Another crucial game, another questionably-awarded Balotelli penalty deep into Allegri time needed to secure... not even a result, per se, but the sparing of our blushes. On points, Milan remain competitive in their Champions League group- but if we take a moment to analyse our own feelings, is anyone particularly enthusiastic about us remaining there after last night's display? Is anyone still under the illusion that our 'strategy' of fumbling around looking for shape in the first half, improving the second once we've already gone a goal or two down, and desperately scrambling for points at the death is sustainable in a year where a wider range of European rivals from Dortmund to Barca to Napoli are on deadly form than we've seen in years?
I think the fact that we need to face up to at this stage is that progressing in tournaments and up the Serie A table is in no way the same as progress. Numerous times already this season, we've been sold the line that watching a Milan team struggling to find any sort of cohesion or identity rescue a draw from a not-significantly stronger opponent, or narrowly beat a significantly weaker one, is somehow better than watching us slump to defeat. This despite the fact that defeat, perhaps, that would force the club to rethink what exactly it is we're trying to achieve this season and how on Earth we intend to get there. The 'team play', Allegri tells us, merits more than recent scorelines suggest. As long as we can continue to scrape through these early ties, a run of form that will carry us back to the top three by Christmas will start to perpetuate itself. The result secured against Ajax, far from being a fig leaf over a performance that saw us register 30% possession in the first half as we failed to press our opponents or test the opposition keeper in any significant way, was a 'good point for qualification'.
The facts of the matter that were borne out on the pitch lead me to disagree. If you'll allow me to state my case bluntly, I'm fundamentally opposed to the idea of remaining in the CL just for the sake of being there. A point earned in this tournament is not a good point if it doesn't gesture towards improvement, towards Milan starting to demonstrate why exactly we deserve to be still rubbing shoulders with Europe's best. If failing to get the job done against Ajax would have prompted introspection- about our anemic attack, the atrocious state of our defense and the terrible communication problems in our midfield, all of which characterized our display in Amsterdam- then frankly I would rather we'd drank that medicine down than come away bizarrely thinking we'd somehow made some case for ourselves.
I'm not looking for flair, entertainment, scintillating attacking movement which tears our counterparts into ribbons from one match to another from this team right now. Discipline, teamwork, organisation- the ability to grind through 90 minutes on our own terms rather than having to wrest momentum back from the other side- these aspects alone will suffice for me. If Milan cannot prove from the first whistle that they possess the self-belief to overcome an opponent, regardless of the tactical approach we use to get there, then progression in Europe becomes an inherently self-defeating and pointless exercise.
Winning (or avoiding defeat) in the CL is not a box-ticking exercise. Every performance must stamp a mark of intent on the wider tournament itself. The win against Barca last season showed that the core of this team is capable of doing so- but the glimmer of that performance seems to fade into the distance more and more every day, and until we can find away of replicating it, every point earned is a point wasted. Showing conviction and ambition, rather than desperate and directionless survival instinct, is the only way of proving that Milan still deserve to compete with the greatest teams on the continent.