Serie A champions Inter Milan and their sudden fall from grace

New Inter Milan head coach Simone Inzaghi certainly has an unenvious task on his hands at the reigning Italian champions as Romelu Lukaku joins Achraf Hakimi in heading for the exit, whilst talk surrounds the future of Lautaro Martinez.

It’s been quite a three-month period for Inter Milan. From winning the Serie A and breaking the Juventus stranglehold on the league, to Antonio Conte leaving his managerial role and this week’s news that Romelu Lukaku has instructed his board to accept a suitable offer that will see him return to Chelsea.

The league triumph might have heralded the start of an Nerazzurri dominant period, however that moment now seems like the dawning of a premature end. Antonio Conte and Inter were never meant to be an everlasting marriage – however it now seems more like a lust-filled fling left with a crash and burn taste to the aftermath.

Clearly the new head-coach Simone Inzaghi has an unenvious task on his hands. A talented squad remains, even if Romelu Lukaku leaves, but if the cost-cutting continues it will be interesting to see what sort of squad might be left for Inzaghi come the end of the transfer window.

In early July Achraf Hakimi left for PSG in a €60million and is yet to be replaced despite constant noise around PSV Eindhoven’s Denzel Dumfries following his fine showing for Netherlands at Euro 2020. Speculation also surrounds the future of another forward in Argentina’s Lautaro Martinez having recently been linked with Arsenal.

Whilst it is hard to imagine a transfer window whereby both Lukaku and Martinez might depart, this clearly isn’t any normal window.

Sides from the English Premier League seem to have the pick of the finest players on the continent. Whilst the Coronavirus financial effect has taken a toll on the game as a whole, the English sides certainly seem more adept to weathering the storm thanks to their mammoth television deals – which is further emphasised by their transfers so far this summer.

Compare that with the cost-cutting at Inter. Their owners Suning Holdings Group have been a cause for concern for some time. This resulted in their failure to convince Antonio Conte that his key players would not be sold and led to his departure.

Conte has certainly been proved right – more so if Lukaku and Martinez join Hakimi in departing.

With this in mind a group of Inter ultras have thought enough is enough. Expecting to push on from their Serie A triumph, they’re now staring down the barrel with Suning Holding Group holding the trigger.

A huge banner was recently unfurled outside Inter’s headquarters reading “To the club, watch out, promises must be maintained.”

Former Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti has also publicly said Romelu Lukaku’s sale will be a huge blow.

“I don’t know the exact situation, but I think they are certainly attracted by the idea of such a huge sum. I don’t know if that’s enough to change Inter’s economic status,” Moratti told Calciomercato.it.

“In one respect, keeping Lukaku means having a strong team, so we need to see what’s more important to them, if it’s cash or the team.

“It depends I guess on whether a sale is absolutely necessary for them. It’d be a huge disappointment on the sporting level to lose Lukaku, that’s for sure.”

What happens now remains to be seen. Much depends on whether Lukaku does leave, and whether he is then quickly followed by Martinez. What once seemed like the dawning of a new Inter dynasty now seems like a farfetched dream.

The Cristiano Ronaldo complex and how his success became Madrid’s poisoned chalice

For a Real Madrid team that has had so much success, the over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo has left them in a tricky situation thus far in 2018/19.

In the build-up to the UEFA Champions League Final of 2017, many had already decided that Juventus, arguably the best all-round team at the time, were firm favourites to conquer the then-holders, Real Madrid.

The belief was that Massimiliano Allegri’s men were hardened Italian steel, devoid of any flaws, and ready to topple Europe’s greatest team. With the likes of Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon, this would have felt like their best chance.

In Cristiano Ronaldo’s world, this was never the case. From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals. What had become a genuine threat to their supremacy quickly became a mere afterthought.

This was Madrid under Ronaldo’s wing, unnerved by any challenge before them. They knew that with him on their side, victory was much more certain, the motivation being Ronaldo’s relentless winning attitude.

“From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals.”

At the moment, Madrid are not very good. Lying in third place, ten points behind Barcelona and struggling to find their spark, it is only a matter of time before the entire hierarchy is put into question. This version of Madrid is not an exciting one to be a part of.

The 4-2 win at Espanyol in their latest fixture reminded us that Karim Benzema has all the qualities that a top centre forward should have, scoring twice – the second goal was particularly pleasing – and that Gareth Bale still plays football.

Here, seven of the players that started in that final in 2017 were present from the beginning. Six of them started the Champions League final of 2016. Has familiarity bred an unwanted knack of complacency amongst this golden generation?

