For all Barcelona’s recent European magic, the Champions League remains synonymous with AC Milan and Real Madrid above all others. Those are the teams that spring to mind when conjuring memories of famous European nights – and the history books back that up. Combining the European Cup and Champions League eras, Real Madrid – nine – and Milan – seven – sit at the top of the competition winners leaderboard.
Since the tournament took on the “Champions League” name in 1992, so many of the great performers have worn the white of Los Blancos or the red and black of the Rossoneri. From the Real Galacticos like Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo and Luis Figo to wily champions such as Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Clarence Seedorf and Kaka.
Milan took the plaudits in 1994, 2003 and 2007 – as well as narrowly missing out in the 2005 thriller against Liverpool – while Real Madrid’s hat-trick of Champions League wins came in 1998, 2000 and 2002. Two great clubs with great histories. But the past five years have been far less fruitful, with both battling turmoil and heartache. Forced to take a back seat as Barcelona, Manchester United, Inter and Bayern Munich made the headlines, a shot at redemption has been eagerly awaited.
Though Real Madrid have had their struggles, it is the Maldini-less Italians who have taken the larger dip and have become the bigger hard luck story. While Jose Mourinho led the Spaniards to the semi-finals last season, Milan have not progressed beyond the Round of 16 stage since going all the way in 2007. Disappointing losses to Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur were hard to take – and missing out on the competition altogether in 2008/09 was even harder. Just five years after producing T-shirts with the phrase ‘L’Europa siamo noi’ that proclaimed their dominance, Milan could no longer hold their own in a competition that had always brought out the best in them.
There had been obvious concerns about the age of the Rossoneri squad throughout their glory years. But such criticisms did not carry much weight when Maldini, Seedorf, Andriy Shevchenko and company fought their way to three finals in five years. Of course, Maldini was entering the final stages of his illustrious career. Sure, a midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf had its limitations against younger, quicker teams. And yes, Filippo Inzaghi was finding it tougher to outfox defences. But the results – and the silverware – spoke for themselves.
No team was better at grinding out results on their travels with an ultra-disciplined game plan one week, then opening the game up at the San Siro the next. Time and again, experience trumped youth. So it is hard to blame Milan for keeping faith with the old heads and trying to suck as much glory out of that era as possible. However, when Maldini retired, Kaka headed to the Bernabeu and old father time began to catch up with key players, the barren spell began.
But signs of improvement have been evident over the past 12 months, with the Rossoneri winning Serie A last season, ushering in a new era built on a more athletic, eye-catching style of play, and sitting top of the table again this campaign. And the 4-0 victory over Arsenal in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg was the biggest statement yet.
One look at the teamsheet from that one-sided first leg confirms that a new chapter is under way at the San Siro. Older names like Alessandro Nesta and Massimo Ambrosini took their places on the bench while newer faces Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonini, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Antonio Nocerino prospered, taking centre stage. Up front, a motivated Zlatan Ibrahimovic put in a masterclass alongside the enigmatic Robinho. The Italians had a whopping 16 shots on goal and, whereas former Milan sides would have been willing to absorb their opponents’ opening salvos, this group has shown a preference for landing the first blow.
There is a greater freedom in the Rossoneri ranks, more match-winners and a sense of belief that rivals former Milan sides. Boss Massimiliano Allegri has breathed new life into his squad without ever taking away the core values that made Maldini’s era so special. After several painful years, the fans have fully bought into this new chapter.
Allegri dubbed the performance against the Gunners as “the perfect match” and “the best game we’ve played this year”. Barring a miracle at the Emirates in the second leg, the four-goal advantage puts Milan in the draw for the last eight. But the humbling of Arsene Wenger’s men meant more than just a smooth passage to the next round. It was a reminder to the rest of Europe that Milan are back and ready to reclaim their position among Europe’s elite.