Straight from the dark heart of Italy
When AC Milan met Juventus at the San Siro last season, a point divided the top two. Nine months on, the landscape of Serie A has changed drastically and coming into Sunday evening’s clash there was a massive 17-point difference in favour of Juve.
The champions were top of the pile again, but Milan had slipped a long way down the table after a summer that had seen the old guard retire or at least head into semi-retirement while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold on.
Silvio Berlusconi had sanctioned the transfer of the club’s two most influential players to PSG, claiming he was making savings of €180m over the next three years taking into account the transfer fees and the on the pair’s combined salaries. However, there has been little or no on-field return, as far inferior quality players have had to follow in the footsteps of the legends.
Berlusconi is ever the optimist and now that his political career is on hold the Rossoneri owner has been back overseeing the running of his dearly beloved club. He dropped in on training a few weeks ago to give the players one of his famous motivational talks ahead of their trip to Napoli and subsequent Champions League tie at Anderlecht.
The results were deemed positive – after a draw in Naples where a brace from Stephan El Shaarawy helped the side come back from two down, and a win in Brussels to secure safe passage to the knock-out stages in Europe – that he decided to repeat the visit ahead of the Juventus game.
Berlusconi arrives at Milan for the Juve game
But the blades of his personal helicopter had barely stopped whirring before he was causing onlookers to wonder if perhaps he should keep a little more low-profile – or at least consider his answers before speaking.
When asked if Milan had been in talks with Pep Guardiola, Berlusconi almost cracked his make-up as he informed the salivating press that he would do everything possible to install the Catalan as the new coach for next season – but that he faced a bit of competition from the “English”, and in particular Manchester City.
Does he have some insider knowledge or was it the first Premier League name that came into his head? Anyway, it was not the sort of endorsement that Massimiliano Allegri would have been expecting ahead of such a crucial game, and he must feel a bit like Roberto Di Matteo did at Chelsea, knowing that the owner does not really want him around.
On the other hand, the big boss gave all the love he could to another Milan employee: a player that just about everyone associated with the club, including the bulk of fans, are despairing about.
Alexandre Pato was ruled out at the weekend with his umpteenth hamstring problem: to wincingly clutch the back of one's leg is now known as 'The Pato'. But the young Brazilian, who may or may not be dating Silvio’s daughter (and Milan board member) Barbara, continues to have the patron’s unfailing support.
Berlusconi informed everyone that his little favourite would not be used in swap deal with Manchester City for Mario Balotelli, which was no news to anyone anyway, as it had never been mooted until then. The owner also denied that Pato would be loaned back to Brazil in January, which may disappoint a player who believes he would receive much better medical treatment back in South America.
Having dispensed his words of wisdom to the press, it was time for Berlusconi to deliver another pep-talk to a bunch of players who knew that, in an ideal world, he wouldn't have given most of them the time of day.
El Sharaawy and Pato: Silvio favourites
One exception is Stephan El Shaarawy, who seems to have impressed the master by the fact that he had passed his high-school exams and had once thought of maybe going to university. But look at him now: on the cusp of becoming a footballer millionaire sporting a bird’s nest haircut.
While Berlusconi may not approve of someone having too much hair, he cannot deny that the club have unearthed a real star for the future and for now the 20-year-old has his mind focused solely on football.
His mum lives with him in Milan, he never goes out except to training and when he plays he runs himself into the ground and scores goal after goal – including one for Italy on his first start a few weeks ago against France.
So there was hope within the Milan ranks about the Juve game, even if recent statistics favour the Old Lady with 10 wins to Milan’s four, 29 goals scored to 10, only nine conceded compared to 18 and tellingly just one defeat to six.
But form books can be ignored and so it happened in a packed San Siro, on the back of a contentious decision which lead to the only goal of the game. Last season it was Sulley Muntari’s “ghost goal” and this time around Mauricio Isla’s “phantom arm” that was main talking point.
It was just past the half-hour in what had been a disjointed affair when Juve wing-back Isla threw his body in the way of Antonio Nocerino’s weak header and the ball cannoned off the side of his body – not his outstretched arm.
With three officials in close proximity and a mass of Milan players desperately appealing for a penalty there could only be one outcome: a spot-kick. The Juve players creditably accepted the decision with a sigh rather than a roar, and Gigi Buffon let Robinho’s low shot slip through his hands.
On any other evening you would have expected Antonio Conte’s side to charge back into the game, but a mixture of Milan's resolute defending and the fatigue Juve must have felt after their stirring win over Chelsea meant that the match became a series of misplaced passes and little movement in attack.
Marco van Basten was in the stands as a guest of Milan to commemorate his four goals in the Champions Cup against Goteborg in the same stadium on the exact same date in 1992. The Dutch master will have thought little of the Bianconeri frontline but might have been impressed by El Shaarawy’s all-round game.
However, Milan had matched Inter in defeating the team that had gone on a 49-game unbeaten run – and the man with the widest grin was the beaming Berlusconi, who will no doubt be popping to Milanello again soon.
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