There seems to be a rock firmly wedged in those usually smooth Los Blancos grooves that is stopping them from moving forward.

The over-reliance on one man has been put into sharp focus in their matches so far. Julen Lopetegui had the first shot at a Ronaldo-less team, with a mixed bag of results from the worrying defeat to Sevilla, to the humbling – and ultimately fatal – embarrassment at the Nou Camp. Santiago Solari started with four wins, but was brought firmly back down to earth with a smack from Eibar’s 3-0 whipping.

The wider point here lies in Madrid’s inability to move on from Ronaldo’s brilliance, as if to admit that his success was their success.

Two La Liga and Copa del Rey triumphs, as well as the four Champions League successes in his nine years point to a seemingly successful period in Madrid’s long-standing history, but too much of it may have been down to one man.

Like a poisoned chalice, Ronaldo’s success has left an eerie, ghostly mark on Madrid’s usually commanding style.

He has been a key figure in Juventus’ stranglehold of Serie A this season, scoring 15 goals in 21 appearances so far as they raced to an 11-point lead after their win at Lazio.

You can sense that Juventus understand how important he could be to their season, but have incorporated him in a way that doesn’t seem over-reliant.

Madrid’s situation has become a complex web of mixed signals and uncertain times ahead, and good players made to look far from their best in an environment that has not helped their cause.

Those that had a keen eye for Madrid’s operation would know that in the grand scheme of things, Ronaldo was the central figure. Many times, Zinedine Zidane set up the team to support his qualities.

Benzema played as an apprentice to the Cristiano juggernaut, and now has the job of being the central figure for goals – a man who has scored 14 goals in his last 52 league matches. Bale’s injuries have hampered his progress to the next level, and is 30 years old in July.

Florentino Pérez’s fixation with his Galactico model has seen the club being linked with players such as Neymar Jr. and Eden Hazard, at a time when all is not right at the Santiago Bernabéu.

The atmosphere is one of bated breath and inquisitive minds, waiting for Zidane to come back and save their blushes – it must have been confusing to see him leave in the first place at the peak of his powers. This should have been one of the more worrying signs.

Where do Madrid go from here? The league title seems to have escaped their grasp yet again. The saving grace of winning the Champions League will not be as easy to lean on as before with the quality of the other teams in the Round of 16.

It is imperative that Madrid find their focus for the period to come. Ronaldo has found his feet at Juventus, Madrid’s starry but dimming lights firmly in the distance, and seems to have taken the the change of scenery quite well. When will Madrid also follow suit?

Derby della Madonnina reminds us of Mauro Icardi’s undeniable importance

In a game that promised much but provided so little, Mauro Icardi, the Inter Milan captain, showed us why Luciano Spalletti depends on him.

A 92nd-minute winner in the Derby della Madonnina to seal all three points for your side? Who are you going to call?

There was only one man you could have placed in the penalty area to read the flight of  Matias Vecino’s right-footed cross from the right-hand side. There was only one man who could have used his power of mind control to persuade Gianluigi Donnarumma to vacate the safety of his goal line to enter the unwanted corridor of uncertainty, no-man’s land.

It seems to always be one man.

He was ready for this game. “Derby is coming”, his caption read on one of his Instagram posts. “I’m Ready.” His wife’s name was inscribed into his blue boots.

“WANDA 10.”

So were the names of his step-sons.

“CONSTANTINO 10.”

“BENEDICTO 20.”

Comments are disabled for all of his posts, and with good reason. Controversial as he may be, revelling in the role of pantomime villain but orchestrator of all that is good for Luciano Spalletti, he does all of his talking on the pitch.

“Mauro Icardi touched the ball 15 times in 90+ minutes,” Paolo Baldini tweeted, “But it only takes one.” Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio tried to mark him, tried to keep their eyes on the one man you cannot take your eyes off for one second. You have to look constantly at every move he makes because his movement is to die for.

Uncontainable.

With the signature cusping of the ears as if to taunt the Inter ultras or the untucked white T-shirt that is worn under the blue and black vertical stripes, Icardi is one of those centre-forwards that you cannot mistake. His job is simple, and Spalletti, who once described him as the “perfect striker” when it comes to finishing, must have a shrine that pays homage to a man that steps up for the Italian when he needs him the most.

It sometimes may not even matter how Spalletti sets up. He could have a team of nine defenders, but one good ball into the area and the game could be decided because of this special talent.

AC Milan were blunt going forward, and unfortunately could not get their own weapon of striking destruction, Gonzalo Higuain, firing. Inter were more pro-active and were able to find their man when it mattered the most. This derby was always going to be the story of one of these elite foxes in the box, two of Argentina’s very best in one of the signature games of the Serie A season. They only need one chance. Higuain was the spectator; Icardi was the match-winner.

