Tuesday, November 14, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: November 20, 8:02 PM UK
Rossoneri in crisis?
One of the unwritten laws of football journalism states that a team that loses two matches in a row, or 90% of its matches over a short period of time, is in a 'crisis'.
As a general rule sportswriters love a club in 'crisis'. Why? Because, unfortunate and mawkish though it may be, the worse a situation gets the more interesting it becomes as one is presented with intrigue, scandal, controversy and the occasional chance to stick some metaphorical pins on a foe.
This does not necessarily lead to negative reporting; there is a crisp difference between negative reporting and reporting on negative situations.
In the first case, you tend to concentrate on the worse side of everything and you pretend there's nothing else.
Which, getting back to football, means there's the risk Milan's 'crisis' after their fourth defeat in the last five Serie A matches (see, almost the empirical 90% I mentioned) might overshadow one of the most amazing pieces of skill I have seen in years of watching this beautiful game. It happened seven minutes from the end of Milan's 1-2 home defeat to Roma last Saturday.
After Kaka under-hit a square pass to Clarence Seedorf which the Dutchman failed to control, the ball fell to Alberto Aquilani, the young Roma midfielder who earned his first national team call-up a few hours later.
Seeing how Mancini had made a great run on the left side and that the moment had to be seized before Alessandro Nesta closed him down, Aquilani quickly delivered the ball with an astonishing 'rabona', a name which apparently derived from tango: with his back to the goal and the ball rolling towards his lesser-favoured left foot, Aquilani simply hit it with his right by crossing it behind his left leg.
Many footballers do this kind of stuff in practice, very few try it during a match and even fewer avoid making fools of themselves in the process.
Aquilani not only struck the ball perfectly with the toe-cum-inside of his right foot, but laser-guided it in the exact place, fifteen yards away, for Mancini to let it bounce a couple of times then send in a sweet cross with the inside of his left foot which Francesco Totti met with a diving header.
A beauty of a goal which I could watch over and over, it embodies the essence of the exquisite skills some of the top players possess, and which make watching this game still worthwhile despite all the dodgy stuff going on in some boardrooms and behind the scenes.
Speaking of which (see the afore mentioned negative situation) Roma's first win away to Milan in 20 years meant the home side are not only out of the Scudetto race for good, but mired in one of their worst stretches in recent years. The unofficial status of 'crisis' for the rossoneri had been declared last week after their 2-0 defeat at Atalanta.
You may have stumbled upon a few pieces criticising Carlo Ancelotti's squad, but the depth of the side's problems was hidden last week by the controversy that the Milan camp raised about the bad refereeing decisions that had gone against them in recent weeks, which came on top of the refusal by the Italian Olympic Committee's 'Arbitration' office to take some points off the 8-point deduction Milan had been burdened with for their role in the Calciopoli scandal.
The extent and pettiness of the protestations left a very bitter taste, coming as they were from one of the most powerful clubs in the world.
With even some of the Milan players rejecting the furore surrounding refereeing decisions thankfully the debate subsided allowing the analytic eye to shift back towards the real problems besetting the side. Milan started the season with three wins in a row but have won only once in Serie A since September 20; in the meantime, they have scored six goals and conceded eleven.
Their top-scorer, with two goals, is left-back Marek Jankulovski, while Alberto Gilardino, Pippo Inzaghi and Ricardo Oliveira have one each. The forwards have been getting intermittent service from midfield, owing in part to Andrea Pirlo's loss of form following a great World Cup, and any semblance of wide play - never Milan's forte in the first place - dissolved when Serginho was sidelined by injury and Cafu started feeling his age.
Ancelotti rarely veers away from his favoured 4-3-1-2 as the starting formation but this has often meant Gilardino and Inzaghi, when paired together, have stepped on each other's shoes and made the same runs towards the same spots. Gilardino, as he did for Parma, plays better as a lone striker, but this is not what Ancelotti has in mind, although he did use him alone up front in a 4-2-3-1 against Roma.
