To call AC Milan's season an anti-climax would be to imply that more was expected. In truth, it wasn't -- or at least shouldn't have been. The departures of some of the rossoneri's ageing former stars were not nearly as troubling as those of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva, though they combined to leave the team devastated, and in need of a serious revamp.
Considering the squad turnover involved in that overhaul, it's possible to argue that this season has been a success rather than an anti-climax. They have finally enacted a squad rebuilding process which had been delayed for too long, perhaps even more so by their title win a couple of seasons ago. That Scudetto victory ended a long streak of Serie A domination by rivals Inter Milan, though it seemed to paper over the structural crack: Milan still needed to replace the ailing players that remained prominent in their team -- a problem exacerbated when Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva left.
Finally realising this, Milan changed tack in the summer. It might not have seemed this way when they'd won just three times 13 games into the league season, though they have set about constructing a team which really should be more competitive next season. There are clearly still too many sub-par players hanging around Milanello, though the central core of their squad should have the ability to challenge Juventus' dominance.
"We are building a new Milan, so this is an achievement that takes time and passion," coach Max Allegri told La Gazzetta dello Sport, whilst commenting on how the team had adopted a youth-first approach in rebuilding. There is a tendency for this area to be over exaggerated, at least when it comes to the first team. Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio are both 20 and already Italian internationals. It's not overly hyperbolic to suggest that they have the potential to become world class. Outside that duo, though, and there's yet to be compelling evidence which would lead you to believe they'd placed blind faith in youth -- save for a few first team appearances by the as-of-yet unconvincing Mbaye Niang.
Instead, Milan have invested in more experienced, proven players wisely. Riccardo Montolivo and Nigel De Jong are both high-quality internationals, while Cristián Zapata is settling into the role as the preferred man to sit alongside Philippe Mexès in defence. That's not even mentioning the simply brilliant signing of Mario Balotelli in January, whose seven goals in eight games have him looking like the world class player sometimes obscured behind his infamous antics.
There are still question marks over the coaching credentials of Massimiliano Allegri, who always comes across as a faintly slapstick figure, gurning in the dugout and insisting on repeatedly yelling "dai!" ("come on!") as he stands on the edge of his technical area. Still, he has proven a willingness to adapt, this season dropping his dear old diamond formation for a more suitable 4-3-3, managing to turn around a season which got off to an unquestionably disastrous start. Ultimately, he has proven that he can win the title with a good enough team at his disposal, and the rossoneri seem to be on the right track.
At the moment, some areas of the squad still have to be strengthened. Goalkeeper Christian Abbiati looks set to be replaced, while another defender and midfielder wouldn't go amiss. Yet they've won nine of their last 14 games in all competitions, in a streak which has only seen them beaten by Barcelona.
The point is, they are a better side than the league table would suggest -- especially after signing Balotelli in January. For all of the fumbling and panicking over the summer, which saw them signing sub-standard players like Francesco Acerbi, and Djamel Mesbah in the transfer window before that (both of whom have now been shipped off to mid-table sides), Milan have still managed to sign proven players at relatively low prices. Married with some good fortune by way of a couple of talented youngsters of their own, they've given themselves an excellent base on which to build.
Qualifying for the Champions League must surely now be seen as a necessity, both to attract the best players and provide financial assistance to fund them, completing their process of strengthening while also preparing for the future. Still four points clear in the top three, a win against Juventus this weekend would go a long way to securing their place, and reasserting themselves as genuine title challengers once again.