Sometimes, it is hard to believe that Icardi is not somewhere else, earning half a million Pounds or Euros, playing for Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Paris-Saint Germain – anywhere else, but Inter. It is also hard to believe that for long periods, controversy aside, he was behind Higuain in the Argentine pecking order.

Yet here he is, beginning his sixth season with the Nerazzurri, the captain who is more of an anti-hero like Deadpool or Venom, but continues to be a source of great gratitude and relief in a team that could so easily be labelled, “The Mauro Icardi team.”

Why do we not read of him more often? YouTube is filled with videos of his incredible prowess in front of goal. There was one that really caught the eye and caused the brain to shut down for a moment in this fixture that ended 3-2 in favour of Inter last season. From a low Ivan Perisic cross, Icardi contorts his body to somehow strike a well-timed sliced volley with his wand of a right foot, jumping off the ground with his left foot, eyes firmly fixed on the ball. The Italian commentator exclaims, “Mama mia!” 

Invention.

There are some elements of football that you cannot coach, elements that need to come naturally from within, especially finishing. Icardi exhibits the qualities of a well-rounded centre-forward at the age of 25, especially the ability to keep one’s chin up and shoulders upright at all times even when it looks like the ball will not find you where you want it the most.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Then strike. In a team like Spalletti’s Inter, Icardi is the perfect fit: efficient as he is effective.

His ability to create something out of nothing, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat, is his signature. He rarely finds himself in the nitty-gritty of the build-up play and focuses on being between the width of the penalty area, the hunting ground for a man with keen predatory instincts. The Champions League game against Tottenham Hotspur was a prime example of why Spalletti needs him. If he could marry him, he probably would, although Wanda Nara may be the first one to oppose of such a union.

With the ball dropping from Kwadwo Asamoah’s cross, Icardi swung his majestic wand, striking the upgraded blue and silver Champions League ball with a whip and a swerve that saw it leave his boot like a shooting star. It sparked delirious celebrations, only ever seen when he scores it seems, such is his popularity with the Inter supporters even after his off-field antics of the past.

That all seems to be behind him – did it ever bother him in the first place? – and now, he is making headlines for the right reasons. As humans, we are prone to making mistakes and can be found on the wrong side of the moral high ground, but Icardi has not let this affect his performances in any way. Since joining Inter in 2013, he has amassed 104 league goals in 166 appearances and has shown us that beyond the controversial tabloids and bad boy persona, there is no controversy in his natural centre-forward play that cannot be ignored for much longer.

My admiration for him has not gone unnoticed but how can one not be in awe of his supreme magnificence?

I may have pushed my admiration a bit too far there.

Either way, he is not perfect, not the best role model, but he is perfect enough for Spalletti, for Inter. His values may be questionable, but his value is undeniable. Unapologetically himself, long may he ignore the “haters”, long may he ignore the outside noise.

Long may the predator in the box continue to execute his football God-given capabilities.

 

The Italian phoenix rises from the ashes

Roma swept Barcelona aside to complete one of the tournament’s great comebacks. It’s a result with the potential to reignite Italian football’s challenge to the European elite and leave the recent World Cup disappointment behind.

By Robbie Chalmers

What a night! Well, two nights actually. Roma and Juventus took on Spain’s El Clasico sides in this seasons Champions League quarter finals and after the first leg results, both seemed to be going only one way. Roma, 4-1 down, and Juventus, 3-0 down, faced herculean efforts to turn their ties around as very few, if any, gave them a chance. But they both very nearly made it. Nearly.

The drama at the Bernabeu was ignited by Mario Mandzukic’s goal in the second minute and exploded in the last as Michael Oliver awarded Madrid a penalty, with the very last kick. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off for dissent, Cristiano Ronaldo scored and Real scraped through by the skin of their teeth. The rumblings continued in the aftermath as the Italian press launched astounding criticism of Oliver’s dramatic, but completely correct, call to essentially seal the Old Lady’s fate.

In the midst of all this crazed reaction, outcry of bias and accusation of a Madrid agenda, there is a more important matter to focus on here. AS Roma.

