Sunday afternoon saw AC Milan come away victorious at home, downing visitors Bologna 3-0 thanks to a trio of second half goals from Gerard Deulofeu, substitute Keisuke Honda and Gianluca Lapadula. More importantly, this feat meant that, for the first time since 2014, the Rossoneri faithful around the globe could celebrate the return to UEFA European competition next season after clinching 6th place.
Since their last European fixture on 11 March 2014 in the Round of 16 versus eventual runner-up Atletico Madrid, it’s been anything but roses for the red and black club. Finishing 8th, 10th and 7th respectively since their last European night, this three year funk has proven to be one of the more difficult in recent memory for Milanisti.
At the post, stability has been hard to come by. After the sacking of Massimiliano Allegri in January 2014, its been a revolving door with Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihajlović and Cristian Brocchi all failing to make their convincing case to former club President Silvio Berlusconi. Such shortcomings, partnered with abysmal seasonal performances, ultimately led plenty of supporters to turn their backs on club legends – turned managers – who were thrusted into the role at the most inopportune times. Looking back, perhaps it was more out of frustration than anything else. Milan, still to this day, are one of world football’s most prestigious and successful clubs who – for many – could only associate with winning. To see a dysfunctionally-managed club collapse to such extraordinary levels brought the worst out of many.
Yet, it seemed that after such a courageous effort last May in Rome at the Stadio Olimpico in the Coppa Italia final versus eventual winners Juventus, a crease of optimism for the upcoming season opened up, inviting Milan to exploit. And it wasn’t in the form of a massive summer spending spree. Rather, in the appointment of a manager who was hellbent on bringing a fallen giant back to the promised land that is Europe.
On 28 June 2016, AC Milan officially announced ‘L’Aeroplanino’ as manager, signing a two-year deal with the club.
Assets were limited, and a big summer mercato was simply not in the budget, but Montella made no excuses with regards to bringing in reinforcements. Essentially, Montella was handed the keys and told to drive.
Early on in the campaign, the Rossoneri flirted with a top three finish as they were well within striking distance entering the winter break. For the first time in five years, Milan lifted a piece of hardware as they triumphed over Juventus to win the Italian SuperCup in penalties on 23 December 2016 in Doha.
At the time, the Milanese giant were one of the only clubs in Italy who stood toe to toe with the Bianconeri in spite of their projected sixth straight Scudetto crown, beating them twice in the span of two months. These achievements, along with a very profound confidence that contagiously spread around the club, actually made Milan fans believe again. Although the sale of the club – and its many postponements – continued to dominate headlines and social media, Montella maintained a level of calmness that projected onto the entire club as through sixteen rounds, Milan occupied third. But, it would soon be short lived.
With every passing week, Juventus’ stranglehold on a first place finish gripped firmer. In the rearview mirror, Roma and Napoli jockeyed for second and third. This meant that Europa League became the more realistic objective. At times, specifically when key playmaker Giacomo Bonaventura was ruled out for the remainder of the year, supporters began losing hope. Reverting between fifth, sixth and seventh place for the better part of Spring, doubts were raised over whether or not Montella could pull this off. Rising the occasion, Montella steadied the ship.
Despite collecting two points from a possible nine against relegation-destined sides Pescara, Empoli and Crotone, Montella skippered Milan to a sixth place finish, good for Europa League football next season. Relief filled the inner means of the young and old as a club with great European pedigree, were back.
Speaking after the victory Sunday to Milan TV, the gaffer explained his satisfaction with the season, saying “I think it has been a positive season. I am really happy for this group and I am really proud of being their coach: it was not easy to create a group that gives everything they have, every game.”
Next Sunday, Milan put the bow on their season as they travel to Cagliari. Luckily for the health of many around Lombardy, the club has nothing to play for. We will likely see plenty changes to the starting XI as Montella looks to reward those seldom used pitch time.
2016-17, for some, will come off as a disappointment. And, if it is your stance, then that is your prerogative. Yet, in a season where Milan defeated a legitimate treble contender twice, lifted a Cup trophy, finished above their hated rival Inter and qualified for Europe, please reconsider your position. Europa League is a step in the right direction; the first hurdle cleared by a former powerhouse to restore past glory. And, when you consider the strong young nucleus intact, increased off-season spending and a new vision, perhaps renewed glory is not all that far off.
You can follow my football ramblings and various workings over on Twitter @Matt_Santangelo.