With Sunday’s match against Milan at the Olimpico looming large, I thought I’d go behind enemy lines and get a feel for the mood in Milan world ahead of the big game. David Fante, head of Milan Club Philadelphia, was kind enough to let me pick his brain about all things Rossonero, as he prepares to host a joint viewing of the match with Roma Club Philadelphia. As the tweet below implies, the biggest game for most Milan and Roma fans won’t be taking place in Atlanta, it’ll be played out in the Eternal City just a few hours before the Super Bowl.
Sorry, Tom, but we don't care about your Super Bowl. Join @MilanClubPhilly and @RomaClubPhila at @GCaffeLaquila on SUNDAY for the real "big game" - #RomaMilan! All are welcome. Please RT and be there! #forzamilan #weareacmilan pic.twitter.com/nxwE8JTbkH— Milan Club Philly (@MilanClubPhilly) February 2, 2019
1)What were your expectations for this Milan side coming into the season?
DF: Quantitatively, qualifying for the Champions League at a minimum. With the addition of Higuain, however, I thought reaching second place was possible. I didn’t think anyone would be able to dethrone Juve, and barring any surprises, it doesn’t look like anyone will. Qualitatively, I expected more consistent results and level of play. I expected that with the core group that’s had some time to gel and the few strategic additions to the squad, Milan would rise above their inconsistent performances from last season and start to dictate the flow of matches instead of playing to the opposing team’s level.
2) Based on how the team has performed, what would make this a successful season when all is said and done?
DF: Certainly Champions League qualification, but more importantly, playing like we deserve to be there. Finishing in fourth place means nothing if we’re still dropping points to teams at the lower end of the table. The past two matches against Napoli have given me some hope that we may be improving, but there’s a long way to go. A successful season will be one where Milan are more consistent and play with passion and grinta.
3) All Coaches come under criticism when the team struggles. Gattuso, like Di Francesco, has been under a lot of criticism this season, but what do you think of him as a manager? Does his legacy with the club bring more scrutiny?
DF: I’ll answer the second part of the question first. His inexperience at this level brings more scrutiny than his legacy with the club. I would argue his legacy with the club brings more leniency, as well as the fact that any coach could only do so much with the situation and players he was handed (initially). No one knows more than Gattuso what it means to be Rossonero, and I hope that’s starting to become ingrained in the players. As one of my favorite players of all time, it’s difficult for me to judge his performance from an unbiased perspective. He’s certainly done better than I expected, and we currently sit in 4th place, but the road to get there has been bumpy and inconsistent.
We’ll play really well, then we’ll stink it up, then there’s an international break, then a starter will have a season-ending injury, then we’ll be lackluster and a late goal gives us 3 points we may not have deserved, then there’s another international break, then we lose some matches, then we win some, then multiple suspensions, then a new signing scores two amazing goals… It’s impossible to predict which Milan we’ll see from week to week. And fortunately, to this point, we’ve benefited from other teams’ poor performances and inconsistencies.
At the end of the season, I expect Gattuso will get us into the Champions League. After that, we’ll see. I’ve always felt that he’d be able to take us to a certain point, but not to the next level. CL qualification may be that point. That said, I hope Ringhio proves me wrong.
4) I’ve always seen Alessio Romagnoli as the future of Italy’s defense. As someone who watches him every week, what are his strengths and weaknesses? Can he lead the Azzurri post-Bonucci?
DF: Bo-whocci? Romagnoli is the real deal. He’s calm and carries an air of authority that’s essential in a captain. His greatest strength is being a smart, well positioned player, and his presence on the pitch gives me confidence (or at least some relief) that it’s not the defensive side of things I need to worry about during a match. Unless Donnarumma starts dribbling the ball, but that’s another topic of conversation. I don’t go deep into tactics or player qualities, so I can’t call out specific technical weaknesses, but I think he needs to grow and mature a bit more before he’s accepted as a leader of the Azzurri. I’m sure he’s capable now and will only improve over time, but there’s a bias within FIGC that favors older players (for the most part deservedly) in leadership positions.
5) I’m sure there’s plenty of excitement in Milan world about the Piatek signing. What does he add that the team was missing with Higuain leading the line? What does his signing mean for Patrick Cutrone?
DF: I try not to get caught up in the calcio mercato hype, but Piatek’s Coppa Italia match against Napoli has made me a believer. I can’t explain why Higuain was unable to score consistently, and I think the missed PK against Juve was the beginning of the end of his tenure at Milan. Had he scored that goal, we may not be discussing Piatek at Milan. Higuain never wanted to be at Milan, so while his departure stings, I can’t blame him. Better he leaves now than after another 6 months of bad vibes in the locker room. I certainly feel better about Higuain leaving given Piatek’s arrival. I don’t think Piatek will have the pressure on him to score the way Higuain did, but I hope his two incredible goals this week are a just a taste of things to come.
For me, Cutrone is the heart of this team. The kid loves Milan, and that resonates with all the supporters. Every time he scores, it’s about the badge and the curva. He’s young and has lots of time to grow. With Piatek at Milan, there’s less pressure on Cutrone to produce (although we said the same about Higuain). It will be interesting to see if they line up together, but Cutrone seems to do better as a sub than as a starter. Either way, I hope Cutrone makes the most of the opportunity to grow and stays with us for a long time.
6) The race for the last Champions League spot is extremely tight. Who takes it? Any chance Roma and Milan can both qualify and Inter slips up?
DF: A few weeks ago, I would have answered this question differently. I have more confidence in Milan now with Bakayoko hitting his stride and other players like Biglia set to come back from injury, not to mention the addition of Piatek. But it’s too soon to count anybody out. As things currently stand, every team in the top half of the table is within striking distance of 4th place. All it takes is one injury or a bad performance to change the course of the season. The second half of the season should be an incredibly stressful and exciting time. (But yes, it would be wonderful if our cousins slip up and Milan and Roma take 3rd and 4th places respectively.)
7) Looking ahead to Sunday, what scares you about Roma? How do you see the match playing out?
DF: Roma’s last two results scare me. The injured wolf will have something to prove and will be extra motivated, especially playing at home. Milan need to take control of the match early and neutralize what I think will be a quick start by Roma. If Milan can score early and stay focused for the full 90+ minutes, then we have a chance. The match will be a true test for Milan, and a win would prove that last week’s results against Napoli represent real improvement on our part. And given all the teams within striking distance of 4th place, a win is the result we need.
Thanks to David for sharing his insight with us, look for our usual preview later today, and if you're in the Philadelphia area tomorrow, why not hit up the Cafe L'Aquila?