The night before, 1,300km away, Rome’s Stadio Olympico was packed to the hilt with a red sea of noise, flares and belief that tonight could be Roma’s night. But how? The semi-final stages of the competition are often reserved for the elite that dine at the top-table. Bayern, Real, Barcelona and Juventus are the regular occupiers of this stage along with Atletico but they went out before Christmas. Barcelona are unbeaten in La Liga and were many people’s favourites to win the trophy. They had Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, a three goal cushion and fond memories of the hallowed ground they were playing on. After all, it was nine years ago in this very stadium that the Barcelona and Messi dynasty began by winning the trophy. Not since 2010 had another Italian side, other than Juventus, made it to the semi-final stage and not since 1984 had Roma made it that far either. Cue something remarkable.

A similar pattern transpired in the Italian capital as it did in Madrid the following night. Edin Dzeko scored early on, Daniele De Rossi followed up with a cool penalty midway through and Kostas Manolas scored late on to seal a record comeback for an Italian side in Champions League knockout football.

Barcelona were given no reprieve, no penalty and, in all honesty, no time to play. Roma were faster, stronger and more organised. Dzeko was a man possessed, dominating against Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti while this was a game too far for Messi to save his team yet again. At the final whistle an ear-splitting roar of joy erupted from the home crowd as they knew they had witnessed something truly special.

Only on three other occasions has a team overcome a three goal first leg deficit to advance to the next round. The previous was last season’s epic where PSG were beaten 6-1 by, yes… Barcelona.

Praise was universally directed towards one man, Eusebio Di Francesco. Reputations are made on nights like this and he has elevated his ten-fold. Captain De Rossi lauded him for his setup and instructions for the side and after Dzeko’s first goal they never really looked back. Di Francesco was an overachiever at his previous club Sassuolo and he continues to do it at a higher level. He went for it against the Catalans with two up top and three at the back in order to impose themselves in midfield with De Rossi, Naingollan and Strootman. Rarely do we see an Italian side with such an attacking set up in the knockout round, let alone against Barcelona. He has managed to do this all season with a possession style utilised since he joined last summer.

It’s a style we may see Italian teams exercise more in the near future.

Viewers got a glimpse of Maurizio Sarri’s exciting Napoli team this season, Simone Inzaghi has made Lazio second top scorers in Serie A this term and Gennaro Gattuso has added fire into the belly of AC Milan’s limping season. The top six sides in Serie A are all managed by Italian coaches, old and new. And not one of them plays the tradional pragmatic approach as a first choice anymore. Even Juventus sought to bring in more firepower after looking blunt in last season’s final. Contrast that with the failed cautious approach that saw Italy fall at the hands of Sweden and a change of philosophical approach has arisen.

With four Champions league places up for grabs, Italy will have stronger representation next year. No qualifying round means all four will make it to the groups as before often only two would make it. This boost will surely encourage more opportunities for these new managers to test their metal against the very best.

Italy don’t have a financial hold over Europe anymore, but few countries can thrive as much when cast as the underdog. Juventus moving to their own stadium has given them an advantage over the rest but the fact is that Juventus are tenth on the Deliotte Rich list but made it to two finals without the aid of an oil coated billionaire. Roma themselves are well backed by owners but Monchi’s arrival as sporting director last summer shows they are trying to bridge the gap with astute player recruitment. Last night was glimpse at Italian football’s potential.

There is no doubt Juventus and Roma benefited somewhat from a nothing to lose scenario but it also showed how a more proactive approach can work too. A new generation of coaching talent and a stronger Italian presence in Europe mean that an absence of fear and pragmatism could see the Italian game return in a big way.

As Johan Cruyff famously put it: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”

Fascist Lazio ultras highlight ongoing issues

Lazio ultras’ decision to leave stickers of Anne Frank clad in Roma colours at the Olimpico rightly caused uproar. But does the problem lie beyond football and deeper in ultra culture?

By Danny Wyn Griffith

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.”

Words of such ilk still ring true today. Yet there remains people from across the globe who choose to mock the brutality suffered at the hands of Hitler’s Germany. Anti-Semitism remains in the news on a weekly basis. Some people refuse to recognise history, choosing to create their own or believe in some made-up ideals of the right-wing. This then allows one to hold the belief that such tragic points in history can be made a mockery of – none more so than between rival football fans.

A fortnight ago, high-flying Lazio faced Cagliari at the Olimpico. One section of the ground was made a €1 ‘we fight racism’ section. This particular section was the end Roma ultras would normally fill during their home matches. It’s known that Lazio ultras bought the vast majority of discounted tickets, viewing it as an opportunity to leave rival fans stickers of Anne Frank fully kitted out in Roma colours. This rightly caused uproar throughout Italy’s domestic scene, and Europe as a whole.

