Devil’s Advocate: Milan given a reality check in Europe that will only help the growth process

By Oliver Fisher -

Those who were hoping AC Milan would have a fairytale return to the Champions League after a seven-year absence have abruptly had their expectations adjusted after three games.

There was certainly a lot of justified jubilation at the end of last season when Milan beat their supposed kryptonite Atalanta in the final game of the campaign to secure a second-placed finish and a place in Europe’s elite club competition for what feels like an eternity.

The problem with such a long hiatus is that it had severely damaged the Rossoneri’s UEFA coefficient and so the reward for getting back into the Champions League was a draw against the 2018-19 winners Liverpool, LaLiga champions Atletico Madrid and a team with proven pedigree in Porto.

Not to worry, because after all getting back onto the big stage meant that Milan were going to take a big leap forward in their project. The revenues would be used to bring in top players who would now want to come and play for a club who were back in a competition where they belonged.

The start to the season in the league has very much been one where the momentum has continue from the previous season, with seven wins in the opening eight games putting Stefano Pioli’s side in second place, but the reality check has come in Europe.

Breaking it down game by game, we start with the trip to Anfield and a match between two clubs who have combined for 13 European Cup/Champions League titles. Milan were rocked from the start and couldn’t deal with the intense press Jurgen Klopp’s side came out with, falling behind and struggling to get a grip in the game.

A penalty save from Mo Salah stopped what could have been a bloodbath and then the Rossoneri struck twice through Rebic and Brahim Diaz to carry a lead into half-time. The game management wasn’t there against a resurgent Liverpool in the second half who quickly equalised and won it with a moment of quality.

Then Atletico Madrid came to the San Siro, ironically as the last team Milan had played at home in the Champions League. Milan started perfectly; demonstrating the intensity, quality and creativity that has characterised Pioli’s side, and Leao’s goal was no more than the team deserved.

However, Franck Kessie’s red card before the break totally changed the complexion of the game, with Antoine Griezmann equalising and a controversial late penalty award allowed Luis Suarez to snatch all three points.

Last night’s defeat to Porto did not have as much drama, as a lacklustre performance was punished by Luis Diaz’s second half goal with 25 minutes left on the clock.

Peaks and troughs, controversial decisions, injuries and suspensions. The Diavolo have had it all in their opening three group games but the end result is this: zero points.

It can certainly be described as a reality check and a learning curve so far for Milan’s young core. After all, it must be remembered that aside from Ibrahimovic, Giroud and Kjaer, the core of Tomori, Calabria, Theo Hernandez, Bennacer, Kessie, Tonali, Saelemaekers, Brahim Diaz and Leao are all very young and virtually have zero experience when it comes to the Champions League,

If Milan were edged by a better side in their first game and can bemoan some dreadful refereeing in the second, the Porto loss definitely represented a step back. The lack of depth particularly off the bench was critically exposed as a determined, hungry and equally resolute Sergio Conceicao side used all the nous they have accrued in the competition to win.

It now means that progressing to the last 16 is an almost impossible task, but this is where the issue of expectations comes in. Having seen the draw – which was Milan’s own fault given the many years spent out of the competition – was finishing above two of Liverpool, Atletico Madrid and/or Porto really likely?

The gap in intensity between Serie A opponents and those who play in the Champions League regularly is clear for all to see. Milan have kept up with that for patches of their first three fixtures, yet have fallen short in all three too due to the aforementioned combination of factors.

The theme of the project so far has been patience. Patience in the head coach to develop an identity, a way of playing and to develop some of the young core, patience in the players themselves to adapt to Serie A and to Pioli’s ideas but also patience on the market as the clearing out of dead wood and the injection of youth continues.

That patience must also extend to the new forays that the squad undertakes. If fans truly and genuinely expected a deep run in this competition, then this will have been a rude awakening for their naivety. The fact of the matter is that the team itself and the club needing reminding how competitive the arena is, how the levels raise and how – given the revenues available – some of the elite are almost playing a different sport.

Growth margins has been another theme of Milan’s time under Elliott Management; the growth of revenues and the accounts, of the management as leadership figures, of Pioli as a coach, of the young core, of the value of assets and of the club’s brand exposure as a whole.

