Few expected much of AC Milan before the start of the season and after their less than impressive first round results, which included a 0-4 demolition at the hands of Inter, most buried the Rossoneri’s title hopes before the campaign had properly even begun.
However, now on the eve of the season’s second Derby della Madonnina, Milan are not only set to settle the score with their city-rivals but also to close in on a striking distance from Inter in the table. Trailing Inter by six points (having a game in hand), Milan have won all of their last three games (including a 3-0 victory away to Juve), scoring twelve goals in the process, and look a strong bet to win tonight.
The visitors are missing Pato, Clarence Seedorf and Gianluca Zambrotta but their absences haven’t slowed Milan down during the last weeks so the Rossoneri will be able to field a strong and confident squad. Alessandro Nesta’s fitness, however, is a bigger cause for concern before the game but the centre back should be able to play. Inter, on the other hand, have been struggling in the last weeks and remain doubtful with regards to the fitness of Thiago Motta and Sulley Muntari, while Dejan Stankovic is out injured.
The credit for the turn-around of form and outlook of Milan should go to Leonardo who, despite his lack of experience, was able to negotiate the early season troubles amidst calls for his resignation. The Brazilian has not only been able to re-invent the team tactically, by injecting a dose of creativity and fluidity into their playing without loosing the functional approach of the Ancelotti-era, but he has also made them easy and fun to watch. Milan still play their trademark possession game but look more capable and determined in their attacking third than last season. There is a sense of enjoyment and freedom in Milan’s game that has perhaps been lacking in recent years.
Leonardo has definitely proved his tactical acumen (for instance, coming away with three point from Bernabeu is no picnic) but his biggest achievement in terms of Milan’s success is down to his man-management qualities. Leonardo has got the best out of his key players and, as a result, the whole squad.
No one, perhaps, represents Milan’s transformation and the enjoyment that radiates from their performances better than Ronaldinho. The former World Player of the Year has been resurrected in Leonardo’s care and it’s all down to feeling the love apparently. Six goals in three games (not to mention a hat-trick against Siena last Sunday) is testimony enough of Ronaldinho regained brilliance, but for a player who has always been as much about entertainment as about the result, the fact that he seems to have found his missing bag of tricks is almost equally important as scoring goals.
It hasn’t simply been a Ronaldinho show though. Marco Borriello’s last season was cut short through injury but this season the striker has finally had his big break at Milan. Despite having the likes of Pato and Ronaldinho in the squad, Leonardo has made the twenty-seven-year-old Italian the focal point of his attack. Borriello’s target-man abilities, aerial presence and physicality make him an obvious threat inside the box but he is excellent at linking play and bringing in his team-mates as well. And if someone thinks he’s just your average dull centre forward who scores your average dull goals (like this one about three minutes into the video), think again and watch another twenty seconds of the same clip (or this one, one minute and thirteen seconds into the clip).
One of Leonardo’s tactical master-strokes has been to reinvented Massimo Ambrosini as an attacking box-to-box midfielder. Perhaps not the most eye-catching but always highly industrious and influential, the Milan captain has for long been an integral part of Milan’s success. He rarely gets the credit he deserves (remember the Champions League victory in 2006-07) but, for instance, in the 5-2 demolition of Genoa two weeks ago the fact of his importance couldn’t have eluded anyone. His never-say-die work ethic, no-nonsense attitude, physical presence in and around the box and his direct and powerful running made him close to an unstoppable threat to the Genoa defence. Earning two of Milan’s three penalties and assisting the third goal, Ambrosini proved to be an unlikely match-winner.
Another one of the golden oldies who has raised the performance of the whole team is Nesta. Hampered by injuries for years, the thirty-three-year-old is back at his best. Nesta’s confidence and presence has worked wonders on his defensive partner Thiago Silva who has grown in stature after a somewhat shaky individual start to the season. Everybody are talking about Totti’s return from international retirement but how about luring Nesta back for one last hurrah?
Leonardo has even been able to make fringe squad members like Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini into important first team players. The duo has been performing above all expectations this season on the right and left side of Milan’s defence respectively and will be named into the first eleven tonight.
As the last remaining title challenge hopes for Juve collapsed last night at the hands of Roma, Milan (and Leonardo) now look like the only ones who could trip Inter (and Mourinho) in their stroll towards another easy Scudetto. We will be a lot wiser after tonight whether or not happy-go-lucky Milan truly have what it takes to break down a mean-spirited Inter but one thing’s for sure, at least Milan and Ronaldinho are clearly enjoying putting in the effort: “I don’t know if we will win the Scudetto, but we just need to keep playing well and having fun.”