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The stickers left by Lazio fans. Image: @Repubblica twitter.
“But they’d do the same to us also,” responded the Lazio fans when news emerged of their ill-tasted gifts to the neighbours. It’s the playground response you hear of all too often after such instances. This, though, is a club whose right-wing manners crossed the line a long time ago. Not all Lazio fans are anti-Semitic, granted. Yet a section of their crowd, mainly ultras, have too-long been associated with such beliefs.

Lazio President, Claudio Lotito, has attempted to tackle the issue since coming into power in 2004. So much so, he’s had bullets sent to him through the post and he now requires a police escort wherever he travels. But upon attempting to clear up their ultras’ latest mess, he himself would have been better-advised with his choice of wording.

Deciding to visit a Jewish memorial in Rome with a wreath in the days that followed, he described the outing a ‘show’. This was the icing on the cake for media outlets as they jumped on it.

Lazio have long courted criticism for their right-wing actions. From often being involved in monkey-chanting to actually scaring Lillian Thurman away from signing for them in 2001. The Irriducibili ultras even made a six-hour trip to Parma’s Collecchio training ground along with a journalist they trusted, in order to persuade Thuram that he need not worry about their racist reputation. Despite handing over Irriducibili merchandise and reassuring him that racist chanting was limited to opposition players alone, this, unsurprisingly, failed to cool Thuram’s reservations. He instead joined Juventus for €21million, before cementing his reputation as one of the modern-day game’s greatest defenders.

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Lilian Thuram in his Parma days. Image: soloparma.weebly.com
Such right-wing ideology isn’t restricted to the ultras alone. Lazio have also had players who immersed themselves too much in the fascist culture. None more so than Paolo Di Canio.

“I’m not a racist, I’m a fascist,” repeated Di Canio back in 2005 when attempting to defend himself. This was not long after he was widely pictured in the Curva Norde performing fascist salutes with club ultras. Despite recently attempting to pour cold water on the fascist links, the Mussolini tattoos that ink his body suggests otherwise.

A few days after their latest anti-Semitic debacle, Lazio were due at Bologna’s Renato Dall’Ara. Serie A officials decided that a minute silence would be held before each scheduled match, followed by passages of Anne Frank’s diary to be read out as an attempted show of respect.

Whilst at the Renato Dall’Ara Lazio fans would be seated in the section named after Arpad Weisz, Bologna’s twice league-winning Jewish coach prior to the break-out of WWII. During the war, Arpad was sent to Auschwitz and killed in 1944.

During the attempted minute silence and passage reading, sections of the Lazio support broke out in chants of me ne frego (‘I don’t give a damn’), a chant associated with Benito Mussolini’s blackshirts army. Yet this wasn’t the only showing of Serie A discord during the attempted show of respect.

Juventus fans also boycotted by turning their backs during the minute’s silence before their game against SPAL and singing the Italian national anthem instead.

Lazio and Italian football as a whole has long had issues with right-wing ideology. When thinking of football ultras, Italy’s tends to rank amongst the most ardent of the lot. But the anti-Semitic and racist downfalls has tainted the Italian following for far too long. It’s about time something was done to change this, but is it too late? And does the issues lie deeper in the country’s culture, way beyond football?

Time will surely tell.

The battle for Milan: Inter vs A.C.

Two historical giants of European football, under Chinese ownership, with squads full of expensive talents, big egos and even bigger expectations.
Welcome to the battle for Milan…

By Charlie Dawson

Mauro Icardi, once hated by the Inter Milan ultras, now loved by the Nerrazzurri. On Sunday 15 October, Icardi singlehandedly beat AC Milan 3-2, after a brilliant hat-trick from the Inter man, including a calmly slotted penalty and a brilliantly inventive half volley, in a Milan derby that fully lived up to the hype.

Inter currently sit second in Serie A, two points behind the domestically undefeated Napoli, and three ahead of the surprise-package team, Lazio, and ever-present defending champions, Juventus. AC Milan on the other hand reach the dizzying heights of tenth after their defeat by the more established half of Milan.

AC Milan spent over £162m this summer on 11 players. Among these were the likes of Italy and Juventus’s creator from the back, Leonardo Bonucci, Portugal’s new hope, Andre Silva, Wolfsburg’s set-piece taker and ever-present left back, Ricardo Rodriguez, the Turkish free-kick wonder, Hakan Calhanoglu, Villarreal’s defensive general, Mateo Musacchio, Antonio Conte’s former favourite wing back, Andrea Conti and Lazio’s former defensive screen, Lucas Biglia. Incoming on-loan were Franck Kessie of Atalanta, Nikola Kalinic of Fiorentina and Fabio Borini of Sunderland – all with a view to buy.

