The end result of last night’s captivating Champions League encounter between Milan and Atletico Madrid at San Siro provided a good indicator of where the two teams involved currently stand in the European footballing hierarchy.
The home side, despite playing well, committed football’s cardinal sin of failing to convert their pressure and chances into that all important commodity - goals. They then conceded a late winner at the other end and it is now difficult to see them turning the tie around in the second leg, after which their absence from European football next season will likely be confirmed. A long rebuilding project lies ahead for new Rossoneri Coach Clarence Seedorf.
Their Spanish visitors meanwhile won a match in which they were far from at their best for long spells, a classic sign of a good team according to so many. Any side that can last the blistering pace in La Liga set by Barcelona and Real Madrid for 24 League games is clearly a highly accomplished one and Diego Simeone has instilled a real winning mentality into Atleti. The sort of winning mentality that Seedorf will need to replicate if he is to return the Rossoneri to the heights that enabled him to twice win Europe’s premier club competition while playing for the club.
As mentioned though, it is far from being all bad news as Seedorf’s men produced a performance last night that belied their highly mediocre domestic season to date and provided genuine hope for the future. The Diavolo, particularly in the first half, played with an intensity, hunger and skill that has been conspicuous by its absence for large parts of the season and helped bring about the recent sacking of former Coach Max Allegri.
The San Siro crowd was also in fine voice and fed off this much improved display by their team. Mario Balotelli was lively and caused the away defence problems before eventually being forced off with a shoulder injury. Adel Taarabt was promising on his European debut, Ricky Kaka went close on more than one occasion and Michael Essien was industrious in midfield. Had it not been for the form of away goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who produced one particularly excellent save to deny Andrea Poli, the home side could well be contemplating taking a lead to the Vicente Calderon for the second leg.
As it is, Seedorf will be left to pick the bones out of what is ultimately a disappointing defeat. Nevertheless, it came with the silver lining of a much improved performance and the Dutchman remained defiant about his team’s chances of turning the tie on its head and progressing to the quarter-finals.
“I say the players and fans have every right to be optimistic and to believe,” he commented immediately after the game. “I’m so proud at their hard work, the willingness to learn and the unity, which was behind all my success in my career. Even if there are harsh words occasionally, they are done with positive intentions. These are the foundations on which to build some great football.”
Even if the Rossoneri, as expected, fall short of overturning their deficit in a fortnight’s time, it is these foundations to which Seedorf alludes that will determine in the long term whether his tenure at San Siro is to be a success or failure. He has made all the right noises so far, promising relentless attacking football ‘with five strikers’, and last night’s match, despite the result, was a clear sign that they are beginning to head in the right direction.