Milan got their season back on track with an impressive victory at Zenit on Wednesday. Alex Mott writes on the possible rejuvenation of the Rossoneri.
The last time it happened, the United States bailed out nine banks to the tune of $125bn, the Philadelphia Phillies won their second World Series title and Girls Aloud were top of the UK singles' chart. It was October 30, 2008, and Zenit St Petersburg had just lost 2-1 to Real Madrid at home in the Champions League.
Since then, the Russian Premier League side have gone unbeaten at the Petrovsky Stadium in Europe, with trips to Zenit becoming one of the most feared on the continent. Added to that the recent signings of Hulk from Porto, and Axel Witsel from near-neighbours Benfica, and Luciano Spalletti's team can make the legitimate argument of being both the most mercurial and the most defensively resolute squads around.
The fact then that Milan came out 3-2 winners on Wednesday, is even more reason to celebrate. Massimiliano Allegri's team got their first Champions League win of the campaign, and with goalkeeper Christian Abbiati in such inspired form, optimism around the club has reached heights not seen since Zlatan Ibrahimovic was pulling on a black and red jersey.
“Abbiati made some amazing saves – he literally plucked some shots out of the net,” Spalletti stated. The 35-year-old shot-stopper can look back on this game as one of the greatest of his career. His athleticism, command of the area and cat-like ability meant the Zenitchiki had to be content with just two goals – two goals after registering 30 shots.
Yes, the veteran No 1 made some world class. And yes, there was an element of fortune about the win, but luck hasn't exactly been a key feature of the Rossoneri's season so far. Red cards here, contentious penalty decisions there, have seen losses to Sampdoria, Atalanta and Udinese giving the Milanese giants their worst start in 80 years. But, with these three points, they may finally be shaking off the shackles, and start producing performances worthy of 'the most successful team in the world'.
Thirteen minutes in, and a deflected Urby Emanuelson free-kick set the tone for the evening, with the Dutchman scoring his first goal of the season in somewhat fortuitous circumstances. Thirteen may be unlucky for some, but that early strike could give the former Ajax man a whole new level of confidence – a trait he's been lacking since his move from the Amsterdam club in 2011.
Stephan El Shaarawy doubled the lead three minutes later, with another superb solo goal, and with the 19-year-old in this sort of form, the Diavolo may have unearthed a forward to fill the boots of the recently-departed Swede. His touch, vision and composure in front of goal have been attracting some of the best clubs in Europe recently, but even if now Milan can't afford to keep hold of their best players, they won't mind one jot if he keeps this up for the rest of the season.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the victory though, was the third goal. No, not the way Riccardo Montolivo whipped a low ball in from the right, not the way Giampaolo Pazzini got in front of his man, not even the fate with which Tomas Hubocan inadvertently put into his own net. It was for the way it had come after the Rossoneri had conceded two stupid goals either side of half-time and clawed their way back.
In previous weeks, that had not seemed possible. A team bereft of confidence and loaded with frustration, Kevin-Prince Boateng failing to live up to the hype of last year, Nigel De Jong proving to be the 'marquee signing' and Mario Yepes still playing like Mario Yepes had left fans of the club feeling like a recently deflated party balloon.
Now, with this come-from-behind victory, the tifosi, and perhaps more importantly, the players, can look forward to the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday, and have a genuine shout of winning the game.
Three points there, and who knows where Milan can go this season?
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