AC Milan Season Preview: Still searching for Champions League
"The Gunslinger" Krzysztof Piatek
Photo credit Nicolo Campo/Getty Images

AC Milan Season Preview: Still searching for Champions League

Milan continue their pursuit of a Champions League return with a new manager and a reinforced squad

milanobsession
Elaine Donati

AC Milan have set a clear objective for this season once again, to place top four in Serie A and qualify for the Champions League. Having missed that target by one tiny point last season, rest assured they will be doing everything in their power to achieve their goal this season.

After five seasons without the elite European competition and multiple ownership changes, the club appointed Milan legend Paolo Maldini as technical director this summer, along with former Milan hero Zvonimir Boban as Chief Football Officer.

Changes like that have been long hoped for by fans and may have as much or more to do with what Milan does this season than simply what happens on the pitch.

Certainly, their appointments seem to indicate imminent stability and an end to the downward spiral of so-called “Year Zero” campaigns that have plagued the club for too long now.

One of the keys to Milan’s dream of a top-four finish this year includes the fact that they gave up their Europa League spot for this season after previous ownerships had violated UEFA’s Financial Fair Play guidelines over multiple seasons.

Striking the deal with UEFA wiped their slate clean and prevented any fines or other limitations, and actually gave them one less competition to worry about.

Although the club would have preferred to compete in the Europa League, this can actually improve their chances of returning the Champions League with less fatigue and fewer injuries.

Transfer Market

The most controversial portion of Milan’s mercato involves their forwards. With André Silva coming back from his season-long loan to Sevilla, it was expected he would be sold or loaned out again.

However, after a deal was initially struck with AS Monaco to buy the striker, it fell through. He is still being shopped around by his agent, Jorge Mendes, but will likely remain until at least January.

The failure of Silva’s deal led to the young Patrick Cutrone being sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers for €18 million plus bonuses. As a very passionate and talented player who has also represented Italy at every level, including the senior national team, the 21-year-old was also a fan favourite.

Reports have indicated that at least one of the young strikers would need to be sold to make room for Ángel Correa from Atletico Madrid, whom the club have been heavily linked to all summer.

Correa is believed to be the kind of support striker wanted in the new playing system, however, his €50 million plus bonuses price tag has prevented the deal from going forward to date. In the meantime, Milan also picked up 20-year-old Portuguese striker Rafael Leão from Lille OSC for €30 million.

The new directors have worked carefully to invest in very talented young players at every position. First, they managed to sign left-back Theo Hernández from Real Madrid for €20 million.

Then they secured midfielders Rade Krunic and Ismael Bennacer from the relegated Empoli FC for €8 million and €16 million respectively. They were also able to bring in centre back Léo Duarte from Brazilian side Flamengo for €10 million plus bonuses.

Cleaning up some of the players whose contracts ran out, they returned Tiémoué Bakayoko to Chelsea after his season-long loan. Centre back Cristián Zapata was let go and quickly grabbed by Genoa, whereas long-time midfielders Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Bertolacci, and José Mauri remain free agents.

Lastly, Milan fans said an emotional goodbye to fullback Ignazio Abate, who came through Milan’s youth system and is now a free agent as well.

Manager

After former Milan and Italy legend Gennaro Gattuso and the club mutually parted ways, the Rossoneri needed a top manager. With other clubs snatching up the proven coaches, the club looked at a manager who would improve the playing style and identity of the club, even if he hadn’t yet won anything. The directors agreed immediately on Marco Giampaolo, who was coming off of a good season with Sampdoria.

Giampaolo likes short passes and one-touch football, preferring to play in a more narrow 4-3-1-2 formation. He is notorious for being very specific with his players and paying close attention to details.

In many ways, this is a 180° change from Gattuso’s teams of the past two years, who played a very defensive 4-3-3 that won largely on grinta (grit).

It seems that everyone is praising Giampaolo’s style of play, including the legendary Arrigo Sacchi, who knows something about being an unproven coach and coming to Milan.

Praise will not be enough, because, as Boban said in the coach’s press conference, the team will also need to win.

Player to Watch

We saw him burst onto the scene in Serie A last season, first at Genoa, then at Milan. With a season that is anything like last year’s, everyone will have Krzysztof Piatek’s name on the tips of their tongues.

At the age of 24, he moved from the Polish first league to Serie A last year without missing a step. Most strikers come to Serie A and struggle to keep their goal tally, but Piatek does not seem to know how to stop scoring.

He racked up 22 goals in the league in 34 appearances between the two clubs.

He is fast, powerful, and focused, and despite their best attempts, defences really struggle to mark him. He has also become a fan favourite with his already iconic “il Pistolero” (the Gunslinger) goal celebration.

Other players to watch include a trio of 21-year-olds: Ismael Bennacer, the talented midfielder who was the Africa Cup of Nations player of the tournament for winners Algeria; Theo Hernandez, a very impressive left-back snatched up from Real Madrid, and Lucas Paquetá, a very talented Brazilian midfielder who joined the team in January but looks to impress even more this year.

Next Generation Milan

This cannot come as news if you follow football at all, but Milan have an incredible young goalkeeper in Gianluigi “Gigio” Donnarumma. He burst onto the scene four years ago by saving a Toni Kroos penalty in a friendly against Real Madrid.

Since then, he has easily become Milan’s number one shot-stopper, even ahead of veteran Spanish keeper Pepe Reina.

Given the fact that he developed in Milan’s youth system and his value is also very high given his extraordinary talent and lightning-fast reflexes, there are always rumours that Donnarumma will leave the club for profit.

Perhaps that day will come, but the player has continually dedicated himself to the club of his heart.

Standing at 6’5” (1.96 meters) he is a formidable presence in goal and has kept Milan in the game time and time again with his breathtaking saves.

At only 20 years old, he is on the fast track to becoming one of the world’s best goalkeepers.

Season Prediction

Milan should achieve top four this year. While the changing of coaches and weakening of Juventus at many positions may see them finally dethroned as the perennial Scudetto winners, the fight for the top four will be more interesting this year.

Inter have strengthened and Napoli have been growing stronger every year. All of those teams have top managers and will be very competitive this year.

Atalanta were fantastic last year, finishing third with an amazing season, but are going to have to play in the Champions League this season, and may not be able to replicate their feat.

Roma have changed managers, but could still be a problem for Milan’s Champions League hopes. Both Torino and Lazio could challenge for top four, but both have Europa League.

With stability in ownership, club legends who know football from the inside out, and a refreshing new playing style, Milan look like strong bets to contend for top four and finally return to the Champions League.

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