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Milan a fallen giant

Lesser-known stars like Tonali try to match up

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Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Stephen McPhail was trying to cheer up his fellow Shamrock Rovers employee Stephen Bradley.

The draw for the second round of the Europa League had been made and the Hoops had avoided the two lesser-known (and beatable) potential opponents, from Hungary and Lithuania, and instead been paired with AC Milan in a one-off tie, in Dublin.

McPhail, the club's Director of Football, who as a Leeds United player battled in the old UEFA Cup with the Roma side of Cafu and Totti, looked on the bright side: AC Milan were no longer the force of old and were also out of season, due to play their first competitive game of this term in Dublin against the Hoops.

"That's all he keeps saying to me, that they're out of season," Bradley, the team manager, joked of his chats with McPhail after the draw was made.

"I'm not buying into anything, it's AC Milan."  

Roy Keane was clearly making a judgement, a negative one, with his "lads, it's Tottenham" comment. Bradley's view that "it's AC Milan" is the opposite of that, acknowledgement that despite their apparent troubles and ring-rustiness for this game, they are still a force more powerful than the Dublin club.

But the very fact that Milan are in the Europa League and not the Champions League is a sign of their fall from grace, on and off the field.

Once they were by far the most successful and most exciting side in Europe; now they're not even the best team in Milan, and haven't been for a decade.

They are only back in Europe this month after a 12-month UEFA ban for breach of Financial Fair Play rules, that ban denying them a place in the Champions League last season.

They finished just sixth in the league last season, a stunning 17 points behind champions Juventus, and Milan have not been champions of Italy since 2011, Juventus reigning supreme every year since then with Milan's role as challengers taken over by Napoli, Roma and rivals Inter.

The AC Milan side which won back to back European Cups in 1988-90 was packed with names that, even now, trip off the tongue: Maldini, Costacurta, Baresi, Ancelotti, Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten.

Same with their last Champions League-winning side, the team that beat Liverpool in the 1997 final: Maldini, Gattuso, Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaka.

Names are harder to spot in the current crop at Milan: one that stands out to all (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), and probably the best young keeper in the world (Gianluigi Donnarumma). 

Glamour

But the rest lack the glamour of past Milan sides. That's not to underestmate their squad: striker Ante Rebic (suspended for the Rovers game) is one of the bright hopes of Croatian football and has just signed a five-year deal. 

Sandro Tonali (20) is the most highly-rated young defender in Italy, and long-suffering Milan fans hope that Brahim Diaz can deliver on the early promise he showed at Manchester City and Real Madrid.

Ahead of tomorrow's trip to Dublin the club tied up a deal to sign Tonali from Brescia, initially for a loan fee of €10m, rising to €35m. Tonali will be on familiar turf on Thursday: he played in Tallaght for the Italian U-21 side in a Euro qualifier last year, a 0-0 draw and the hope in Milan is that he is another Baresi in the making.

They need heroes and they crave stability. For a long spell, Milan were successful and stable, the two notions related: between 1987 and 2001, when they won six league titles and three European Cups, Milan had just four managers.

Current boss Stefano Pioli is their 11th coach in the last 10 years. Chaos replaced stability. In 2017, Chinese billionaire Li Yonghong took control of the club, having paid Silvio Berlusconi €740m.

He made wild promises about restoring Milan to their rightful place at the top, sanctioned big signings and new coaches. Within a year, Li had lost control of the club, and lost €500m in the process, to Elliott Management, a US-based hedge fund.

Locals know that the Americans now running the show care more about profits than tradition.

AC Milan in 2020 lack the gloss of the 1990s teams but that red-and-black shirt can still inspire awe.