Before a ball was kicked in Italy this season, there was one thing on almost everybody's mind - "What will happen with AC Milan?"
It would be an understatement to say that The Rossoneri underwent a bit of a clear out in the summer. However, this was not the kind of clear out that is quite commonplace in modern football. This particular clear out caught the eye of almost every football fan in Europe. It is not unusual to see a club attempt to remove any and all deadwood from it's books to allow for new signings to come in or to present an opportunity to young, up and coming players to make the step up to first team football while still having the big names around to act as mentors during their transitional phase. This is not what happened at AC Milan.
In a desperate attempt to cut costs, president Silvio Berlusconi and vice-president Adriano Galliani decided to sell the clubs most valuable assets and star players. Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were both sold to French giants PSG seemingly against the interests of the players themselves. Clarence Seedorf moved onto a new adventure in Brazil with Botafogo (this was his own decision, not the decision of Galliani.) Antonio Cassano was sold to bitter rivals Internazionale in a swap deal for Giampaolo Pazzini. As well as the above, key players such as Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta and Filippo Inzaghi all moved on. Though some of the latter names may not have been key players last season, they were still massive characters and names among the Milan squad and fantastic mentors to have around the younger players at the club.
It was evident from the start that this was going to be a long, hard season for the red half of Milan. Results early on indicated that it might be a lot tougher than even the most pessimistic Milan supporter would have imagined. Early defeats to Sampdoria, Atalanta and Udinese meant that the seven times European champions were in a time of crisis. It was difficult to see where the club's next win was going to come from. The fixture list threw up fixtures against Internazionale, Lazio, Napoli, Juventus and Fiorentina all in the space of two months. People were starting to say that Milan could feasibly be involved in a relegation battle. Back to back defeats to Inter and Lazio respectively proved to be a bit of an overdue wake-up call for The Rossoneri. On the back of the Lazio defeat they beat Genoa 1-0. They then traveled to Palermo where they found themselves 2-0 down. It looked like another defeat was on the cards. For the first time all season they showed real fight and managed to claw the game back to earn a 2-2 draw and could well have snatched it late on. This was the first real sign of a will to fight for the cause within the squad. This result appeared to give birth to a new feeling of belief among players and fans alike.
A few days after the Palermo game Chievo Verona made the journey to the San Siro. Milan smashed them 5-1. Not only did they score five, they also had five different goalscorers. Milan appeared to have got their swagger back. Then they welcomed high-flying Fiorentina to the San Siro. They lost 3-1 and the players looked helpless, lost and confused once again. Had the slump restarted?. Just as things looked to be improving they hit a brick wall and crashed again. With Napoli and Juventus being the next two games Milan had no time to lick their wounds. They needed to find that fight that they showed in the second half away to Palermo, and they needed to find it fast.
The fans arrived at the Stadio San Paolo to face Napoli full of fear. The general consensus was that Milan were about to be beaten, and it wasn't going to be pretty. Surprisingly, this was not the case. They held Napoli to a 2-2 draw and attention swiftly turned to the following week. All eyes would turn to the San Siro as champions Juventus were coming to town. Juventus had recently had their remarkable forty-nine game unbeaten run ended by Internazionale. Could AC Milan do what their neighbours had done a few weeks previously? Could they overturn the stubborn Old Lady? Against all odds, Milan not only avoided defeat, but beat the defending champions 1-0 through a Robinho penalty.
Since the win against Juventus, Milan have won two consecutive games against Catania and Torino respectively. Two months ago it would have been hard to see any glimpse of a positive sign for Milan, now with a few wins under their belt things are starting to look a little bit better. It is now possible to look at Milan and see that it is not all doom and gloom for the club.
In Stephan El Shaarawy, Antonio Nocerino and Riccardo Montolivo Milan have found a new core and spine to the starting eleven. They appear to be finding their feet in their new roles in the squad and the recent upturn in results reflects that.
The squad as a whole appear to have gotten over the shock of losing the big characters and names in the summer and are now beginning to look united for the first time. After some of the earlier defeats the players looked lost on the pitch. They looked like eleven individuals without the slightest sense of camaraderie. The players are now showing a real passion and will to fight for the cause. During the victory over Torino, Antonio Nocerino gifted Torino the opening goal. He then went on the score the goal that put Milan 2-1 ahead and his celebration oozed passion and showed a real desire to redeem himself for his earlier mistake. This type of attitude is infectious in a football club. The team looked united after the match as they celebrated the win passionately.
They now look like a club who have a reliable core. They have a passionate battler in the shape of Nocerino. A cool, calm and collected ball playing midfielder in the Montolivo. Attacking flair with Robinho, and a new superstar in El Shaarawy. Even in the dark times of September and October there was always one, tiny flicker of light. Stephan El Shaarawy has been phenomenal for Milan thus far this season. Could he be the next big thing for The Rossoneri? Only time can tell but at the moment, this boy looks like he has a big, big future ahead of him. And seeing as he has an unusual friendship with Berlusconi, I can't see him being sold anytime soon so Milan may well have found themselves a new hero.
I have always had a love for AC Milan. It is a love that I cannot explain. So it's fair to say that it was hard for me to watch them lose game after game early on this year. I, along with many of you I'm sure, hope that this recent upturn in form will continue and The Rossoneri can go back to competing for the scudetto sooner rather than later.