Despite the heavily-hyped anticipation, Milan's visit to the Santiago Bernabeu was never going to be a confrontation between two unequals - Massimiliano Allegri and Jose Mourinho - as much as an important test of knowledge. Allegri's knowledge of his side, of course.
The 41-year old coach, who had pipped Mourinho for the admittedly unglamourous title of Serie A's best manager in 2009, rarely seems to get a break. He had already planned for a rough ride - this is Milan after all, where a big salary comes with huge expectations and the need to watch your back all the time - but the club's decision to break away from their recent policy of spending wisely with the purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, made things even tougher. It was clear Allegri would have to speed up the process of finding the right balance as the side would now be expected not just to compete for a Champions League place, but perhaps to challenge Inter for the Scudetto. In turn, Milan and Allegri would have little time to feel each other and settle down, as the backlash that followed the side's 0-2 defeat at Cesena in the second game of the season proved.
On that occasion, the Rossoneri had failed to control the tempo and had been outfought and outrun by their opponents. It was more a case of the wrong players for the 4-3-3 formation than poor tactics, as Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic and Pato had repeatedly failed to get back behind the ball, leaving Cesena players too much room against Massimo Ambrosini and Andrea Pirlo, midfielders not known for their speed.
Milan's ponderous midfield had again been criticised a few days later, when the 2-0 win over Auxerre failed to mask the worrying tendency to leave gaps at the back while committing too many men forward, especially at set-pieces.
Catania coach Marco Giampaolo may have noted that "Milan can wreck your nerves with their ball-control", but it's what happened when possession was lost that worried Allegri the most. On one hand, starting Ronaldinho would mean placing him on his preferred left side of a 4-3-3, while on the other hand the inclusion of Ibrahimovic and Pato or Robinho, increases the chances of failure against opponents of less quality but greater leg muscle.
Thus the 1-1 home draw with Catania and a less than scintillating 1-0 home win over Genoa were born, along with an away draw at Lazio. In fairness, the latter is looking increasingly like a good result, with the Biancazzurri sitting atop the Serie A table. At the Olimpico, Allegri had fielded Kevin-Prince Boateng - whom one paper said had been "discovered" by Genoa this summer: guess his time in England did not count - as a right-sided forward in the 4-3-3, getting little in return on the attacking front, but providing the right flank with the kind of endeavour and muscle the side had been missing. Not by chance, perhaps, that game marked the return of Rino Gattuso, whose future at Milan had appeared so uncertain his agents had started entertaining offers in the summer.
With Ambrosini's injury keeping him out, Gattuso has been an ever-present since, although he played on the left at Ajax when Mathieu Flamini took his place on the right. The captain's presence has also given the side a steelier look, in contrast with Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo's less noticeable ground-covering attitudes (San Siro regulars would probably use stronger words, though), but there was still something missing, and it all came to a head after the Ajax game. Ronaldinho had been left on the bench, inactive and unhappy, and Seedorf had complained that too many long balls had been played towards Ibrahimovic.
In the next game, a 1-0 win at Parma, Allegri chose to go with the kind of 4-3-1-2 he was very successful with at Cagliari, with Seedorf and Gattuso flanking Pirlo and Ronaldinho as the trequartista, despite the coach's remark back in August that "Seedorf is a trequartista, Ronaldinho is not; I can go 4-3-3 with Ronie, 4-3-1-2 without him". The same formation was used in the 2-1 win over Chievo last Saturday - where it was less than convincing - and again at the Bernabeu to little effect.
Real Madrid broke the game open with two bizarre goals in a minute within the first quarter of an hour, and this changed the complexion of the game as Milan, who had come out prepared to spray passes around, pull Real out of shape then hit quick balls to Ronaldinho and the front pair of Ibrahimovic and Pato, had to show more urgency, which they didn't.
They had the better of possession for the remainder of the first half but only threatened a couple of times, notably when sharp off-the-ball movement created room for Seedorf to shoot disappointingly over the bar. Even then, Milan's high defence was beaten several times on the break, and the home side might have easily scored another couple on the break, with Daniele Bonera, in for the injured Thiago Silva, once making a desperate interception after letting Higuain through a badly executed offside trap.
Ronaldinho, whose central position was also meant to speed up play on the left side, tried to move across the pitch to find a decent place to start with the ball, often shifting to the right when Seedorf had possession on the other side, in the hope that at least one of the deep-lying midfield pair of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira would leave his place and open up a two-on-two on the left, where Luca Antonini tried to support the Dutch midfielder while keeping a constant eye on Angel Di Maria.
At times, with Milan trying to build from the back, Ibrahimovic and Pato would each pull as wide as a few yards from the sideline, perhaps hoping Ronaldinho would be able to receive the ball in a dynamic position and create in a less crowded area.
It didn't work, though. Real Madrid may not yet look like last year's Inter - the finished product extraordinaire in terms of marrying graft with skills - but they clearly took advantage of whatever Milan were not doing well and looked much livelier and energetic throughout, which may again cause worrysome reflections on what the right combination in the Rossoneri midfield should be.
Robinho's introduction on 72 minutes, greeted by the home crowd with a deafening round of boos and whistles and a few choice words from the ultras, changed little; Milan went to a 4-3-3 which later included Pippo Inzaghi, and despite the forward trio's constant changing of positions Iker Casillas was never really threatened. Robinho again displayed his disappointing tendency to go past an opponent in such a way as to allow the next one to easily intercept the ball, a trait he will have to shake off if he aims to become a permanent fixture in the side.
Allegri's worried expression near the end told the story. He's sure to be criticised harshly for his side's display, this being the name of the game, but it would be unfair to put the blame, and the onus of quick revival, entirely on him. A stretch of important matches is coming up, though, including away to Napoli on Monday, home to Juventus on October 30 and the derby on November 14, and this is not the way the Rossoneri wanted their so-called month of truth to begin.