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FEATURE: AC Milan Climb Back in the Champions League Chase

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Following a euphoric summer, AC Milan were hit with a dose of realism as their 2017-18 Serie A campaign hit choppy water, recording six wins, six defeats and two draws from their opening 14 games. Vincenzo Montella’s men sat 7th in the table, a whopping 18 points off top spot, and 14 points off the Champions League places they were expected to challenge for.

Week 14 of the season saw Milan draw a fourth consecutive blank at the San Siro as they played out a goalless draw against Torino. The owners had seen enough. The next day Montella was removed from his duties as head coach and replaced by Milan’s Primavera coach; a certain Gennaro Gattuso.

The 2006 World Cup winner had been thrust into the hot seat. Without negotiating a new contract and without hesitation, the former Milan player accepted. It was without doubt Gattuso’s biggest challenge to date, as his coaching career to that point had certainly been colourful but had produced mixed results.

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Gattuso’s coaching pathway began with a spell in Switzerland at FC Sion. Rino then came back to Italy for a stint at Palermo in Serie B before crossing the water to take control of OFI Crete in Greece. Financial difficulties in Crete meant Gattuso’s reign only lasted a few months and upon officially resigning, he unsuccessfully applied to become manager of Scottish side Hamilton in January 2015. In the August of that year, the former Italy international took the reins at Lega Pro side Pisa, where he tasted success by guiding the Tuscan outfit into Serie B via the play-offs. Gattuso left Pisa in June 2016 and just under a year later took charge of Milan’s Primavera side, becoming the third member of Milan’s 2007 Champions League winning squad to take the role after Christian Brocchi and Pippo Inzaghi.

With Milan’s season on the brink of disaster and continued scepticism around the financial security of their owners, the appointment of Gattuso seemed like a desperate roll of the dice. Fingers were being pointed and the knives were out before Ringhio’s Milan had even kicked a ball; Gattuso is cliché, he is unstable and temperamental, his managerial record is not worthy of Milan and passion alone won’t be enough.

Setting out to prove people wrong, the fixture list looked to have fallen favourably for Gattuso with his opening game coming at rock-bottom and pointless Benevento. The 90 minutes that followed are now infamous in Italian football, providing a moment that has gone down in calcio history.

With Milan leading 2-1 and the game in stoppage time, the home side won a free-kick and keeper Alberto Brignoli proceeded to join the attack in desperate search of rescuing a point. As the set-piece was whipped in from the Milan left the unimaginable happened, Brignoli flung himself at the ball and connected perfectly with a header. Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma watched on helplessly as the ball flashed past him into the far bottom corner. Disaster for Milan, it was a new low point of a forgettable few years and for Gattuso it was a nightmare start, an embarrassment.

It did not get any easier for Gattuso and Milan after that, two wins and three defeats followed prior to Christmas. The intensity and hunger of the Milan side had improved, that was a given under the guidance of the fiery Italian. However, despite ditching the 3-5-2 in favour of the 4-3-3 it seemed like little else was improving, they lacked cohesion and any kind of game plan while the likes of Ignazio Abate, Fabio Borini and Nikola Kalinić were still in the team and under-performing.

There were rumours that the Milan manager was already at risk and that a loss to city rivals Inter in the Coppa Italia quarter-final would see him sacked, with the instant re-appointment of Vincenzo Montella to steady the ship.

What followed was Milan’s light-bulb moment, the seasons only bright spot to that point had been the goals of primavera graduate Patrick Curtone and it was Cutrogol that popped up with an extra-time winner in the derby to ignite his team’s season. From that moment on, Milan and Gattuso have gone from strength to strength; they are undefeated in 13, now seven points off a Champions League place, in the Coppa Italia final and have a mouth-watering tie against Arsenal to come in the Europa League round of 16. The outlook is now considerably different, that summer euphoria is creeping back, Milan are enjoying themselves again and it is Mister Gattuso that deserves the credit.

MILAN, ITALY – DECEMBER 27: Patrick Cutrone of AC Milan (C) celebrates the victory with his teammates Leonardo Bonucci (L) and Gianlugi Donnarumma (R) at the end of the TIM Cup match between AC Milan and FC Internazionale at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on December 27, 2017 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

On the face of it, what the Milan legend has done looks simple. Return to the favoured 4-3-3, which they did well with last season, play the likes of Lucas Biglia, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and give the infectious Patrick Cutrone a starting place in the team. In truth they are just part of the reason. It would be unfair to say that is all Gattuso has done and he has proven to offer more than just “grinta”.

