Cracks begin to show in Milan

 

"MILAN are in crisis, absolute, painful and deep crisis, a psychological crisis, a results crisis, a squad crisis ... That which was once the strongest defence in the world has become a pathetic colander," the Turin daily, La Stampa.

A bit over the top, you might argue, but AC Milan's disastrous opening week to the season has given Italian critics plenty to write about. Two consecutive defeats - a remarkable 3-2 home loss to Portuguese side Porto in the Champions' League last Wednesday and a 2-1 away loss to Sampdoria on Sunday night (not to mention an earlier 2-1 loss to Fiorentina in the pre season SuperCup) have prompted all manner of heretical thoughts. Is the great side finally cracking up. Are Milan really in crisis, after only a week of the season?

At the heart of much Milan analysis is one man - new coach, Uruguayan Oscar Washington Tabarez. He is on the classic hiding to nothing, taking over at one of the most powerful clubs in the world, a club which furthermore has won four Italian titles and one European Champions Cup in the last five seasons and which still has a fabulously strong squad.

There is little doubt that Tabarez's first and most difficult task concerns his handling of the squad, his ability to win the players' respect and to control the not always compatible tendencies of sometimes temperamental stars.

When one of his predecessors, Arrigo Sacchi, lost touch and favour with one star player, Marco Van Basten, it cost him his job. In the spring of 1991, the club preferred to dump Sacchi rather than Van Basten.

Fabio Capello, successor to Sacchi and immediate predecessor of Tabarez also had his "star" problems, exacerbated in his case by Milan's decision to a create a 25 man, first team squad. The resultant infamous turnover system prompted harsh words between himself and such as Ruud Gullit, Dejan Savicevic and Zvonimir Boban, and on one famous occasion led to Capello literally putting Gullit off the team bus on a Saturday afternoon as Milan prepared to drive to Turin for the match of the weekend against Juventus.

In the end, Capello resolved the "turnover" problem with an authoritarian "Take it or Leave it" approach which conceded nothing to the whims of his greatest talents and which was underwritten by his good results.

Tabarez has yet to find his modus vivendi in the demanding Milan environment. At first glance, he appears to have adopted for a softly, softly approach which allows for dialogue with his players. On his first official day at Milanello, in July, hue attempted to play down his role. In these early days, I've kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut.

Tabarez may have tried to play dumb, yet half of Italy knows that he has been brought in to replace Capello so that Milan not only continue winning but do so in a more entertaining and flamboyant manner than that of his pragmatic predecessor. A tall order.

Perhaps in response to those indications from the club, Tabarez initially made encouraging sounds about creating a fruitful co habitation between obviously gifted players such as Savicevic and Roberto Baggio, implying last May that he would find a key role for Baggio, a player whose first season with Milan last year was largely lived out on the periphery of title success.

Yet Baggio was the first man to be dropped from the side following the flop against Porto. When the pressure was on, Tabarez's commitment to flamboyant soccer did not last long.

For the game against Sampdoria, he preferred the club's tried and true 4-4-2 line up, bringing in the more combative Dutchman Edgar Davids in place of Baggio.

In opting for Davids alongside Boban, Demetrio Albertini and Marcel Desailly in midfield, Tabarez was returning to the classic Capello module, arguing that with the likes of George Weah and Marco Simone for Savicevic when he recovers from injury in attack, Baggio's offensive skills are a luxury, while his lack of defensive work proves a handicap.

In dropping Baggio, Tabarez has set himself up for his first head to head confrontation with one of his stars. From his handling of that confrontation (throughout this week), we will understand much about the immediate Milan future.

Against Sampdoria, the tactical and personnel changes did not bring about the desired effect. For the second time in the week, Milan took the lead only to concede an equaliser before being beaten late in the match. Even allowing for current illustrious absentees such as Savicevic and veteran captain Franco Baresi, this was another disappointing performance, further marred by violent episodes involving Milan defenders Christian Panucci and Pietro Vierchowod (the latter, guilty of elbowing Sampdoria's David Balleri to such effect that he required five stitches to a head wound).

It could be that Milan's current problems are more psychological than tactical, a point hinted at by the great white chief himself, Milan's owner, Silvio Berlusconi who, in his second defence of Tabarez in four days, said yesterday:

"Tabarez has my total support. I spoke to him just after the game and told him not to worry about the criticism that would be coming his way... Milan appears to have lost its athletic sheen. Perhaps there's a sense of complacency, of relaxation after so many years of success . . ."

Perhaps Berlusconi was trying to tell Tabarez something.