All these acquisitions have been given to AC Milan manager, Vincenzo Montella, to mould and fit together in the puzzle that is a cohesive and effective Milan team. A hard task by any stretch, especially when considering the pressure on Montella to lead AC Milan to the UEFA Champions League, to offset their spending. AC are of course competing with the other sleeping giant of Italian football, Inter, for Champions League football this season.

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AC Milan’s struggling manager, Vincenzo Montella.

Inter Milan conversely have spent £72m on the likes of the Spanish playmaker Borja Valero, Nice’s high flying fullback Dalbert, Italian centre back Alessandro Bastoni and former Sampdoria man, Milan Skriniar. Inter manager, Luciano Spalletti has reinforced an already powerful squad with frugal options, giving Inter depth in almost all positions. Inter have a squad of high potential, settled players, with a few new additions to supplement the squad in multiple competitions. Compare that with AC Milan’s newly assembled squad, with a new player in almost every position. It is clear which is more likely to have consistent success in the near future; and that logic is proving to be accurate when considering each team’s league position eight games in.

Both Milan clubs are fighting for a position in the top four of Serie A, a position which is already tightly congested between the likes of Napoli, Juventus, Lazio and possibly Roma. The first three are performing as expected and have taken a position in the top four, with third spot being taken by Inter at present. Assuming Juventus and Napoli continue their dominance of the Italian league, then that leaves two spots for guaranteed UEFA Champions League qualification for the like so Inter/AC Milan, Roma and Lazio, with a surprise run from Sampdoria, Torino or Bologna also possible.

With both Milan clubs so experienced in the Champions League, and used to European and domestic success, the pressure is truly on for them to reach the top four. Stakes are higher still, when considering both clubs are owned by Chinese Investors, the Suning Holdings Group (Inter), and Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux (AC Milan) which is owned by Li Yonghong, who brought a 99.9% stake in AC for €740m this summer.

Li Yonghong (worth around €500m, €6.5 billion less than previous owner Silvio Berlusconi) bought the club with help from an US hedge fund Elliot, who loaned around €300m to Li for the purchase of AC Milan. All of which must be paid back by October 2018, along with an 11% interest rate and a €15m arrangement fee on top. Yet, as it stands, AC Milan have been losing around €70-80m a year on average, and lost over €180m in 2014-15.

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AC Milan’s new owner, Li Yonghong.

The interest from China has come as a result of the Chinese government wanting football to establish itself in China and to be part of, and eventually win, a FIFA World Cup in the near future. This desire for footballing success alongside the expansion of the Chinese Super League, has led to Chinese businesses investing in football clubs, with a view to establishing themselves in a positive of favour with their nation’s government. However, the over-spending of clubs in the Chinese Super League and by Chinese investors has led to government officials taking a dim view on over spending and risky investment. This puts the success of both Milan clubs at paramount importance, to ensure the reputations of their owners and key shareholders in their native countries remain intact.

Considering the debt Sport Investment Lux now owe for the purchase of the club, the yearly losses, exuberant spending and lack Champions League income, AC Milan desperately need to re-establish themselves as regular contenders in the UEFA Champions League, and as domestic contenders, to ensure the financial state of the club.

Rather conversely to AC, Inter Milan were taken over by Suning Holdings Group, a group that brought a 68.55% share in the club in 2016; sharing the club with Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, who remained as the Club’s President. Inter have reinforced well, and brought high potential young players, while supplementing their spending with loans, and the sale of high wage and ageing players. Inter’s success so far, may be down to luck to an extent, with the likes of Ivan Perisic, Icardi, Joao Mario, Antonio Candreva and Samir Handanovic all improving and performing at a consistently higher level compared to recent seasons.

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Inter Milan’s majority shareholder, Erick Thohir.

Unfortunately for AC Milan, after all their spending, it is their youngsters and cheaper purchases that have had the most success on the pitch. Young Italian striker and AC youth system product, Patrick Cutrone, is the club’s top scorer with seven goals in all competitions, one more than €38m summer signing, Andre Silva. Vincenzo Montella has managed to successfully integrate youth prospects into his expensively assembled squad, and would arguably have been better off without the added pressure of the clubs desperately needed success, had all this money not been spent. Alessio Romagnoli and Gianluigi Donnarumma have both become key players in the Montella’s team, and are a credit to the Milan academy, and should be their main source of squad reinforcement.