The Diavolo boss has successfully outsmarted some of his brightest counterparts; the likes of Simone Inzaghi, Eusebio Di Francesco and Marco Giampaolo have all come off second best in recent weeks. Gattuso has shown he has the tactical nous to stifle expansive football sides while also exposing their weaknesses and providing his team the platform to win the game.

The defence has been locked up. Milan’s deep compact block has been disciplined and effective. The San Siro outfit have conceded only six in their last 13 with centre back pairing Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli in imperious form. Davide Calabria has grabbed his opportunity at right-back with both hands; his energetic and enterprising style has added an extra element to the Milan right-hand side. Gigio Donnarumma looks to have put off the field issues behind him and is looking increasingly confident and secure.

The coach has co-ordinated the right balance in midfield. The box-to-box power of Franck Kessie has been combined with midfield conductor Lucas Biglia while Jack Bonaventura’s ability to influence the attack results in a midfield that has a nice blend of attributes. In attack, Gattuso has made them more unpredictable, in-part by removing the creative burden off Suso’s shoulders and introducing Turkish international Hakan Çalhanoğlu. The former Bayer Leverkusen man is now becoming the player Milan fans expected to see and is back to being close to his best. Add in a pair of attacking full backs and serial goal poacher Cutrone, and you have a Milan that are asking serious questions of opposition defences.  All of this while the likes of Andrea Conti, Mateo Musacchio, Manuel Locatelli and André Silva watch on, it is a squad with options and potential.

Cutrone deserves a special mention, his desire and enthusiasm has rippled through the team, his passion for the shirt has endeared him to the fans and he has come to represent everything Gattuso wants to see from his players. The young Italian striker is rough around the edges, but he is instinctive, a willing runner and puts himself in areas where he can make a difference. In Europe’s top five leagues, PSG’s Kylian Mbappe is the only u20 to manage more than Cutrone’s 14 so far this season.

Milan have been improving weekly, undefeated in 13 they are currently on a run of six consecutive wins and clean sheets – their best return since 2009. Confidence is oozing out of them and they have a togetherness that was not evident previously. Every goal, tackle, save and victory is being celebrated by the squad. You can sense the players are out there for each other and out there to repay the faith the coach has instilled in them. Gattuso’s vibrant character and winning mentality has rubbed off on his players, they are fitter and have upped their intensity along with the number of training sessions. Milan are now covering more ground as a team than earlier on in the season. The fragile Milan of previous months has gone, the Coppa Italia semi-final win over Lazio is testament to that, they can hold their nerve and stay cool in key moments.

Only Napoli and Juventus have better records in 2018 than Milan, Gattuso has already accrued more points than his predecessor and they currently sit third in the Serie A form table as they go into a defining few weeks of the season.

What seemed unthinkable in December could become a real possibility if they inflict another defeat on their cross town rivals Inter, matching their early season aspirations and fighting for a Champions League spot. This coming weekend sees Lazio welcome Juve while Roma travel to take on Napoli and if results go their way and Milan take care of business in the derby, they could find themselves within four points of 4th and five points of 3rd.

With the Rossoneri now beating those around them and with only Inter, Juventus and Napoli left to play of those above them, this weekend could be a pivotal moment in the Champions League chase. The seven-time European champions have the momentum, rivals Inter and Roma are crumbling under pressure and with their notoriously weak mentalities they will be all too aware of the red and black machine looking to transform the Serie A table.

Make no mistake about it, for Milan to qualify for next seasons Champions League be it through league position or Europa League success is going to take a momentous effort. Even with current form, it cannot be seen as a given, but hope has returned and they are psychologically stronger.

Shortly after his appointment, Gattuso said his side “have a few pimples” and are “just as ugly as I am. We’re not Brad Pitt”, so while the boss recognises his side are not flawless, Milan are showing that with a strong foundation and a good make up they can mix it with the A-list.

When this exciting Serie A season reaches its climax in May, no one should be surprised to see Milan make a triumphant return to their home, the Champions League.

@ItalianFD

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