“Milan, Milan, only with you…” go the words of the club hymn, the song a familiar sound to anyone who has attended a match at San Siro as it blasts out around the historic venue that has seen so many glorious moments.
The famous names to have pulled on the instantly recognisable red-and-black stripes reads like a who’s who of world football, and no stadium in Italy quite able to match the big match atmosphere generated when the Meazza is full.
Sadly over recent years those occasions have been few and far between, the team slipping into mid-table mediocrity. Yet this summer has seen the new owners quickly set about demolishing the malaise that had begun to seep into every part of the club.
Where once Silvio Berlusconi used the club to raise his profile and popularity, Chinese entrepreneur Yonghong Li – a 48-year-old who even his own compatriots know little about – now seems hellbent on doing the same.
The sale took months to complete, a saga that looked repeatedly doomed, but even when it was finalised there was very little talk coming from Yonghong Li and his collaborators.
While he may not have landed at the training ground in a helicopter and has none of the brash pomposity so synonymous with his predecessor, Milan’s owner appears to have quickly grasped the notion that, when it comes to Italian football, money talks.
Milan finished sixth last term, 28 points behind league winners Juventus and 23 away from a Champions League berth. That more than highlighted the gulf they needed to bridge, and new sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli was also acutely aware that they would enter the Europa League in late July, more than a month before Serie A got underway.
Incredibly, he has sliced through Italy’s notoriously slow and ponderous transfer market to already complete signings for four players.
Central defender Mateo Musacchio was part of a Villarreal backline that conceded the second-fewest goals in La Liga, while left-back Ricardo Rodriguez was a target for Arsenal.
Franck Kessie was wanted by Antonio Conte at Chelsea but rejected them and Roma to join the Rossoneri, before the stunning acquisition of one of Europe’s most promising young strikers shocked everyone.
“When I retire, Portugal will be in good hands because they have already found a great striker: Andre Silva,” Cristiano Ronaldo told La Gazzetta dello Sport, and now the 21-year-old will lead the line for Milan.
Serie A will have four spots in Europe’s elite competition next term, but while rivals Fiorentina, Inter and Roma all appointed new men in recent weeks, the Rossoneri had Vincenzo Montella firmly established on the bench.
Even with the future uncertain and his squad seriously flawed, the coach worked on improving their defence last season and that will stand them in good stead moving forward.
Centre-back Alessio Romagnoli continues to blossom into a cornerstone of a genuine contender while goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is arguably the most talented teenager in the sport.
His contract situation will need to be resolved, but a recent interview allayed many fears among the club’s supporters after months of agent Mino Raiola performing his usual routine.
“Everyone knows that my wish is to stay at Milan,” Donnarumma told GQ.
Fans of the Rossoneri will hope that is more than a convenient soundbite, but what Yonghong Li, Mirabelli and Montella have done is provide the supporters two gifts they needed: hope and enthusiasm.
Serie A has always been at its most potent when the red-and-black half of San Siro has been among the title contenders.
It appears that this Serie A giant has finally reawakened after sleepwalking through the last few seasons. How long before this great club is celebrating once again?
Life runs at a different speed on the heaving, intoxicating streets of Bangkok. This bustling southeast-Asian city, which represents the latest stop on the UAE’s testing path to World Cup 2018, boasts a cornucopia of sights and sounds, as climate-controlled megamalls in sophisticated Sukhumvit contrast wildly with the otherworldly neon-lit streets of the infamous Khao San Road.
Time flashes by on slender thoroughfares packed with cars, tuk-tuks and distractions. This ephemeral sense of moments racing by is surely now familiar to new coach Edgardo Bauza, who couldn’t be blamed for feeling his first fortnight spent with a squad full of unfamiliar faces has been all too brief ahead of Tuesday’s critical World Cup 2018 qualifier against Thailand.
But it is into this maelstrom that the man – sacked by his native Argentina in April after just eight unsatisfying matches – has been thrust into.
There is no luxury of a bedding in period for someone whose Middle Eastern experience stretches to five months at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in 2009, no opportunity to make amends at a later date if his opening steps are out of sync.
The tactician who was unable to craft a tune out of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel Di Maria and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain, must now prove he can secure the White’s second-ever entry to the World Cup with the foreign talents of Al Jazira marksman Ali Mabkhout, Al Ahli’s Ahmed Khalil and versatile Al Nasr tyro Tariq Ahmed.
The stakes could not be higher for the current UAE Football Association hierarchy. If the candidate chosen after an unnecessarily sinuous route to a successor for Mahdi Ali gets off to a false start, then the ‘Golden Generation’ they inherited last year will never get to play a World Cup at their peak.
A loss will mathematically end all third-and-final round hopes, with a draw of little use. Successfully navigating the Road to Russia, apparently, represented the predestined apogee of a group of players who stormed to 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship, ran-out at the London 2012 Olympics, lifted the 2013 Gulf Cup and finished an incredible third at the 2015 Asian Cup.
Nothing less than three points now are required from Bauza’s competitive debut. Fail to do so and there will be no trip to Russia next summer, while the pressure should ramp up to excel on home soil, no matter how far away the 2019 Asian Cup feels right now.
But this is just one of the tests he must pass. An inability to do so at the ageing Rajamangala National Stadium, of which the uneven pitch hardly appears conducive to the exemplary playmaking skills of Omar Abdulrahman, cannot be countenanced and no excuse accepted.
