AC Milan in need of an overhaul
AC Milan has reached two Champions League finals in the last five years
Aging of team, sale of Kaká to Real Madrid have set Milan's fortunes in decline
For team to regain former glory, it should undertake massive overhaul of roster
Enough is enough. For years AC Milan has followed the same mantra: We're very close, we just need a couple of tweaks and we'll be in with a shot.
And, to be fair, for a long time it worked. Even as Milan failed to seriously compete for the Serie A title in the last five seasons (except for 2005-06, which, of course, was wiped away by the Calciopoli scandal), it still managed to reach two Champions League finals (winning one) and one semifinal.
But that was smoke-and-mirrors stuff. The true strength of a team is measured in league competitions, not in cups, where luck and happenstance play a disproportionate role. Milan had hung in there thanks to the drive of an incredible generation of players who persevered well into their 30s and thanks to a genuine superstar, Kaká.
Age finally caught up to the former, and the latter was sold to Real Madrid. Game. Set. Match.
Truth be told, Milan wasn't as far from winning as Wednesday's 4-0 score at Manchester United indicated. Imagine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Ronaldinho and Alessandro Nesta converting their chances in the first leg of the Champions League round-of-16 matchup. Imagine Paul Scholes not getting a lucky shank into the back of Milan's net. And imagine the odd missed chance at Old Trafford going the other way and you could have had a different result. Except the game does not work that way. You do not get all the breaks, and that, frankly, was the only way Milan was going to get the better of United.
But even if Milan had advanced, it would likely only have prolonged the agony and offered false hope. This is a team that ought to be blown up and rebuilt. In fact, last summer would have been a good time to do it, given the $100-odd million raised from the sale of Kaká.
Instead, most of the money went unspent (or, more likely, was used to address the profligacy of earlier seasons). The only meaningful signing was Huntelaar, who has turned out to be a bust. Which maybe, given his difficulties at Real Madrid, should not have come as such a surprise.
It's not as if coach Leonardo did not try the smoke-and-mirrors approach. Nesta, defying logic and medicine, returned after a year on the sidelines and, at 33, came close to his pre-2006 form, when his bad knee turned him into a part-time player. But such heroics should be a bonus, not the kind of thing you need to count on to put out a decent central defense.
Look at the rest of Milan's defenders, the veterans, the guys who should have made a difference. Daniele Bonera has been injury-prone throughout his career (he started 30 league games in a season only twice in nine years), and this year has been no different. Gianluca Zambrotta, brought back in 2008, is 33 and was unwanted at Barcelona. Massimo Oddo, who is also 33, returned to Milan after being unwanted at Bayern. Marek Jankulovski, 32, has been injury-free only twice in the past four years. Beppe Favalli is 38. Do we see a pattern here?
The fact that Milan's two most consistent fullbacks have been Ignazio Abate (a recycled winger) and Luca Antonini, a middling role player in mid-career picked up from Siena, tells you all you need to know. Some serious surgery is required here. Keep Christian Abbiati and Thiago Silva, upgrade everywhere else in the back five.
In midfield, Andrea Pirlo has been a mainstay for nearly a decade and should continue to be one. Though he has had a disappointing season -- by his standards -- he's 30 and is good for a few more years.
But major interventions are required around him. Rino Gattuso, at 32, isn't the player he was, and Leonardo evidently thinks so, too, given the number of times he has benched him. Giving him a new deal -- through 2012 -- was clearly a mistake, the kind that smacks of the old Milan, the one that kept everyone around and banked on individual heroics.
Massimo Ambrosini turns 33 in May; you can keep him around as a leader, but it isn't wise to predicate your defensive midfield on him. Mathieu Flamini, signed with much fanfare two years ago, has contributed little, but he's 26. The rest of the season should be one long audition for him so that Leonardo can figure out if he can play on this team. If he can't, he should go, too.
Clarence Seedorf turns 34 on April Fool's Day. Keep him around as a role player, a guy to teach the youngsters, but don't give him a key role. It's insane to think that somebody that age can consistently be the link between midfield and attack, especially when he's surrounded by too many guys who, like him, are long in the tooth.
David Beckham's loan will come to an end and that will take care of itself. Nice experiment, nice guy; he did his part, but, again, enough of the Golden Oldies.
Even Ronaldino, who at 29 has shown he can regain his mojo, can only do it for a few minutes at a time. He's like those superstars who lose their powers but can summon their greatness for short stretches. If -- and it's a big if -- Milan freshens up the side and fills it with guys who can both run and play, then maybe it can get away with another season of Dinho. If not, it's time to make a painful decision.
Elsewhere up front, Huntelaar and Marco Borriello get in each other's way. Milan should probably ditch the former -- if it finds a taker -- and return the latter to his real role: as a part-time target who can make an impact in certain games, against certain opponents. It's not a slight on Borriello; he's had a good season and is in the frame for the Azzurri, but he's not a week-in, week-out Serie A player. This is a man who has scored more than two goals in a Serie A season just three times in eight years. He's a role player.
Alexandre Pato, of course, gets a second chance. He's been inconsistent, but the kid is still just 20.
And that leaves "Super" Pippo Inzaghi. His contract expires in June and he turns 37 in August. If you want to keep him around for novelty value, fine. Give him a pay-per-play deal. But the less time he gets on the pitch, the better.
Blow up the team. It's time. Abbiati, Thiago Silva, Pirlo and Pato are the only ones who should be confirmed as starters. Maybe Flamini and Antonini if there's nobody else. Keep a handful of the others as squad players if you can't get rid of them. But that's it.
The time has come to move on and make the kind of investment that has been long overdue.