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Write Milan off at your peril

AC Milan's visit to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Wednesday evening could mark the end of an era, yet World Player of the Year Kaka is refusing to accept the sands of time have caught up with the reigning European champions.

The Rossonieri's Champions League triumph last May was a surprise success for a side who have long been viewed as more than a little past their sell-buy date, though there now seems to be tangible evidence that Athens 2007 was the final hurrah for a team who has struggled to recapture any semblance of their best form this season.

Veteran performers such as Paolo Maldini and Cafu have stumbled their way through a difficult few months for Milan, with the critics quick to claim their veteran status is the chief factor in their decline.

Out of the Serie A title race many months ago, coach Carlo Ancelotti is tipped by most pundits to be replaced for the start of next season and his exit would doubtless lead to a restructuring of a club whose consistency has been their most impressive quality over the course of the last decade.

Despite the weight of evidence suggesting Milan are a team in terminal decline, Kaka believes they have one final surge within them to see off an Arsenal side whose vibrant exuberance has led many to suggest they will step into the void left by Milan should they drop out of Europe's elite in the near future.

However, Kaka insists experience counts for more than promise and ahead of a last-16 tie that could see a Barak Obama-style wind of change sweeping through the Europe's established elite clubs.

'Even though a lot of critics seem to be keen to write Milan off, the time to do that has not yet arrived,' begins Kaka. 'They say we are an old team and that we have lost our desire, but only last May we beat Liverpool to become European champions. Have we become so poor overnight? I don't think so.

'We had a slow start to the season and couldn't find any home wins, though football is all about cycles. You can hit a winning streak just as easily as a depressing run. Anyway, we've put our problems behind us.

'Since winning the World Club Championship, which was one of our main aims of the season, we've found our feet in Serie A and suddenly we're firing on all cylinders again. After falling down the table, we're very much on the up now. Qualification for the Champions League is the goal, galvanising us, and I see no reason why we shouldn't achieve it.

'Personally, I have certainly not lost my determination to win trophies. Last season's Champions League title makes no difference as I want more. Playing in a winning team is the supreme motivation and we cannot live on past glories. It's impossible. Look at Ronaldinho. His many achievements have not prevented him being criticised at Barcelona.

'Naturally, we are not thrilled to see our rivals Inter running away with the scudetto, but we can take great heart from the fact that Milan tend to be in peak condition when the spring comes along, when the winners of competitions are decided. No one should ever minimise our chances on any field of play.

'Our whole team has rediscovered its equilibrium lately and we are a side on a mission. We've got our confidence and our momentum back, qualities that are essential in football.'

His words represent a stout defence of a team whose have struggled to find many admirers this season and while AC Milan would have favourites to beat Arsenal at most points in recent years, the shifting balance of power suggests Arsene Wenger's Premier League leaders have an outstanding chance to claim a prize scalp this time around.

In Kaka's mind, this is the nightmare draw for his team and his respect for Arsenal seems to be complete. 'I'd say Arsenal is the toughest possible draw for us,' admits the Brazilian.

'They are one of the form teams in Europe at the moment, are very well placed to win the Premier League, full of confidence and crucially, they play great football. For a Brazilian like me, they represent the right way to approach the game.

'They play with so much style and adventure. They like to take the initiative and play free flowing football. They are on the whole a young team, but it's obvious there's a lot of maturity and mental toughness in the side too. We've noticed they often score late in a game. That's proof enough of their spirit.'

Kaka's tribute to Arsenal boss Wenger is equally gushing, with his suggestion that the world's finest young talent now have an ambition to play for Arsenal a sign that the Gunners' influence is growing at a pace around Europe.

'Many, many young players from all over the world want to play for Arsenal now,' he believes. 'It's a good reputation to have and that's down to Arsene Wenger. He has impeccable judgement as far as talent spotting goes and doesn't fear putting his faith in youth.

'He knows they may initially make rookie mistakes but as long as they learn quickly, he is happy. You just have to look at the progress their young players have made this season to realise he has something very special going at Arsenal.

'They are competing with two of the most powerful clubs in Europe in the Premier League and no one would have given them too much chance of winning just a few weeks ago. Now they have a real chance and deserve to be respected by everyone.'

In a game that will be littered with high quality personal duels, the contest between Kaka and Arsenal talisman Cesc Fabregas is likely to be a key tussle and the AC Milan man is relishing the prospect.

'I like their central defenders William Gallas and Kolo Toure, while Emmanuel Adebayor seems to be able to do everything up front, but it's clear that the one who really makes it all happen for them is Fabregas,' he adds.

'He already has extraordinary football experience and technical ability. He is a fiery competitor too. It goes without saying we will have to ensure he is not a big influence on this tie. I look forward to trying to match him in this game.'

Kaka's status as the world's greatest player may not be on the line this Wednesday night in North London, but AC Milan's reputation as an enduring major player in the European game might just be.

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