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Saturday, Dec. 8, 2007

SOCCER SCENE

Doubts linger over older AC Milan


AC Milan's arrival this week for the Club World Cup added a dash of the requisite glamour that was never going to be provided by last night's spectacle between Waitekere United and Sepahan, but doubts linger over whether the Italian giants' aging stars will be able to light up the tournament.

James Mulligan

The Milanese band of veterans' wretched league form of late in Serie A — they stand 16 points behind city rival Inter Milan with less than half the season gone — suggests a terminal decline has set in among a team that just seven months ago won the Champions League.

No matter if the heart is willing, when a player's legs go, they go quickly and it is quickly becoming apparent that many of the squad are creaking toward the end of their Milan careers.

Thirtysomethings pepper the Milan ranks. 'Keeper Dida is 34. Captain and defender Paolo Maldini, 39. Defender Cafu, 37. Striker Filippo Inzaghi, 34. Midfielder Clarence Seedorf, 32. Defender Alessandro Nesta, 32. Winger Serginho, 36. The list goes on.

The Milanese have hardly helped in reducing the average age of their squad with their recent recruitment policy. A main summer signing was 32-year-old Brazilian midfielder Emerson, a player of feline grace in his pomp with Roma and Juventus but whose performances had lost their luster during his time at Real Madrid.

News photo
AC Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti (left) poses with his players (from left) Paolo Maldini, Alberto Gilardino and Kakha Kaladze, following their press conference at the FIFA Club World Cup on Friday in Yokohama. AP PHOTO

Ronaldo is another castoff from Real to arrive this year. There are no arguments that the striker with a penchant for a good night on the tiles has been on the wane for years. Real didn't want him, so why did Milan?

The Italians are going to have to make some tough, if not potentially unpopular, decisions over the next few months if a radical overhaul is to be executed in the summer.

While Maldini said Friday that he wouldn't be bringing forward his plan to retire at the season's end despite the strict limitations on playing time his body is imposing, his plan to quit at the end of his current contract in August 2008 still stands. For others, the decision will not be theirs to make.

There is an argument that a fresh start must include a fresh coach and Carlo Ancelotti should be worried when not only Jose Mourinho is out of a job but also former Milan boss Fabio Capello.

Mourinho has been consistently linked to the post since leaving Chelsea and the appointment would have made the most sense until Marco Van Basten confirmed he would be stepping down as Dutch coach after the Euro 2008 finals.

Van Basten, of course, was one of the three Dutchman, along with Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit, brought to the club in the late 1980s to star in what was the first of the great modern Milan teams.

For a season or two, until injury cruelly curtailed his career before he turned 30, Van Basten was arguably the world's greatest player and his appointment as Milan coach would be a hugely popular choice among the fans.

Indeed, owner Silvio Berlusconi is wont to promote those from within — Ancelotti starred alongside Van Basten et al., while Capello also played in the red and black shirt.

Any new coach will, of course, not be presented with a whole squad fit for the knackers' yard. Ballon d'Or winner Kaka, the world's greatest player, is a heck of a starting point for someone building a new side.

The 21-year-old French midfielder Yoann Gourcuff, tipped for a couple of seasons now as the new Zinedine Zidane, is another who represents Milan's future.

A hugely encouraging signing for the Milanese is that of 18-year-old Alexandre Pato — or "Alex the Duck" — who starred for Internacional at last year's Club World Cup. The $30 million arrival, hailed by Milan vice president Adriano Galliani as "the best young player in the world," will eligible to play from January.

In their defense, the Milanese can point to two Champions League titles and a runnerup finish in the last four seasons, which is a pretty irrefutable argument as to the quality of the team in recent years. And their canter into the knockout stages of the Champions League this year also adds weight to the argument that is not necessarily the end for the current Milan incarnation.

This European success, though, also supports the theory that Milan increasingly is a side able to perform when the occasion calls for it but not consistently over a whole season. They have won the Italian League just once since the turn of the millennium.

It will be intriguing to see whether the Club World Cup is deemed important enough among Milan's World Cup and Champions League winners for them to perform to the level of dizzying brilliance of which they are sometimes capable.

The sneaking suspicion, though, is that it is not and so they won't, and that will make for a depressing spectacle in a tournament that, on the evidence of Friday night's opener, sorely needs an injection of world-class play that only Milan or South American rival Boca Juniors are capable of providing.



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