SB Nation Italy's Serie A previews conclude with AC Milan, last year's scudetto winners. We've asked Gianfranco Barbato for his views on the season ahead because we could think of no one better than the expert behind AC Milan Offside.
Entering the season as the reigning Scudetto Champions brings back fond memories for most Milan fans, but seeing as this is our first reminder in seven years it is best not to dwell on recent success and focus squarely on the challenge ahead. They say winning cures all that ails you, and in Milan's case the uncertainties of last season's aging roster and new arrivals made for an interesting start of the season, but the prize at the end of the road put all that negativity behind. Gone is the uncertainty of last season and in its place is the expectation of retaining the Serie A title and adding to Milan's trophy cabinet.
For many, Massimo Allegri was a relative unknown, a Coach who cut his teeth in lower tier Serie A teams, and climbed the proverbial Coaching ladder. While it took him some time to instill his own image on the tactics of the team, when he was finished he had created a Milan team comfortable in possession, bullish in defense, and elegant in attack. Boasting Serie A's best offensive and defensive record, it is the defense that proved the backbone of this team. If Allegri can continue to build on this defensive foundation and continue to receive a steady stream of goals from an electric attack comprising of the dynamic Brazilians, Pato and Robinho, the giant Swede, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the wiley Antonio Cassano, and evergreen Pippo Inzaghi, then he may have success for a second season.
Pirlo: A once and a lifetime player, and arguably one of the most visionary passers of the last decade. Allegri and Milan decided to move on without the services of Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo, unhappy with a short term contract offer, decided to ply his trade for Juventus. Never a good practice to sell to a direct rival; Milan will hope this move works out in the long run. For Milan fans it wasn't easy to say good bye to such a special player, but the thought of the team moving in a new direction is just as exciting.
Taye Taiwo: I have been an admirer of the Nigerian for quite awhile now. Having watched him since his time at OM, I am glad he has finally made his way to Milan, and on a free transfer to boot, a great piece of business all around. Strong, durable, and an excellent motor makes him an imposing figure at left back and a handful going forward. His defense needs work, but there is no better league to learn defense than in Italy, and no matter teacher than Mauro Tassotti. What once was a liability of AC Milan, the outside back position may finally return to glory with Abate and Taiwo.
Philippe Mexes: Not sure what to make of this move, the price was surely right, but the risk is fairly high. Coming off a pretty serious knee injury, if his pace doesn't return he may lack the mobility and speed that Milan really need in center back depth. Ideally he is the third CB, but that is all dependant on fitness. There is also the little problem of the two red card per season average, that lack of discipline won't fly at Milan, and hopefully he can stay fit, disciplined and on the pitch. He has talent, let's just hope he can remember that fact.
Stephan El Shaarawi: The Little Pharaoh is an interesting signing. Young and full of promise, it is the type of signing formula that Milan has shown to be successful in the past. Buy young, and let the player develop and become the star the Club thinks he can be. Drawing comparisons to both Kaka and Baggio, the talent is there, the size and experience is not. Milan desperately needs a player to link the defense to the attack, and without putting too much pressure and expectations on the youngster, his success will be crucial to Milan's future.
What to Expect from 2011-2012
It is easy to claim the desire for more trophies but a more efficient and competitive AC Milan is the real expectation. Watching Milan struggle in last year's Champions League due to a lack of depth and versatility in personnel was difficult, a team historically dominant in Europe's showpiece competition has not been successful since last lifting the trophy in 2007. While I don't harbor a strong belief that Milan is a true contender, a stronger showing coupled with a little bit of luck may go a long way. Retaining the Title domestically is certain expecation, but adding a Coppa Italia to go with this year's SuperCoppa would make for a successful season on all fronts.
Potential Breakout Star
We witnessed Tiago Silva become a truly exceptional Center Back last season, and I think this season's breakout star comes from the defense as well. Milan has always had a legacy of strong fullbacks in Maldini, Costacurta, Tassotti, and Cafu and Ignazio Abate looks poised to carry the mantle. His defensive lapses are almost extinct, and his forays forward are electric and full of pace. His crossing has improved and his ability last season to give trouble to both Cristiano Ronaldo and Samuel Eto prove he has the fearless mentality of the defenders before him. It will only be a matter of time before Cesare Prandelli has no choice but to call up the Milan right back.
It is always easy to look at an attack like Milan's and say that a player like Zlatan is crucial to the team's success. Many seem to forget that while he carried the team early in the season, it was at the end of the season, without him, that Milan seemed to find the identity of an entire team, and not Zlatan dependant. Robinho's propensity to get into dangerous areas and create chances should make him a key man in the attack, and if he finishes the chances he squandered last season we may see a player capable of scoring thirty goals.
Mark Van Bommel and Massimo Ambrosini, two very similar players in the central midfield role, will provide leadership and give Allegri the strong defensive presence in the middle of the park. Both players are on the wrong side of thirty, so rotation will most likely be employed to keep the fit and healthy over the length of the season in filling this vital role to Allegri's Milan.
I hate predictions! You either come out looking like an oracle or an overzealous super fan. For me retaining the title is crucial, restore Milan's domestic glory while the team builds and progresses toward the success in Europe that was once the expectation of each and every Milan team. Can they win the Champions League this season? Probably not, but it doesn't mean they can't be competitive on all fronts and show that Italy and the Serie A are not in a catastrophic decline.