Milan running out of chances

 

TOMORROW night's Champions League action may represent only the halfway point in first round qualifying games, yet for at least one famous European name, AC Milan, the evening has already taken on a surprising `do or die' connotation.

With three of the six qualifying games played, none of the overall favourites is in a worse position than Milan. While Porto sit comfortably at the head of Group D, Milan go into their home tie against Swedish side IFK Gothenburg knowing that they have no margin for further error.

The reigning Italian champions are in crisis. They have lost two of three Champions league games played so far, being beaten by both Porto and Gothenburg. In 10 weeks since they were beaten 2-1 by Fiorentina in Italy's seasonal curtain raiser, the SuperCup, they have lost three times in the league to Sampdoria, AS Roma and most recently on Sunday, 1-0 away to Fiorentina.

For a side which over three seasons between 1991 and 1994 lost only FIVE times in 102 league games, this represents a crisis. Milan go into tomorrow, night's game joint bottom with both Gothenburg and Norwegian side Rosenborg on three points, six behind leaders Porto. It takes no Einstein to conclude that Milan had better pick up home points tomorrow if they are to avoid a sensational failure to qualify for the quarter finals.

In "normal" Milan times, six points from their remaining two home games (against Gothenburg tomorrow and Rosenborg on December 4) would be taken for granted. Yet, these are not normal times.

Writing in this column six weeks ago, we reflected early season concern among critics and fans alike that perhaps Milan were, finally, coming to the end of a remarkably successful decade, initiated when Arrigo Sacchi and little known Dutchmen called Gullit and Van Basten led them to a 1987-88 Italian title success.

Just one week into the new season, that concern did admittedly seem premature. When Milan went on to beat Rosenborg 4-1 in Trondheim and then win two league games (albeit against Bologna and Perugia) on the trot, one presumed that the listing Milan ship was righting itself.

However, the three most recent defeats - against Roma, Gothenburg and Fiorentina in that order - have set the alarm bells ringing louder than ever. In the press room at the San Siro on Sunday evening, Milan's new coach, Uruguayan Oscar Washington Tabarez sounded like a man still at the running in stage with his new club. He admitted that he was at a loss to explain Milan's problems, adding with an air of fatality re tomorrow night's game: "It all depends on us. We've got to give it a go".

Hardly an all comprehensive, technical analysis from Tabarez.

In reality, his Milan is missing at least four key elements, by comparison with the side of recent seasons. Firstly, 36 year old captain and sweeper Franco Baresi is both ageing and injured. Secondly, the side's most inventive talent, Montenegrin Dejan Savicevic, has like Baresi, also been out for most of the season, thus far.

Thirdly, for the last three weeks Demetrio Albertini has also been injured. Fourthly, the final missing element in the Milan jigsaw, and arguably the most important, is Frenchman Marcel Desailly. For three seasons now, he has been one of the keys to Milan success in his filter midfield role in front of the back four.

Given Baresi's absence, however, Desailly has had to move back to central defence and not only is he not yet as good a sweeper as Baresi at his best, but his absence from midfield has left Milan less competitive in an area of the field where they traditionally win games.

Considering the overall strength of the Milan squad, you might suggest that none of the above problems are unsolvable. Probably not. What remains to be seen, though, is if the new boy Tabarez can get a hold of his players, can silence the mutterings and murmurings from discontent stars such as Roberto Baggio (regularly to be found on the subs bench these days) and persuade other stars, such as out of form Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini, to concentrate as hard on winning soccer matches as on securing lucrative publicity and endorsement contracts.

Unless Tabarez can achieve this, then even the wondrous and mysterious workings (at least as far opposing defenders are concerned) of Liberian George Weah will continue to go to waste.

Against a Gothenburg side which just last week wrapped up its fourth consecutive league title and which features an obvious blend of youthful talent such as 20 year old Erik Wahlstedt and international experience such as 33 year old former Ajax Amsterdam striker Christian Peters son, Milan face a very serious test. Stand by for sensation at the San Siro.