Few things rile football fans more than a perceived sense of sporting injustice. It can eat away at you and narrow focus – making supporters metaphorically short-sighted with virtual tunnel-vision. Whether it was a penalty or not for Juventus in Turin on Friday night is something we can all debate, but whatever conclusion you draw there is a bigger picture for Milan supporters to take note of here.
When you’ve previously conquered all, winning the small battles, and gradually retaking ground must be harder to appreciate – but that’s what is happening at Milan. Yes, they lost that game in Turin, and on the balance of play I’d argue Juventus just about deserved it, but Milan came away from that game enhanced, even if the gains were not necessarily tangible.
As he proved once again in Turin, Milan have, as his agent has already pointed out, “a rare jewel” in Gianluigi Donnarumma. There is no doubt in my mind that he is the ‘real deal’, nor that he is the successor in waiting to the magnificent Gianluigi Buffon. I have to remind myself sometimes that Donnarumma is only just 18, he could still be playing in 2040. By then I expect he will be dripping in silverware, and partly because he has that extra something that often sets apart the very good from the excellent: a strong mentality.
It’s a quality Milan sides of recent years have collectively been accused of not having. An inability to dig in, to show strength in adversity, to believe in your teammates and your manager. But anyone who has watched the Rossoneri in recent weeks can see that, for their many faults, this squad is developing that resilience and character.
They won with nine men at Bologna, rescued a late point at a very capable Lazio, but also won hard-fought contests against Fiorentina, Sassuolo and Chievo, and were seconds away from ending Juve’s staggering run of home league wins.
In all of those games there was more determination than dazzle, but the former is creating the conditions for the latter to eventually follow, and Vincenzo Montella is cultivating the environment quietly and effectively. The Milan Coach showed great dignity in defeat in Turin, and even stopped Carlos Bacca confronting the referee - small yet significant details that strengthen his arm yet further.
Despite minimal transfer funds, the backdrop of a protracted takeover, and with an injury-hit squad badly lacking strength in depth, Montella is slowly but surely turning this juggernaut around. In short I just think he’s proved he ‘gets it’. He gets the situation/politics, he gets the size of the club and, in trying circumstances, he has put out a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Clear tactical acumen and a solid managerial grounding can only help – a ‘young’ manager with the benefit of ‘miles on the clock’, the Juve defeat was his 266th game in the dug-out at the age of 42. Young enough to still be on a similar wavelength as senior players, yet experienced enough to be able to handle the huge challenges in managing a club like Milan.
Montella’s short reign has already delivered the club’s first silverware since 2011 (honourable mention for Sinisa Mihajlovic) – and just as December’s Supercoppa success over Juventus could be viewed as another small step in the right direction, so could the league defeat against the same opponents in Turin. It’s about seeing the wood, rather than the trees.