Sinisa Mihajlovic has AC Milan poised for a return to the Champions League
This Saturday makes it 30 years since a helicopter descended on Milanello like a scene from Apocalypse Now. The gust from the rotor blades stirred the leaves from the ground, bringing the players out of the clubhouse to see what all the commotion was about. Stepping out from the chopper was Silvio Berlusconi, Milan's new owner and lifelong fan.
"I always dreamt of getting on the end of one of Gianni Rivera's passes and scoring," the wide-eyed billionaire had revealed a month earlier. "On Thursdays as a boy, I used to dream about Gunnar Nordahl scoring at the weekend. Then on Mondays, I sought to imitate him in the playground. Getting involved in Milan is like being young again."
A commemorative visit to Milanello is planned for this weekend. Lunch with the current squad of players is on the cards and all the memories come flooding back. The good and bad. From winning the European Cup final 4-0 just three years after buying the club, every tier of every stand at the Camp Nou decked out in red and black, to Istanbul.
"We have gone to eight Champions League finals in my time at the club," Berlusconi said in Wednesday's La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I want to make it 10 within the next five years." Steady now, Silvio. There is absolutely nothing wrong with ambition. It got you where you are today. "But we mustn't mislead the fans," Giacomo Bonaventura said when Milan began 2016 with a defeat to Bologna at San Siro.
Berlusconi's daughter Barbara echoed those thoughts after a Mario Balotelli penalty was all that separated Milan from third-division Alessandria in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semifinal. "We have got to be honest and upfront with the fans," she said. Rather than unrealistic. "Our objective this season is [qualification for] the Europa League."
Milan are sixth at the moment, just as they were at the time Barbara broke rank and finally said what everyone other than her father and fellow chief executive Adriano Galliani had been saying for months. Same place, different prospects. Not enough to get carried away like Berlusconi senior, but reason for cautious optimism.
The aforementioned loss to Bologna on Jan. 6 is the only one that Milan have suffered in the space of a three-month, 16-game stretch in all competitions. After lots of trial and error, coach Sinisa Mihajlovic now knows his best team and does not change it unless forced by injury or suspension. After beginning the season with Diego Lopez in goal, Keisuke Honda at the tip and Nigel de Jong at the base of a midfield diamond and Luiz Adriano partnering Carlos Bacca in attack, the spine of the team and its system has evolved.
The turning point came at the end of October, when Mihajlovic took a risk and promoted 16-year-old goalkeeping wunderkind Gianluigi Donnarumma. Captain Riccardo Montolivo was brought back in from the cold to give Milan a range of passing De Jong could not. Honda and Bonaventura were moved from inside to out and now play on the wing in a 4-4-2, and M'baye Niang returned from injury to make a fast front line even faster.
Unlike cousins Inter, who name a different starting XI in a different formation every week, Milan have an identity and have gained peace of mind through it. Every player knows their role. Selection continuity helps understanding develop between teammates, and as results have picked up, so too has self-esteem. If progress has for the most part been steady and unspectacular, it has quickened its pace of late.
The 3-0 win in the Derby della Madonnina felt like a breakthrough moment. You can't say that Milan hadn't been building toward it through January. Their second-half display against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico deserved more than a point, and they also comfortably beat Fiorentina 2-0 at San Siro. Trouncing Inter was not only immensely gratifying in and of itself within the context of their rivalry, it also provided the definitive confirmation that a recent upturn in results was not another false dawn, but something genuine.
The demons of the past couple of years have been exorcised. All the emotional baggage Milan have been carrying has now been left behind. To free them of it, Mihajlovic has shown himself worthy of a degree in psychology. A team that scared easily is now unafraid even of going to Napoli on Monday night. Just listen to Honda, for instance, who has been key to Milan's resurgence: "We need to go there and get at least a point," he said.
Very bullish, isn't it? Especially when you consider Napoli have yet to lose at the San Paolo in Serie A this season. However, that's the mood within the Milan camp at the moment. It's the mentality Mihajlovic has worked to impose. Only Juventus and Napoli have better records in 2016. Milan have been averaging 2.14 points per game since the turn of the year.
There has been a nine-point swing between them and Inter. Two points is now all that separates the pair, and the Champions League is within six -- a dot on the horizon but by no means out of reach, particularly with Fiorentina involved in the Europa League and stuttering in Serie A in the past month.
"We're in better shape than the others [challenging for third spot]," Mihajlovic said last week. "Psychologically, physically, in the intensity with which we play. We're in better nick than the competition."
It's not hyperbole, either. Donnarumma promises to be the next Gianluigi Buffon. Alex rolled back the years in the derby. The much-maligned Montolivo, once whistled, is now being substituted so he can receive standing ovations. "Just from meeting fans in the street, I can tell the mood has changed," he said. He leads the league in ball recoveries and interceptions. Bonaventura is Mr. Consistent and arguably remains Italy's most underrated player. Honda is playing his best football in Italy, and Bacca and Niang have scored eight of Milan's past 11 goals.
"If Ancelotti had stayed, Carlos would be at Real Madrid now," Galliani said when asked for this thoughts on Milan's lethal striker. The Colombia international has scored 13 goals in the league, 10 of which have been with his first shot on target. Only Antonio Sanabria, the Sporting Gijon forward, has a better conversion rate than Bacca (35.1 percent) in Europe's top five leagues this season.
Milan are still a sparkling wine, not yet champagne in Mihajlovic's humble opinion, and evidently margins of improvement remain. But if Milan qualify for the Champions League and reach the final of the Coppa Italia, and maybe even win it for the first time since 2003, his first year in red and black would go down as a relative success.
There's a debate as to whether the Napoli game comes at a good time for Milan. On the one hand, it couldn't be any better: They are in the best form they've been in all season. Not involved in Europe, they will also be more rested than their opponents. But on the other hand, Napoli threaten to clip the wings that Milan have only just started to spread. It could be a defining moment in their season.
Berlusconi's desire for his club to reach the final of the Champions League twice in the next five years does not appear grounded in reality. But Milan's prospective return to the competition for the first time in two years no longer seems outlandish. Not under Mihajlovic.
James contributes to ESPN FC, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.