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Sep 24, 2008

Milan need youth to help the aged

As thousands of fans gathered to welcome Ronaldinho in July, AC Milan found themselves instilled with a renewed sense of optimism much required after their failure to land Champions League football last year. Add to that the return of club legend Andrei Shevchenko and a prevailing sense of hope surrounded the San Siro for the coming season.

Strange then that a club supposedly ready to challenge on all fronts this year is now in the midst of a crisis after losing their first two games of the Serie A season to Genoa and Bologna.

Expectations at the San Siro are greater than ever. Without a domestic title since 2004, coach Carlo Ancelotti is under pressure to deliver and, although the club have got money to spend, they have still been unable to bring in the kind of players that will take them back to the top table.

Indeed, the signings that Milan made over the summer hinted that the club are more keen to return to the scene of their former glories, rather than focus on what challenges lie ahead for them in the future.

Re-signing Shevchenko from his Chelsea exile was an incredible move given the lack of form he has shown in his two years at Stamford Bridge. The 31-year-old has clearly lost the pace that made him such a devastating prospect for defenders in his prime, while his finishing has also gone AWOL.

More to the point, in bringing the Ukrainian back to Italy, Milan have made a statement that their philosophy does not favour youth. Granted they have one of their fans' favourites back at the club without spending a penny for the privilege, but while Shevchenko's return can be put down to emotional reasoning, the signing of Ronaldinho suggests that the club are more concerned with celebrity status than building for the future.

The Brazilian is, and has been for two years at least, past his best. Seeming to favour the late-night lifestyle ahead of early morning training sessions, the former World Player of the Year can bring little to club beyond improving its already-huge Brazilian fanbase.

And his signing has already had an impact, although not the one he would have wanted. The club lost young striker Alberto Paloschi after landing Ronaldinho in the summer and the 18-year-old made it clear that his move to Parma was because of a lack of first-team chances.

The Italian U20 international had done well when given the chance to impress, scoring twice in six games when coming on as a super-sub and it is odd that Milan allowed such a good young player to leave.

The one positive signing from their summer appears to be the capture of 23-year-old defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini, although his history at Marseille and Arsenal suggest that loyalty is not one of his strong suits. Flamini should eventually replace the ageing Gennaro Gattuso, but may grow tired of a rotation policy that sees Andrea Pirlo, Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf competing for positions in the centre.

Flamini has not set Italy alight in his first few games and while he may take time to adjust, the other two new-boys may not take so kindly to being dropped. Left on the bench for Milan's mini-revival against Lazio, Shevchenko and Ronaldinho are star players used to being top dog. An extended spell on the sidelines could mean the end of their time at the club before it has really begun.

Still, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. A shake-up of large proportions is needed if Milan are consistently going to challenge for top honours again. Starting with the defence.

Why the club have avoided signing good, young defenders in recent times is a mystery, but by over-relying on experience they have now been left with a back-line lacking pace and dynamism.

Paolo Maldini is unequivocally one of the best defenders of his and any generation, but aged 40, should no longer be considered the club's leading light. He certainly has a role to play, but that should be in developing young talent and plugging the gaps when injuries ultimately take their toll. Instead, Maldini has been left to bear the defensive burden in the absence of Alessandro Nesta and has started all three games so far this season.

Nesta follows Maldini in terms of being respected in the Italian game, but injuries have restricted his appearances this term and he was even left out of Milan's UEFA Cup squad because of a back complaint. Rumours have surfaced that the injury is worse than first thought and that Nesta has even considered retiring, but even with the 32-year-old, the defence is clearly creaking and in need of an injection of new blood.

Giuseppe Favalli (36), Kakha Kaladze (30) and Marek Jankulovski (31) make up a collection of players perhaps nearing the twlight of their careers, with only Daniele Bonera (27) and 18-year-old Matteo Darmian threatening to upset the established order. Philippe Senderos has arrived on loan from Arsenal, but the Swiss centre-back is hardly the type of young world-class addition that the fans crave.

Indeed, in the focus on attacking talent, Milan have also ignored their goalkeeping situation. High-profile blunders by both Dida and Zeljko Kalac have led to the reinstatement of Christian Abbiati after the Italian spent the past three years on loan at various clubs around Europe. The instability around such a key position cannot be constructive.

Dida's days certainly seem numbered as even the chaotic Kalac was preferred to the Brazilian for most of last season, although the problem of age is less important in this respect as goalkeepers are often viewed to be at their best post-30, with Abbiati still a relatively sprightly 31.

The mentality of experience over youth is no longer bearing fruit. This is no more apparent than up front.

Milan have been loathe to give chances to Marco Borriello, a player of some talent despite the numerous stories that follow his private life, and are only now seeing what he has to offer. The striker is a rare breed (a Milan youth team player now in contention for the first-team) and has spent most of career on loan at other Italian clubs.

Now having made the breakthrough into the Italian national team set-up, the 26-year-old has a chance to impress, and it is no coincidence that his first start resulted in Milan 4-1 win over Lazio last weekend. Acclaimed for his work-rate and selfless play, Borriello is a player Milan should look to build around, along with strike partner, Pato.

The 19-year-old Brazilian is clearly the future of the club and his performances for Milan since arriving in Italy have given the Rossoneri something to smile about. Fast, skilful and with a good eye for goal, Pato has the opportunity to become one of the best in the world, but Milan must evolve with him or risk not making the most of one of their most talented players.

The strike partnership of Borriello and Pato has the dynamism that Filippo Inzaghi, Ronaldinho and Shevchenko lack, but more importantly their positional play allows Milan to get the best out of star player Kaka.

Giving the brilliant Brazilian the chance to play behind a front two who are full of movement and pace allows Milan to attack with much more venom. Far too static with the one-dimensional Inzaghi leading the line on his own, Ancelotti returned to last season's 4-3-1-2 formation for the Lazio game and the benefits are there for all to see.

With Kaka on form, Milan will always be contenders in European football, although an over-reliance on him could point to a lack of other options. Frenchman Yoann Gourcuff, currently on loan in France, has the potential, although he typifies the club's stance over young players and hasn't been given the chance to shine.

A good result in the Milan derby on Sunday may lift the gloom currently surrounding the San Siro and the signs are that Ancelotti has started to notice what is wrong with the club. Still, another season of disappointment from the Rossoneri and its ageing stars could result in an unravelling far more damaging than simply missing out on Champions League football.

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