A financial takeover. Hundreds of millions spent on new players. Renewed fan energy. A stunning unbeaten run. A cup final.
And yet, AC Milan’s 2017-18 campaign will end as an utter failure.
The realization hit during the second half of the Coppa Italia final, as Juventus kicked into gear and put four goals past the heir apparent to the Italy net and an expensive collection of upgrades in front of him.
Juventus’ never-ending torture of Milan in the second half offered time for reflection on a season that offered so much promise.
After years of rumors and dramatic nothings, the Rossoneri finally assumed new ownership, and Milan fans were rewarded with a month of incredible additions. Andre Silva. Lucas Biglia. Hakan Calhanoglu. Riccardo Rodriguez. Andrea Conti. Leonardo Bonucci. Milan fans were rightly salivating. The long-desired change was coming.
But with the change came incredible pressure. Milan’s big spending put pressure on the club to finish in the top four of Serie A and qualify for the Champions League. Financial Fair Play can be unforgiving. Beyond the money, big additions to a historic club in a brutal drought are going to up the pressure to succeed. Milan have gone seven years without a major trophy and nearly a decade without European success, but the club is still the Italian giant with the second-most European titles ever. Expectations were understandably heightened after the summer.
Was the pressure unfair? Maybe. The top of Serie A is more competitive than it has been in years. This year produced a true title race for the first time in a long time. There’s a legitimate top-four battle in which a Champions League-caliber team will miss out. And Milan’s European place is still yet to be guaranteed.
That last bit is a bit more a concern with Milan’s performance this season than with the level of play in Serie A. With two matches remaining, Milan (60 points) must face Atalanta (59) and Fiorentina (57), two teams breathing down their necks in the race for the final Europa League spot.
Think about that. Milan were supposed to challenge for the top four this season. Instead, they are clinging to the final Europa League spot for dear life. Atalanta and Fiorentina are both good squads, but that the Rossoneri are fighting to hold them off for sixth place is a massive disappointment.
Milan did have a two-month stretch during which they did not lose for 13 matches across competitions, but that was preceded by disastrous results — losses to Verona and Atalanta along with a draw via a goalkeeper goal at Benevento — and followed by a run that included four straight draws bookended by losses to Juventus and, yes, Benevento.
That’s right. The Rossoneri took one point off Benevento. Milan are responsible for four of the Streghe’s 18 points this season. Failure to put away Serie A’s worst and underwhelming showings against the best have Milan sitting right where they were in 2017: sixth place. And with two matches remaining, it could get much, much worse.
Combine all that with the destruction at the hands of Arsenal in the Europa League last 16 and the Coppa Italia unraveling against Juventus, Milan have only moral victories to show for this season.
There is the big one, the obvious one, and that’s Gennaro Gattuso. Milan made the right move sacking Vincenzo Montella. The start of the season was disastrous. Gattuso inherited a club in shambles, and he did as well as anyone could have hoped for. In reality, top four was a pipe dream by the end of November. Gattuso just needed to turn things around, earn the trust of the executives and the fans. He did that, and he rightfully earned his contract extension.
Gattuso’s shining light was the 13-match unbeaten run. It was special. It was like an entirely different club than the before and after. Everyone was clicking. They were not an attacking juggernaut by any means, but Patrick Cutrone rose to the occasion. The defense was brilliant. It seemed like Milan could put together a run for top four after all.
But when it ended, reality set in. Milan are still a ways off the top four — rather, five (Inter have proven to be the better side, despite the recent draw in the derby) — in Serie A. For all the additions in the summer, they are not as good as they should be. The already-scarce goals dried up. Gianluigi Donnarumma and his defense returned to making shocking mistakes. It was tough to watch.
The Coppa Italia final confirmed that. Milan were run off the pitch in the second half. The entire team unravelled. It was another reminder this season has gone exactly the opposite way it should have.
So now what?
Well, first things first, Milan have to seal sixth place. There’s no getting around that. They have to take care of Atalanta and Fiorentina. No excuses. Failing to qualify for Europe will make this disastrous season even worse, and it will make it more difficult to reload and move forward.
But two weeks from now, important conversations will need to be had. Who stays with Gattuso? Who goes? How will Milan’s financial gamble last summer impact plans moving forward?
There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, thanks in part to the results this season...
...this utter failure of a season.