Serie A giants stuck in mid-table
21 January ~ With the latest round of matches, the Serie A season reached the halfway point. To nobody’s surprise, Juventus are the "winter champions", as they say here, with 46 points, six fewer than last season but enough to give them a five-point advantage over Roma. The arrival of Massimiliano Allegri in July was greeted with scepticism, but he has done very well. The team remains almost impossible to beat, and they are playing with more freedom and enjoyment than they did under Antonio Conte.
The same cannot be said for Milan, who sacked Allegri in January 2014, or city rivals Inter. They are mired in mid-table anonymity with 26 points from identical records. In the last round of matches Inter were held to a 0-0 draw at tiny Empoli, and had goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to thank for their point. Meanwhile, Milan suffered their fourth home defeat of the season, and their second in succession, 1-0 to relegation-threatened Atalanta. It should have been more.
Atalanta’s Stefano Colantuono, a pragmatist whose football sometimes makes Sam Allardyce look like Ron Greenwood, showed that he is tactically light years ahead of Filippo Inzaghi, Milan’s rookie coach. Inzaghi is already in danger of going the same way as Clarence Seedorf, whose place he took at the end of last season. He was probably foolish to take the job. In Italy, before coaching one of the top three, it is always wise to gain some experience in the lower leagues.
In 2010 Inter won the Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia. In 2011 Milan won Serie A. Now they find themselves behind the likes of Genoa and Sampdoria, and only a point above Sassuolo. So what has gone wrong? In the case of Inter, it can be said that when they won the Champions League the team was already well past its best, but as European champions they were in a perfect position to attract top-quality players. Instead Massimo Moratti stayed loyal to the old guard, and they have not looked forward since.
Now Moratti has gone and the Indonesian Erick Thohir is at the helm, but he is rarely to be seen in Milan. After sacking Walter Mazzarri, who was the wrong man for Inter, he recalled Roberto Mancini. Under him things are improving very slowly, but the team lacks quality and there is only so much even the best coaches can do without the raw material.
Milan’s decline is more complex, but it is mainly caused by the fact that the best players, such as Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were sold in 2012 and have never been adequately replaced. Today’s Milan team consists almost exclusively of players who would have warmed the bench, if they were lucky, 20 years ago. And some – defender Cristián Zapata, for example – who simply do not belong in a club of Milan’s supposed stature.
Despite this, they keep on being told by Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani that they are good enough to finish third and by Berlusconi that he would not swap his squad for those of Roma and Juventus. And herein lies the biggest problem. Not only is Berlusconi no longer opening the purse strings, possibly under pressure from his family, but he now has completely unrealistic expectations of his players.
The fans are disillusioned – fewer than 28,000 saw Sunday’s game with Atalanta. Twenty-five years ago there were 70,000 season ticket holders. That is down to 19,000. The Milan clubs are seven points from third place and a Champions League spot. Both think they can make it and are trying desperately to strengthen in the January window. Maybe one of them will, but it is more likely that they will vie for a place in the Europa League. Times are changing, and it is hard to see a quick return to the glory days when Milan was Italian football’s unofficial capital. Richard Mason