To sign up for our daily email newsletter, CLICK HERE
The last decade hasn’t been particularly kind to AC Milan. Once renowned as an elite heavyweight in European football, the Rossoneri were stalwarts in the continent’s elite competition — winning the big-eared trophy seven times and boasting some of the best players in the world for their time. Always favourites when betting on the Champions League. Defensively ruthless and tactically astute, the likes of Paulo Maldini, Kaká and Andriy Shevchenko were absolutely world-class but the pendulum swung at the turn of the 2010s, leaving Milan cast astray.
Issues with consistency and finances meant players left the San Siro and Milan would endure a barren spell from Champions League football — seven years to be precise. And while seeing their neighbours and bitter rivals Inter win the Serie A title last season would have hurt, the fact they managed to salvage a return to the pinnacle of European excellence would have somewhat softened the blow. However, for all of Stefano Pioli’s hard work, they were dealt a tough hand with their group.
There were always going to be obstacles in the way of regaining their old legacy but a group consisting of Liverpool, Porto and Atlético Madrid was always going to be difficult — especially when they began the campaign without their main talisman Zlatan Ibrahimović, although 39 now, still one of the most potent attackers around. That is not to say recruitment hasn’t been shrewd in more recent times at the San Siro, especially when you consider the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Sandro Tonali arrived from Brescia a long with Fikayo Tomori from Chelsea and Mike Maignan from French champions Lille, bolstering the sides strength in depth which will be tested as Pioli’s side attempt to compete on all fronts.
First stop was Anfield. The carnival like atmosphere looked to have overwhelmed the young, exuberant side when they went 1-0 down early doors to a deflected own goal from a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross and when Ismaël Bennacer gave away a penalty the game could have been dead and buried. Fortunately, a rare Mohamed Salah miss from twelve yards salvaged a lifeline which served as a catalyst for a short-lived comeback — two goals in two minutes put Milan ahead before the interval.
Although they were ahead, Pioli’s side never really looked convincing and when Jordan Henderson put his side in front it was almost impossible to surge another comeback. A bitter pill to swallow but certainly an encouraging start for a team lacking this much European experience.
The next task was current Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. Diego Simeone’s side have reached the final on two occasions but were beaten on both by rivals Real Madrid. Stepping into the San Siro, Milan controlled initial proceedings, with the low block employed by the visitors almost instantly. It is a system in which rarely changes for the Spaniards as they are capable of soaking up pressure and springing counter attacks to devastating effect. Although the game plan had to be rethought when Rafael Leão put the hosts ahead after twenty minutes. A dream start.
More naivety quickly showed when Franck Kessié, who simply looked out of his depth at Anfield, was shown a red card just nine minutes after Leão’s opener. It was a blatant card for an unnecessary tackle, perhaps in a flush of passion and emotion as a bi-product of the goal. It forced Milan to drop deeper and whilst they had hung on well in a manner akin to the old days, it was inevitable they would concede and a well stuck Antoine Griezmann volley in the 84th minute pulled the visitors level.
While one point from two games looks bad on paper, with the context of the opposition they would have taken it but a handball in injury time gave Atléti a penalty which Luis Suárez was never going to miss. The Uruguayan converted coolly and sunk Milan to bottom of the group.
While their hopes of qualification look bleak, there is a doubleheader up next against Porto who were on the wrong end of a 5-1 drubbing to Liverpool in their last game. The Champions League betting tips from Paddy Power see this as an even game but if Milan are to continue their European campaign in any format, then points here will be crucial.