and European glory

The transfers and rebuild got off to a start with a name that was linked for months and may have happened with Berlusconi and Galliani in charge too. Mateo Musacchio arrived from Villareal, the Argentine central defender was not the best known of defenders but had a solid reputation albeit with an injury record. Days later Franck Kessie signed with Milan on an initial expensive loan, €8 million, plus €20 million to be paid in two years. An expensive yet promising young midfielder who a few compared to Yaya Toure. Ricardo Rodriguez. who one season earlier had been on the wish list of the likes of Chelsea signed on having after a relatively disappointing 2016-2017 season at Wolfsburg. The full steam ahead activity didn’t let up with the signing of Andre Silva from Porto. Milan had been searching for a center forward after Montella had for all intents and purposes given up on Bacca. Big names were mentioned but remained elusive. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Andrea Belotti were the most notable of targets but the 21 years old Portuguese signed for less than his release clause and in the process Milan’s management forged somewhat of a relationship with his (super) agent Jorge Mendes.

Meanwhile problems had been simmering with another super agent. Mino Raiola. The infamous agent had become Gigio Donnarumma’s agent and had promised a tough negotiation once the goalkeeper turned 18 and so it was to be. For days it seemed a given that Milan would lose the super star to be goalie and Raiola created more controversy by demanding Champions League related clauses and of course big sums for himself and the player. This went on for what seemed like months but the player finally signed – and his brother too – for very big money to stay, but a release clause will hang over Milan’s head and the agent is sure to rile up the team and fans every summer.

Fabio Borini joined Milan in a surprise move from Sunderland that was cheap but still mostly scoffed at. Hakan Calhanoglu, the German based free kick specialist joined too, his transfer was also unexpected and missed by most pundits. Soon after Milan returned to Atalanta and paid a good sum for Andrea Conti. The right back had been highly rated in Atalanta’s overachieving 2016-2017 season and was very eager to join Milan.

The major coup of the transfer window happened next and shocked football fans world wide. In lightning speed Leonardo Bonucci quit Juventus and signed for €42 million. The transfer also seemed to confirm the reported breakdown between Bonucci and Massimiliano Allegri. Whatever the truth was the transfer made a statement and heightened expectations even more, both in online betting circles and in fan sentiment.

By now the team had gone through a major change but more was needed to achieve the goal of reaching the Champions League and finishing in Serie A’s top 4. Despite all the activity the team was weak in the middle, and lacking depth up front. Montolivo still held a place and that inspired little confidence. Lucas Biglia’s name had been mentioned but was not easy to get. After several delays he also joined to add the needed dimension in midfield.

Having spent over €200 million the focus shifted to generating some transfer cash by selling unwanted and unneeded players, like the aforementioned Carlos Bacca. De Sciglio had asked to leave and his wish was finally granted as he joined Juventus. Kucka flew to Turkey and joined Trabzonspor. Poli joined Bologna on a (surprisingly) free transfer. Lapadula joined Genoa on an initial loan. Bertolacci too but only a loan with no obligation. Vangioni found a team who wanted him, in Mexico’s Monterrey. Bacca and Niang took their time to leave and the former only on dry loan when most expected the team to get at least €20 million. A collection of youth players left too. The Primavera team – now coached Rino Gattuso was being rebuilt too.

The incoming amount disappointed and more money is still needed to offset the being money spent. However the new era has been off to a roaring start and so much so that UEFA’s financial fair play regulations will be a concern. The new management have insisted that there is a plan to increase revenue and make the spending not only sustainable but also in line with the FFP. That growth seems to strongly hinge and be very reliant on one market, China.

For now though it is up to the new look team and coach Montella to target the minimum 4th place in the Serie A and perhaps even win the Europa League. Champions League money and glory are a must.

Aug 272017
 

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The new historic season got off to a very good start with a win at Crotone, the new look squad managed to produce the needed quality and show the promise hoped and required for the new season.

The San Siro will get another look at the team as the new look Milan makes its home Serie A debut. With the transfer window still open the possibility of another addition or two is still there but this team as it is this weekend will be looking to qualify for the Champions League and bring in the glory and cash too.

The injury list includes Bonaventura and Biglia, although the latter has made a quick return to the squad for this game. Romagnoli is available and on the bench as well. Gigio Donnarumma will get the start in goal and in front of him Montella is likely to stick to the 4-3-3 and use Conti, Bonucci, Musacchio and Rodriguez. The midfield three will likely include Montolivo and not Locatelli flanked by Kessie and Calhanoglu. The front three looks to feature Cutrone, who has been in excellent form of course, in place of Andre Silva. Suso and Borini will play up front with him.

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