Quite why AC Milan have seemingly failed to establish themselves this season can be argued for a multitude of reasons. Whether it be the large purchases and pressure to succeed, weighing down on both the players and the manager, combined with inexperiences and inconsistency expected with a young team. Or possibly as a result of the Leonardo Bonucci signing seemingly forcing Montella to abandon his favoured 4-3-3, and opting for the Bonnibauer’s favoured three at the back formation. In the matches where AC Milan have managed to score, they often score from set pieces and concede irrespective of their performance, which would indicate a lack of cohesiveness on the pitch when all the clubs new signings and ideas are being used.

Inter’s success and more gradual rise up the Italian table, may be as a result of their manager, Luciano Spalletti, who has instilled his footballing philosophy and formation onto his Inter team. Spalletti has years of experience managing the likes of Roma, Udinese, Sampdoria and Zenit St. Petersburg. The Inter man is used to big personalities, adversity, overachieving and high quality players. Montella on the other hand has had a relatively short managerial career, managing the likes of Catania, Fiorentina and Sampdoria since 2011. Montella’s top-flight managerial career stands at only six years, 16 less than that of Spalletti, and the pressure and demands of this AC Milan side may be have come too early in Montella’s career.

Luciano_Spaletti
Inter Milan manager, Luciano Spalletti.

Milan is a city of intense competition throughout the years, and hopefully that intensity will continue with a close fought battle between the two Milanese clubs. Inter are ahead in the race for domination of the city, and look likely to continue their run in Serie A and find themselves back in the Champions League before long. Yet, the quest for success is a long one, and AC Milan could yet find themselves competing should they find a run of form and play with a pragmatic approach that suits the squad and their resources.

However, only time will tell if it’s better to approach the task of resurrecting a European giant by following the example of the tortoise or the hare.

The Berlusconi era nears an end

Christopher Weir looks into the AC Milan malaise of the past four years, and comes to the conclusion that the problem lies right at the top of the food chain.

By Chris Weir.

On Tuesday, Sinisa Mijhajlovic became the latest victim of the AC Milan madness.

A string of average results meant the Serb became the fourth Milan manager to pack his bags in two years. The Rossoneri look certain to miss out on the UEFA Champions League for a third consecutive year, as youth coach and former player Cristian Brocchi takes up the reigns of another mediocre campaign.

However, the seven-times European champions should look to the top of the food chain to find out how they got into such a rut.

When Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986, it signalled the start of a glorious trophy-laden era. Under Arrigo Sacchi, Milan won their first Scudetto in a decade before winning consecutive European Cups. Later, under Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, they went onto certify their status as the biggest club in Italy, playing some masterful football along the way.

Throughout this glittering period, Berlusconi was always the figurehead. The billionaire, who has a controlling stake in Italy’s largest media organisation Mediaset through his company Fininvest, has always used the AC Milan image as a boon for his political ambitions.

It came as no surprise that the Rossoneri winning the European Cup in May 1994 coincided with Berlusconi’s first of four spells in government as Italy Prime Minister.

Milan’s transfer policy has always fluctuated depending on whether Silvio needs a boost in the polls. For example, the signing of Mario Balotelli in 2013 bumped up his numbers in the Italian election, despite a conviction for fraud less than six months earlier.

It wasn’t the only controversy surrounding the media mogul during his tenure as club President. The former Prime Minister has certainly been busy both inside and outside of the office. Despite various alleged indiscretions, his status at Milan remained largely unaffected. It certainly helped that the club were still winning matches and trophies at that stage, and it goes to show that everything is forgiven as long as the victories keep racking up.

Yet Silvio, the saviour who rescued the club from bankruptcy 30 years ago, now seems the likeliest reason for the club’s current malaise. The sales of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2012 finalised the Rossoneri’s exit from the European elite, as the owner became distracted by his political machinations and funding for transfers subsequently dried up. In times of austerity, the spending of exorbitant fees on transfers may not have been something Italians looked on favourably.

Almost overnight the quality of football in Lombardy went from Prada to Primark. Rossoneri fans were cheering Alessandro Nesta and Rino Gattuso one year, Kevin Constant and Francesco Acerbi the next.

Four years after selling Zlatan and Silva to PSG, Milan continue to suffer from a lack of planning. The failures to replace the departing Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Nesta and co. were compounded by the decision to let Andrea Pirlo go to Juventus on a free transfer.

In 1987, Berlusconi proved he wasn’t afraid to make a managerial appointment from left-field when he called on Arrigo Sacchi, a man with no significant footballing background (as a player, anyway) before getting the job at Milanello. What was once a stroke of genius, however, turned into two acts of folly with the decisions to hire Pippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf as manager.