The players will learn from their experiences how to manage games better in additional to their natural upward trajectory anyway, Pioli will also adapt his style and develop more ways to skin a cat, the directors will take on board what is truly needed for a fine-tuned squad and those in charge of the accounts will learn how to deal with having more money.

No season spent in the Champions League – no matter how good or bad the results are – can harm the growth process that Milan are going through at the moment. These players will emerge better after the storm, as will Pioli, as will the likes of Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara who have seen the strength in depth it takes to compete on multiple frontiers.

By all means enjoy the excitement of Milan’s return to the Champions League and get fully on board the Scudetto train if you wish, but sometimes a reality check can serve very well in the long run.

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Tags AC Milan


  1. I would rather we had not qualified at all for UCL.We are embarrassing ourselves right now.
    We celebrated qualifying for UCL..This is not anything to celebrate.
    Just forget UCL and focus on Serie A….we will lose all 6 games anyway.

    1. You’re completely wrong. If the team wouldn’t have qualified, they will never get their level back. Furthermore, Milan had the bad luck in champions league of having the most difficult group after 8 years of absence. If Milan would have been in group like the one of Juventus, Inter or Atalanta. The story would be completely different. Milan still needs to strengthen the team and the conditions of this last match were very extreme. Milan played with the whole bench

      1. I agree with you, and honestly I wasnt expecting much from this Milan side considering the group we were put in which is the toughest group in the UCL taking into consideration the calibre of the teams who themselves have lifted the trophy at least once, I just hoped they would do their best, other the much needed experience year in year out till we are ready to rule Europe again or at the least become a strong contender

        1. Yeah exactly. I think Milan will be more prepared for the years to come. Manchester United is doing pretty bad and have a budget 5 times higher than Milan. Let’s just hope that they can win something in Italy at least. Then they need to strengthen the team with some other talents for next year and make a return in Europe

      2. Atalanta or Inter isn’t an easy group. As it is, group c or G would have been more manageable. Hopefully we can pull an Atalanta like performance in the away game. Atalanta had a maiden UCL appearance and a fair tail run to the quarter finals.

    2. What sort of logic is that? Although unlikely we may still qualify with a bit of luck. If we manage to Win all 3 matches. And Porto lost against Liverpool and a draw with Atletico Madrid that’d be 5 pts. And Atletico lost again vs Liverpool and draw vs Porto while we win all 3 that be 5 pts for Atletico and Porto and us 9 points. One can only hope. Unlikely but possible. As long as Atletico or Porto doesn’t get 2 win and we get 3 we’ll be able to qualify. Mathematical possible but the chances are slim.

    3. First almost winning a TOP5-team in the World and then lost two due to catastrophic refereeing errors. I wouldn’t say it’s such a disaster you make it seem like.

      The team will learn from the mistakes and will gather strength from the errors the referees made. If Milan had everyone available getting 3 wins from the last 3 games wouldn’t be a suprise.

    4. too bad for the first comment.. are you not watching the games? Liverpool at the moment is playing in brutal form- that class is pick of europe and thus the world, Milan could’ve actually won that one, then the pain against Atletico, the Spanish champions, had to put five forwards against ten men who held it almost to the end, joke of a penalty, a same foul on Tonali didn’t cost anything for which Kessie got a second yellow, village referees allowed in UCL, then there’s injury, a team suddenly loses five starters and can’t keep it’s rhythm that’s simple.. bro your pain is justified, we feel it but we can still keep heads high

  2. How quickly you are to start being negative. I think this team has the quality to compete but not the depth. We were good against Liverpool, and excellent against Atletico when we had close to our best 11 in. We played away from home without our core against Porto so naturally we were not going to be able to dominate. We are not that far off, we just need a bit of depth.

  3. Nope. We have been cheated. No lessons to learn from that. If we wouldn’t have been cheated we would be tied on 2 points each with porto and atletico. Facts.

  4. Milan was nowhere near woeful.

    The referees no longer see us as a big team and that plays in their psychology in 50-50 decisions. If Liverpool or PSG were in such positions, the decision would be in their favour.

    Playing in the UCL has stepped up the team and the level of the players. For those who scored in those matches, it is a big confidence boost.

    We might actually benefit from dropping out and focusing on the league like Inter did last season.

    Forza Milan!!!

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