Robinho Lazaró wrapped up the 27th league title of his long and distinguished Football Manager career as his AC Milan side won Serie A in 2057/58. His next task was to keep developing the club’s exciting young prospects and defend the Scudetto.
The summer began with selling off several players Lazaró didn’t fancy to raise some much-needed funds. The biggest outgoing was inconsistent striker Wilson Salazar joining Spartak for £18.5 million, while Marcel Dinter went to Zenit for £8.25 million, centre-back Steven Aponzá went to Parma for £6 million, midfielder Ventsislav Mladenov joined Frankfurt for £4 million, and long-serving defender Pierre Pelletier moved to Zenit at the end of his contract. That boosted the transfer budget to £88 million with £500,000 of spare wage budget.
But Lazaró didn’t have major plans to rebuild the squad. Rather, he was keen to give more playing time to some of the young starlets at the club, including the likes of midfielders Hubert Drewnowski and Thor Gronnesby, striker Frederik Sonderby, and homegrown prospects striker Andrea D’Avino and left-back Norman Schmidt. He also brought defender Simone Canciani and striker Jordan Montano, who both impressed out on loan last season, into the first-team picture.
In fact, the squad overall was now very young with an average age of 21.0 Goalkeeper Lander Michielsen, attacking midfielder Jon Azparren and striker Anders Lassen (24) are the only players aged over 22, while 15 of the 23-man squad are 21 or under and seven are teenagers.
The list of exciting youngsters was added to as Lazaró signed two promising 16-year-olds in striker Baptiste Guinot, who joined for £10 million from Portimonense and scored 60 in 48 for their B team, and Grégory Vandamme, who cost £8.5 million from Club Brugge and needed to be retrained as an attacking midfielder.
And here’s how Lazaró was looking to line up his young team:
Title defence begins
Despite finishing 24 points clear of Juventus and 36 points clear of Inter last season, the media fancied Milan to come third in Serie A. It’s also worth remembering that both sides spend more than double Milan’s £2.2 million annual salary, with Inter spending £4.4 million. Inter, who finished 10th last season, are 13/8 favourites with Juve at 5/2 and Milan at 9/1. We’ll see about that.
The new season began with a trip to newly-promoted Empoli. And it started in very Italian style with a dull 1-0 win. But there was nothing dull about the goal that won it, as Montano did this on his debut… An absolute wonder goal!
Lazaró celebrated 100 games in charge of Milan by welcoming Lazio to San Siro. This time Montano turned creator for world-class midfielder Jan Mares to slam home a 30-yarder then inked up with Sonderby to tuck home a late second. And the Rossoneri had a new hero on their hands!
Star striker Lassen returned from injury to bag a brace to down 10-man Sampdoria 2-0. Then 16-year-old goalkeeper Moris Lombardi made his second-ever start and got his first win in a 2-1 success at home to Torino.
The perfect start continued with Iliya Kolev and Lassen securing a 2-0 win at Napoli before Montano bagged a brace in a 3-0 win over Sassuolo and Drewnowski scored his first senior goal in a 2-0 win over Parma. But the streak ended with a 2-0 loss at Fiorentina. They got back on track with an easy win over Venezia then Lassen and Montano both scored in a 3-1 at Udinese.
Big rival clashes
Inter were struggling again, trailing Milan by nine points after 10 games, but Juve had rediscovered their form and were keeping pace at the top. As seems almost customary, Milan faced their big two rivals in back-to-back games in early December.
First up was Inter “away” and the hosts just about edged a pretty poor game against an exhausted Milan side. Juve won at the same time, which took them top on goal difference and teed up an intriguing clash between the top two at San Siro a few days later. Milan were the better side in the first half but negative Juve helfd them off. That was until just before the hour mark, when Jon Azparren chose the ideal time to latch onto Kolev’s pass and bag his first goal of the season. Milan continued to dominate and wrapped up all three points as Montano scored from an Edgar Ruiz cross then pounced on a poor piece of goalkeeping. And 2.00 to 0.24xG is about as dominant as it gets in a top-two battle.
Milan wrapped up 2058 with two home games. A 3-0 win over Verona saw Sonderby come off the bench to score his first senior goal then D’Avino’s first league goal of the campaign nicked a 1-0 win over Atalanta.
That took Milan five points clear of Juve heading into the winter break. After 16 games, Milan had 14 wins and two defeats, scoring a league-high 29 and conceding just seven. Michielsen has kept a league-high 10 clean sheets and Kolev has the third-best average rating in the league (7.41).
Facing an old flame
Lazaró would face one of his former clubs in Europe as Milan’s Champions League group contained Barcelona, Celtic and Basel. They began at home to Basel and racked up 40 shots en route to winning 2-0 with a Lassen brace. But they were more clinical at Celtic as Mares’ double led a 4-1 win from 12 shots, with Montano getting his first goal in Europe. Milan dominated at home to Barca, but the visitors scored their first attack, despite quickly equalising, Lazaró’s side couldn’t find a way past an inspired keeper to find a winner.
Lazaró’s return to Camp Nou saw a return of the negative football accusations thrown at him earlier in his career. Milan mustered just three shots to Barca’s 22 and escaped with a 0-0. But they booked their place in the knockouts with a 5-0 thumping of Celtic led by D’Avino bagging four to end an incredible 26-match goal drought! Lazaró rested the entire first team and a squad of teenagers only lost 1-0 in Basel to finish second in the group.
Could Lazaró lead AC Milan to back-to-back titles? Or would Juve make a fight of it? Join us next time to find out!