Milan have been desperately missing Andriy Shevchenko, whose outstanding movement across the front line tied up defenders, moved them out of position and created space for team-mates, and this has led to an endless stream of innuendo, rumour and speculation about the Ukrainian's return to Milan, but this is yet another example of the chaotic thinking that often dominates Italian football.
For Milan's illnesses need a more radical remedy than bringing back a player who has already given the rossoneri seven years' great service and would not represent an investment for the future but rather a stop-gap solution.
This does not even take into consideration the fact Shevchenko is entitled to live his life away from Milan, although reading some of the stuff that has been written about him here, with a badly concealed glee at his failure to set Stamford Bride alight, you'd believe he weren't. That Milan's problems are spread so evenly across the squad is another reason why Shevchenko should be left alone in London.
The strikers may have been firing blanks, but as I said the midfielders are not helping them, and the wonderful Kaka, who ran rings around Anderlecht in the Champions League, cannot be expected to do it all alone, not when all around him are either slowed by injury or suffering from a post-World Cup letdown.
Milan's slow-down tactics, with passing which tends to send opponents to sleep while advancing yard-by-yard and waiting for an opening only makes sense if a consistent goal-scoring production is guaranteed, otherwise it can become a fruitless exercise in milking the clock.
It is therefore supremely important that the midfield is running at full-strength, which has not been the case this season, even before Rino Gattuso, who is acquiring an iconic status for his Vodafone commercials alongside Totti, went down with a knee injury at Atalanta last week.
On top of this, the defence has been suffering for a while. Puzzlingly for the fans and insiders who were clearly aware of the inevitable decline of the 38-year-old Paolo Maldini and the injury problems that have often hampered Nesta, Milan did not seem in a rush to strengthen the unit that had grown old (Cafu is 36, Giuseppe Favalli is 34, Ale Costacurta is 40) and had lost a very valuable member in Jaap Stam.
Milan have conceded 12 goals in 11 matches, but it hasn't always been the defence at fault. In fact the problems in midfield have impacted its ability to shield the back four and have left them exposed to counter-attacks and too many one-on-one situations: witness the Aquilani-Mancini-Totti combination, Ibrahimovic's run for Inter's third in the October 28 derby and one of Palermo's goals - not surprisingly all of them at the San Siro, where Milan are more likely to take the game to their opponents. However, this does not mean Milan's season is headed for complete disaster.
They squeezed the life out of Roma for long stretches in the second half before Aquilani's memorable flick sprang Mancini and Toti loose, and they could summon enough energies and strength to mount a credible attack on the Champions League, but it is clear they should - and are, whatever the smokescreen owner Silvio Berlusconi and his cohorts are spreading - think about overhauling the side and start afresh.
At the moment, Milan have only a handful of players at the top of their game and with a solid chance of improving themselves and the side. Milan's useful squad members are Kaka, Pirlo, Nesta and Gattuso if healthy, the young Frenchman Joann Gourcuff, Gilardino (yes); with Daniele Bonera, Kakha Kaladze, Seedorf, Brocchi, Ambrosini, Jankulovski.
This means they should add at least three world class players to keep up with the likes of Inter domestically and Barcelona in Europe.
All the rumours about Ronaldinho - his agent is Oliveira's brother and this has led to speculation on the real reasons Milan signed the Brazilian striker this past summer - may have Milan fans excited at the thought of him conjuring up his magic at the San Siro, but ironically the rossoneri would be better off signing a couple of central defenders and an attacking fullback on either flank than bringing in the Brazilian.
It is already well known they are following the progress of Udinese's Felipe and Zapata, who fit the description of the young, alert, athletic central defenders the club needs, but Berlusconi has repeatedly warned he's not going to break the bank, so fans should not expect headline signings.
Then he goes out and says Shevchenko told him he'd like to come back, but hey, he made his fortune in the entertainment business and knows that the timing of some sentences is sometimes better than their actual content.
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