The latter is particularly bizarre – whilst Inzaghi had some experience with the youth squad, Seedorf was still playing for Botafogo in Brazil when he accepted the call from Milan CEO Adriano Galliani. The results spoke for themselves, as the erudite Seedorf was sacked after four meagre months.

The appointments appeared risky at the time, and shockingly naive in hindsight. Cristian Brocchi will no doubt be making note of the obvious parallels between his signing and of those who’ve already fallen on Berlusconi’s eager sword.

Still, for a while this season it looked like they were on the way up. Milan thrashed cross-town rivals Inter 3-0 in the Madonnina, whilst the emergence of Gianluigi Donnarumma between the sticks has been a real find. They are in the Italian Cup final and they seemed to have regained a semblance of fight and spirit, despite lacking in creativity.

And then the sacking came. The players are unhappy with Berlusconi’s latest hatchet job, whilst the fans have also voiced their anger at the decision. The president appears increasingly out of touch with his football club, and his irrational management continues to weaken both the team and his own position. 

What next for Milan? As of yet, rumours of investment from Thai magnate Bee Taechaubol haven’t materialised into a real offer – but even if they do, who would be willing to work with Berlusconi given his calamitous leadership of recent years?

Milan fans will always be thankful to the President for the memories. Increasingly however, it seems that this is one leader who has reached the end of his term.

Politically Charged Footballers

Following Lokomotiv Moscow player Dmitri Tarasov’s show of support for Vladimir Putin on Tuesday night, here are some more examples of politically charged footballers.

By Ed Wade.

There was an air of shock and disbelief in Turkey on Tuesday night, when Lokomtiv Moscow’s Dmitri Tarasov took off his shirt to reveal a pro Vladimir Putin shirt following their Europa League defeat to Fenerbahçe. Along with the picture of Putin wearing a Navy hat, were the Russian words ‘the most polite president.’

The match was the first that paired a Russian and Turkish team after a Russian war plane was shot down for violating Turkish airspace over Syria. It was a highly charged game which saw three Fenerbahçe fans arrested before kick-off.

It will go down as one of the most politically controversial moves in football, but it is not the first time it has happened. So who are the other football stars to have involved the beautiful game within political matters.

  1. Paolo Di Canio

The former West Ham player and Sunderland manager was a talisman on the pitch, and a full on headline in the making on the sidelines.

He’s made the headlines for the right reasons numerous times in the past, and everyone will remember ‘that volley’ against Wimbledon.

However, the Italian was full of controversy and was famously a big fan of former Italian Fascist Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini. He mentioned in his autobiography that he is ‘fascinated’ with the controversial political figure.

He made several fascist salutes whilst playing for Lazio in 2005 and was suspended and fined after a game against AS Roma. As a result of his right-wing views, the Italian was almost sacked from Sunderland before he had even managed a game.

  1. Josip Simunic

The former Croatian captain famously lead fascist chants after a 2-0 win over Iceland in a World Cup qualifying match in 2013.

The chants were in support of the former pro-Nazi Ustase regime during World War II and were met with the response of ‘ready’ by supporters.

After the match, Simunic said: “I’m not afraid. I’m supporting my Croatia, my homeland. If someone has something against it, that’s their problem.”

The then Dinamo Zagreb player was banned for 10 matches and missed the World cup in 2014.

  1. Nicolas Anelka

The Frenchman is known for being an European football journeyman of sorts, playing for 10 separate clubs across the continent.

The striker caused a stir when celebrating with a quenelle salute after scoring in a match for West Brom in 2014.

He denied all accusations of being a fascist and said it was in support of French comedian Dieudonne M’bala who used it as an expression of hatred towards Jews.

Anelka was banned for five games and fined £80,000 despite saying after the game that it was ‘misunderstood.

  1. Diego Maradona

The magical Argentine is known for his incredible exploits on the field, not to mention his two goals against England in the world cup. He has never been far from controversy after being tested positive for drug use.

A well-known left wing supporter, he voiced his thoughts on America when appearing on former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez TV programme.

He said: “I hate everything that comes from the United States. I hate it with all my strength.”

He was also against George Bush’s visit to Argentina, it seems: “I think Bush is a murderer. I’m going to head the march against him stepping foot on Argentine soil.”

  1. Christian Abbiati

The only active professional player on the list, Christian Abbiati has been used as a cup goalkeeper trying to help Milan claim the TIM cup of late.

The AC goalkeeper may not be as high profile or have been quite so loud in voicing his opinions, but the Italian goalkeeper has not been quiet about it either.

He said: “I am not ashamed to proclaim my political beliefs. I share ideals of fascism, such as the fatherland and the values of the Catholic religion.”

 

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