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Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2017

Where did it all go wrong? The 2016/17 campaign began so well for AC Milan, new coach Vincenzo Montella galvanising a squad of promising young players and propelling them to the upper echelons of Serie A from the outset.

The former Italy striker also brought the best from a number of key veterans, and it seemed the Rossoneri were ready to finally throw off years of malaise and mismanagement to once again become a force to be reckoned with.

Victories over Lazio and Sassuolo showed their progress, but it was an October win against Juventus that grabbed most attention. Milan had not beaten the Bianconeri since August 2014, and if that league triumph was not enough, they followed it up by defeating them once again in December’s Supercoppa Italiana.

That saw the San Siro giants claim their first trophy since 2011, and—while it took a penalty shootout to decide the tie—they thoroughly outplayed Juve over the 120-minute encounter, much to the delight of the man in charge.

“It’s a nice feeling to win,” Montella told RAI Sport (h/t FourFourTwo) as his side left the field for the final time in 2016. “The lads have to see this as a good starting point for the future, as we played on a par with a great side like Juventus.”

They certainly did, with figures showing that Milan enjoyed more possession (51 percent), more shots on target (9-5), completed more passes (475-458) and made more tackles (24-15) than the Bianconeri.

When action resumed after the winter break, the silverware had appeared to galvanise them just as Montella hoped, his team grinding out a Serie A win over Cagliari and a Coppa Italia victory against Torino despite not playing particularly well.

The latter opponent then held them to a 2-2 draw in the league, a match which saw Alessio Romagnoli sent off for a late challenge on Granata star Andrea Belotti. His subsequent suspension was the first setback, the issue compounded by an extremely difficult run of fixtures and some catastrophic injury problems.

Indeed, after that wonderful start to life under Montella, the past month has seen almost everything that could possibly go wrong for the 42-year-old and his squad somehow manage to do exactly that.

Milan need Alessio Romagnoli.

Milan need Alessio Romagnoli.KARIM JAAFAR/Getty Images

Milan were perhaps unfortunate to lose to Napoli in their next outing, the attacking strength of their opponents simply too much for a side robbed of Romagnoli and Manuel Locatelli who also picked up a ban.

Just days later they visited Juventus Stadium, where the hosts quickly established a two-goal lead and then held on for what felt like a significant win after those two aforementioned losses to the same opponent.

That meant that the Rossoneri were eliminated from the Coppa Italia, but it would be a trip to Udinese’s Dacia Arena that felt like the cruellest blow. After 25 minutes things seemed to be going well, they were 1-0 up thanks to a goal from Giacomo Bonaventura, who is arguably the club’s most important player.

He provides a vital link between defence and attack, but it was then that the catalogue of injuries truly began. Bonaventura hobbled off with what appeared to be a hamstring issue, and without him Milan fell to pieces, eventually losing 2-1 in a game marred by an ugly tackle from Rodrigo De Paul on Mattia De Sciglio.

The Udinese man got up to score the winner while the defender was still off the field, and in the following days the news would be even worse. A statement from the club’s official website revealed that Bonaventura had torn a thigh muscle and required surgery, while De Sciglio had ligament damage in his ankle.

While the loss of the latter player hurt, it is undoubtedly Bonaventura whose absence will be most keenly felt. In a squad littered with young talent, the 27-year-old brought a calming influence as well as his more tangible qualities of vision, desire and a wonderful eye for goal.

Chances Created (2016/17)

Chances Created (2016/17)Adam Digby (via

“Jack” may have managed just three goals and two assists so far this term, yet as the graphic above shows, only former Liverpool man Suso has created more scoring opportunities for his team-mates.

With fate appearing to conspire against them, the last thing Montella needed was an encounter with his former club Sampdoria, but the Genoa-based side were their next opponents and they arrived at San Siro in superb form.

Just a week earlier the Blucerchiati has beaten AS Roma, and in light of all their absentees, the Milan starting XI was jarring to read. In addition to Bonaventura and De Sciglio, the Rossoneri were without Luca Antonelli, Ignazio Abate and Davide Calabria, meaning there was not a fit full-back in sight.

That meant central defender Romagnoli and midfielder Juraj Kucka were forced to play there and with Cristian Zapata making his first Serie A start of the season between that duo, the Milan back line was never likely to cope with the impressive Samp front pairing of Luis Muriel and Fabio Quagliarella.

It would play out exactly that way, Zapata losing possession and Gabriel Paletta fouling Quagliarella, with Muriel then dispatching the spot-kick beyond Gianluigi Donnarumma. Gerard Deulofeu and Gianluca Lapadula fluffed great chances to equalise before Jose Sosa was sent off as Milan once again slipped to defeat.

It is now difficult to see where the Rossoneri go from here, particularly as their next six matches include meetings with Lazio, Fiorentina, Sassuolo and another trip to Juventus Stadium.

“We could have done better in the final third and from the point of view of our opportunities. But I can’t blame the players, they put in a good performance,” Montella told Sky Italia (h/t ESPN FC) after a fourth-consecutive defeat. “It’s a difficult period to explain. We’re sorry, but football is like that.”

He has proved not just during his time with the Rossoneri but over the course of his coaching career that he is capable of finding a solution, and it would be no surprise to see him do just that once again.

Whether by a tactical change—perhaps to a three-man defence—or inspiring those he is fielding out of position, Montella is undoubtedly the right man to take this team forward.

Yet, bizarrely, according to a report from the Corriere dello Sport (h/t Football Italia), Milan are considering a summer change on the bench, with Roberto Mancini named as a potential successor.

Given Montella’s work in galvanising the defence (when healthy) and bringing the best from a patchwork squad shows just what he brings to the Rossoneri. Furthermore, his track record in developing young players has continued, with the likes of Locatelli, Suso, Romagnoli and Calabria shining under his guidance.

That trio are all 23 years old or under, a fact which highlights just how much potential this Milan team possesses and their recent problems with injuries and an incredibly difficult fixture list should not detract from that.

Any hope of restoring the Rossoneri to their former greatness is dependent on being able to see that all their current issues are short-term concerns, ones that will be soon forgotten and truly are no surprise given such a young squad so clearly lacking in depth.

Milan must stick with Montella if they are to end the mediocrity that has engulfed them in recent seasons.

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