Prior to Roma’s matches, especially those against the fellow seven sisters, we always to try to beef up our knowledge of the opponent. And of all of Roma’s opponents during this busy October stretch, AC Milan may be the most interesting case study.
From the late 80s to the 2000s, the Rossoneri were the class of the league and Europe, winning eight Scudetti, five European titles, and countless other trophies under the leadership of Silvio Berlusconi. Then, for almost a decade, the Rossoneri fell into a banter era, missing the Champions League places for seven consecutive seasons.
That is until last season when Milan reemerged as a serious threat in Serie A, finishing second. And the Rossoneri are showing that last season wasn’t a fluke as they head into the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday with 28 points through 10 matches—level with Napoli for the league lead.
Milan went through some lean years in the last decade, but the last two seasons have seen a rebirth of the Rossoneri. What has changed within the organization in recent seasons that has precipitated this turnaround to again make Milan a Scudetto contender again?
Richard Kharman: Stability in leadership. An owner came in with a plan to correct the mess brought on from Berlusconi, Yong Hong Li etc. Then they brought in Maldini and others who had a serious vision to help stabilize the club in terms of talent and get rid of high wage bills. Through all this they stuck to their plans that precipitated the loss of big players but the product kept producing. Investing in youth and key signings instead of the next shiny thing. Lastly Pioli was the perfect fit to help grow that talent along with the signings of Ibra and Kjaer who were true leaders to help steer the youth. The fact this young team managed second place last season is remarkable.
Prior to his time with Milan, Stefano Pioli had the reputation of a manager that wore out his welcome quickly. What has he done to shake that reputation with the Rossoneri?
RK: He’s really given the youth a chance to develop and used leaders like Kjaer and Ibra to show the youngsters the way to play. This mix developed a team that highly believes in itself and never gives up. Even when chips are against them they produce. This is what Pioli has never been able to achieve before. Had Milan not made Champions League, he would have been gone. But the way they stuck together and produced without Ibra and other key players and got their win vs a tough Atalanta cemented Pioli’s change in his managerial career. He’s now managed over 100 games for Milan and looking to add many more.
Milan is off to an incredible start to the season (9W-1D-0L), what have been the on-the-pitch keys to the hot start? Which players have been the biggest contributors?
RK: The players who took over for the departed ones have been the main keys. Namely Mike Maignan in goal and Brahim Diaz as 10. Both have picked up and taken a step forward from their predecessors. Not to mention the emergence of Sandro Tonali and Rafael Leao who took giant steps forward. Milan now have greater depth in all positions and new game changers in goal, defense(Tomori), midfield and attack. Not to mention the players who played well last season continue to perform and improve.
Conversely, Milan has gone winless in three Champions League matches so far. What is the biggest reason that the league success hasn’t carried over into Europe?
RK: Champions League is a different animal. You need to raise your level in these competitions which this young team has to learn. Milan was always expected to finish last in this group of difficult opponents. The key would be if they could fight in those matches? They’ve shown that fight in all three matches and the team will learn from that next season. But lack of experience in this competition and lack of raising their level of the main reason. It’ll come to this team but it will be a blessing in disguise to face Liverpool, Atleti and Porto in their inauguration season, get booted early and can then focus on their Scudetto push.
Let’s look ahead to Sunday’s big match at the Olimpico. What worries you the most about Jose Mourinho’s Roma?
RK: Mourinho knows how to get results in big matches by parking the bus and living on the counter. Can Milan adapt to that tactic? Outside of Tomori, can Milan’s defense hold up to the pace up top in Roma’s attack? Will Milan remain patient? If those answers are yes, they can win. Big IF though.
Additionally, if you could bring one Roma player to Milan, who would it be? Why?
RK: I personally would bring Tammy Abraham for this current Milan team. Close second for Zaniolo. Mainly Milan are thin at striker and Zlatan and Giroud aren’t exactly spring chickens. Abraham has the trademarks of a class striker and could really make this Milan Club unbeatable.
What do you see as the match keys on Sunday? Are there any individual matchups you think will be particularly important for Milian?
RK: Theo vs Zaniolo is the big match-up. Theo has struggled against skilled and pacy wingers. Outside of Hakimi last season and Chiesa, Zaniolo will be the most difficult assignment he’s had and Theo isn’t lighting it up defensively. Also Milan will need to remain patient against a park-the-bus mentality in order to get 3 points.
Lastly, how do you see this match playing out? Do you have a prediction?
RK: This will be a cagey affair and Tatarusanu is a huge liability for Milan. I expect both teams to score but this Milan seems to have another gear this season, especially on the road. I predict 1-2 Milan over Roma.