When the group stages of the Champions League were drawn over the summer and AC Milan found out their opponents, it might not have seemed too unlikely or even disappointing to fast forward a few months and be in the position we are in now.
Regarded by many as ‘The Group of Death’, Stefano Pioli’s men were pitted against Liverpool, a team who lifted the trophy three seasons ago and are a foe with which the club share a deep and rich history. The champions of LaLiga Atlético Madrid and the heavyweights of Portuguese football FC Porto were also there as Milan suffered the effects of their damaged coefficient.
This is what some people wanted, though. Milan have generally been quite good at overcoming adversity, battling against the tide and showing their mettle. It was a chance for this young team to test themselves against some established sides in the competition and see how big the gap really is, if indeed there was one at all.
With four defeats from six games and just one win to show, the Rossoneri crashed out as bottom of Group B and there is little uproar from the fan base about this outcome. There were a lot of harsh but also important lessons that came from the six games and in particular the defeats, ones which will stand the team in good stead, but after the Liverpool match at San Siro there is also a very sour taste.
The fact of the matter is that Milan did not show enough to indicated they deserved to qualify. There was a bright five minutes at Anfield before half-time in a game where the team were otherwise dominated, the Atletico home game knocked a lot of stuffing out of the team, while a memorable win in the Spanish capital was all for nought after last nights disappointment.
It is perhaps the two matches against Porto that provided the most interesting teaching points, however. Regarded by many as the easiest opponents in the group, Sergio Conceicao’s team were the better side on both occasions, running out deserved winners at the Estadio do Dragao and handing Milan a defeat that looked to have ended their European campaign after four games.
The games against Porto were where Pioli’s young and inexperienced side learned that while in Serie A the vast majority of games are low intensity and require more patient and clever probing, the intensity of the Champions League is totally different regardless of opponent. If a handful of teams in Italy press, everyone in Europe does. It’s the way they compete.
If that misjudgement was striking, perhaps the biggest one came at San Siro on Tuesday. It could have been a very memorable European night for Milan, one where a signal was sent that the gap is not that big and that the resurgence back to high levels has very much been accelerated, yet the signs that came were pretty much the exact opposite.
Milan were not only beaten by a heavily rotated Liverpool side consisting of second string players and academy graduates (barring the front three of Salah, Origi and Mane plus Alisson), they were also outplayed, and by a team who quite literally didn’t need to fight for the points.
It is here that we bring in the nuance of the group stage as a whole before dissecting the failings of last night. Yes, there were individual incidents such as the refereeing performance in the Atletico Madrid game, a potential foul for Porto’s winner in Portugal and other penalty appeals that didn’t go Milan’s way. Pioli also battled numerous injury problems for virtually every game which hampered depth – particularly in the attack – when it was most needed.
However, it is also a fact that most teams feel they don’t get the rub of the green from officials, and other teams also suffer from injuries. A similar Devil’s Advocate piece was written after the Europa League exit last season at the hands of Manchester United remarking that the alibis have already become quite boring and a lack of killer instinct in decisive moments shows the team have not yet taken the next step.
The Liverpool game served as further proof of that, albeit in a more prestigious competition which serves as an underlying indication of progress in itself, admittedly. Milan against fell short on big night, producing their worst performance of the entire group stage (some may argue that was Porto, but at least they put out a first team) to crash out in front of a capacity crowd who were hoping to be inspired and simultaneously reminded of those old glorious evenings.
There was quite a poignant image at the end of the game as an inconsolable Fikayo Tomori collapsed to the ground holding back the tears. This was quite symbolic, as there we had a young player who had given absolutely everything on the field, but ultimately made a mistake leading to a goal that ended up costing the game.
The passion is there, the talent is there, the desire to improve is there, but for now the mentality remains absent. One of the more experienced dressing room members Alessandro Florenzi highlighted the importance of getting small details right at the elite level, while Sandro Tonali also admitted that he and his team-mates learned this the hard way by paying for mistakes.
Milan led four times during their six-game Champions League group stage campaign, and they went on to lose three of those four (Liverpool home and away plus Atletico Madrid at home). The game management simply has to get better moving forward because the smallest errors are punished, especially when inviting pressure.
After what seems like a cutting diatribe, we feel it important to cast an eye on the positives that have come from the return to UCL football.
First of all, it would be amiss not to mention the several memorable moments that came, such as overturning a deficit at Anfield in rapid fashion with two goals to send the away fans into pandemonium. The atmosphere at San Siro before and after Leao’s goal against Atleti was special, and the thousands that travelled to Madrid saw a really streetwise performance that was capped by a fairy tale goal from Messias.
There were plenty of good individual performances in there too with players such as Sandro Tonali and Pierre Kalulu showing a certain ‘coming of age’, rarely looking out of place while jostling with top opponents.
Overall the squad shown to be some way off both in terms of the inexperience in the starting XI but above all the depth that is available to Pioli, because what was on the bench for most of the games was not enough to change games, especially when glancing across the dugout at the embarrassment of riches that Liverpool and Atletico boast.
Then of course there is the additional revenue that being in the Champions League has brought into the club’s accounts, which most estimate to be somewhere between €40-50m. It is a sum that should be diverted towards making the squad more competitive, without doubt, but beyond that being back on the biggest stage in football is great for brand exposure and could lead to more exciting opportunities in the short-term.
Now, Milan have only got domestic competitions to focus on and this could be a big advantage without doubt. Inter went on to win the league last season after crashing out bottom of a group which contained Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Monchengladbach, and while that may not happen for the Rossoneri this season they must look at that as the only way to channel energy reserves and the obvious desire for redemption.
Then there is the experience and knowledge that Milan will have gained from playing in the Champions League. The vast majority of the squad barring veterans like Ibrahimovic, Giroud, Florenzi and Kjaer plus one or two others had not played in the competition before, so to expect a seamless adaptation to what is such a heightened level of intensity and quality may have been naive.
Things are going well in the league so far with regards to a top four finish, so as Romagnoli said after the Liverpool loss, we can try again next year. Going into the 2022-23 Champions League campaign this team will be a year older and a year wiser – there is absolutely no downside to that.
The Champions League could very much become Milan’s most useful yardstick of progress. Looking domestically for example, Inter have finally taken that next step in reaching the knockout rounds. Looking abroad, it is no secret that Elliott Management are in many ways trying to emulate Liverpool’s project in terms of recruitment and a way of being on the pitch.
Impatience was a great thorn in the side of Milan’s attempts to build something from the years 2014-2019 and it should not be allowed to rear its ugly head again. There is no quick fix to becoming one of Europe’s elite again, as the summer window under the Chinese ownership with over €200m spent only produced a side capable of sixth place.
There is disappointment, there will be regret, and no doubt even a tinge of anger at how Tuesday night unfolded. However, that energy can be used and put into building something greater than what has already made us proud. After Istanbul, there is Athens.