The early signs appear promising. A warm-up against Laos last Wednesday finished in an impressive 4-0 thrashing. With the outmoded 4-4-2 formation of Ali consigned to the past, detailed work on the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 utilised throughout the Arabian Gulf League – and favoured by Bauza during his career – has been undertaken.
Although against opposition ranked just 172 in the world by FIFA, a clean sheet was kept and the scoring instincts of two-goal Mabkhout and Khalil remained in evidence.
Bauza has been hands-on and engaging on training pitches in Dubai, Malaysia and Bangkok in the last two weeks. Not even the sticky, mosquito-ridden conditions of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in the last few days could bridle the enthusiasm and dedication of the 59-year-old.
With an Arabic/ Spanish translator by his side and whistle regularly put to his mouth, his new charges were willing pupils as they got to hear a new master’s voice after a decade spent under Ali’s vigil for various youth and senior sides.
Where timing has definitely been on Bauza’s favour is in meeting Thailand – nicknamed the War Elephants – at this juncture. Vice-captain and 40-goal striker Teerasil Dangda’s forced pull-out through injury yesterday saw him become the fifth certain starter consigned to the stands for Serbian Milovan Rajevac unpropitious competitive bow.
The hosts also sit bottom of Group B, with just one point gained from seven deflating matches. Bauza must prevail this evening in a steamy Bangkok. If he does not, the repercussions will stain what should have been UAE football’s glory years.
Manchester United finished sixth in the Premier League and their only chance of Champions League qualification is if they beat Ajax in the Europa League Final on Wednesday night,
While they look to achieve that, the question in our Monday debate is: Have Manchester United improved under Jose Mourinho’s management?
Let us know your thoughts as our two writers discuss the topic.
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MATTHEW JONES, SAYS YES
It’s easy to look at the table and use yet another disappointing Manchester United Premier League finish as a stick to beat Jose Mourinho with. Comparisons to predecessors Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes have saturated football media throughout the season.
But in just about every way, Mourinho has improved United. They may have finished sixth but are three points better off at the end of this season compared to last.
Mourinho’s United lost just five times (Van Gaal lost eight in his first season) while he has improved the Red Devils at the back – their 29 goals conceded only bettered by Spurs’ 26. Van Gaal’s United conceded 35 last term.
Hugely significant is all the clubs above United, every one improved their points haul compared to last season – especially Chelsea who finished 43 better off to claim the title.
The Portuguese established the team’s best unbeaten run at Old Trafford since 2011 while their 25-game unbeaten league run surpassed the club’s best-ever sequence in a top-flight season.
Jose Mourinho has given Premier League debuts to six academy players in his first season at Manchester United.— Duncan Castles (@DuncanCastles) May 21, 2017
Never plays youth... #MUFC
The football has been infinitely better than the monotonous possession-based style the Dutchman was obsessed with. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have injected pace and purpose, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 17 league goals is the joint highest since Robin van Persie’s 26 in Fergie’s final season.
It’s also light years ahead of the drudgery under Moyes, who stripped away layers of invincibility United spent years cultivating trying to jolt them from their traditional swashbuckling swagger in place of Everton-like pragmatism. Mourinho won the EFL Cup – the first United manager to win a trophy on debut, with the Europa League final to come – which United have never won.
They remain some way off returning to the all-conquering, trophyhogging juggernaut they were. But ask any fan if they are more optimistic about next season than any of the previous four post-Ferguson and the answer will be a unanimous ‘yes’.
CHRIS BAILEY, SAYS NO
Optimists were expecting Jose Mourinho to bring a fire extinguisher to Old Trafford – instead he has doused their problems in petrol.
This is a man who has based his entire career on short-termism; the ability to sweep into a club, foster team spirit and whip up a siege mentality that keeps the spotlight on him rather than the players.
Marry that to an extremely effective, if bland style of football and little wonder Ed Woodward was cosying up to Jorge Mendes, Mourinho’s agent, before Louis van Gaal had even hoisted the FA Cup.
There was no way Jose’s magic would not restore United to their rightful place. Woodward fell foul of the problem of induction: just because Mourinho had been instantly successful elsewhere, doesn’t mean it would happen again.
He left Chelsea under a jet-black cloud midway through a season that would go down, if not for Leicester City, as the most abject title defence in Premier League history. The defeats were only the start of it.
6 – Only in 2004-05 have Manchester United had as many 0-0 draws in a @premierleague season as the six they have in 2016-17. Deadlock.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 17, 2017
Alienating his key players, moaning about transfer dealings and his treatment of doctor Eva Carneiro were all warning signs that United happily swept under their red carpet.
Now the man whose attitude has always been on the dangerous side of smouldering has infected another dressing room with his ill temper. Luke Shaw – a 21-year-old coping with a horrendous injury – has been a public target, as have Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Anthony Martial.
Even Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, whose form and fitness are patchy at best, do not deserve to be questioned in full view.
Do not let one EFL Cup or a Europa League final fool you. That he has added ‘world class’ players in Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly only to finish sixth is poor enough without all the drama.
Even Pep Guardiola at Manchester City would be a dead man walking with such a record. Mourinho burns down bridges everywhere he goes, only this time he is unlikely to pave them with gold before he leaves.