Youthful AC Milan made an impressive start to their Scudetto defence in 2058/59, only losing twice and drawing none of their first 16 league games. But could Robinho Lazaró’s young starlets continue to impress under pressure from a much more experienced Juventus?
More pressure was put on the youngsters as one of the older and highest-paid players Jon Azparren was sold to Chelsea for £15 million. They also sold 23-year-old centre-back Mislav Grubisic, who was constantly moaning despite being a regular starter, to Leipzig for £5.5 million.
Lazaró decided not to sign any players to replace them and instead promoted several exciting youngsters. The club’s average age is 20.2 and the 26-man first-team squad now has 12 teenagers. While the centre-back choices are Vítor Veríssimo (22), Simone Canciani and Oscar Rendón (19) and Marcin Tarnogrodzki and Mateusz Pikaus (17). Canciani has 13 first-team appearances and the latter three have never played a game for the club coming into the new year! But crucially, they all have 5-star potential.
The transfer business also saw Milan slip to fifth in the league’s annual wage expenditure, with their £1.9 million surpassed by Napoli and almost minuscule compared to Inter’s outrageous £4.7 million.
2059 begins with silverware
Mid-way through January, Milan took on Lazio in the Coca-Cola Supercup. And, despite only having 15 first-team players available, they breezed to a 2-0 win thanks to a brace from star striker Anders Lassen and Rendón getting an assist and a 7.5 rating on debut. That took Lazaró to 19 career cup successes.
Rock-solid defence as Scudetto challenge resumes
Milan began 2059 at mid-table Crotone and most of the players looked like they’d still rather be on holiday. But Mr. Dependable Jan Mares popped up with a 90th-minute goal for a vital 1-0 win, which moved them seven points clear as Juve drew at home to Fiorentina. The same result followed at Cagliari, thanks to a strike by Mexican striker Jordan Montano.
Milan’s solid defence continued to impress as they shut out Bologna in a 3-0 win, with Mares, Iliya Kolev and Montano on the scoresheet, then a first draw of the campaign with a 0-0 at Lazio. Then a 3-0 win over bottom side Empoli, a 2-0 defeat of Sampdoria and a 1-0 win at Roma equalled Inter’s league record of 10 consecutive clean sheets. And the record went with a dire 0-0 at Torino. 11 Serie A clean sheets on the bounce. Incredible!
They finally conceded as they annihilated Napoli 5-1 led by a Lassen hat-trick and a Mares brace. That win moved them 17 points of their third-place opponents. But a mass of injuries suddenly hit, including losing Mares and Kolev for a few weeks, alongside regular starters being exhausted and having to be rested, and they finally fell to a defeat at Sassuolo.
But their impressive form continued, including a 4-1 win at struggling Venezia and a 3-0 win at Parma. Juventus had been keeping pace until they lost the Turin derby.
Tough Champions League draw
As a result of coming second in their group, Milan got a tough first knockout round draw against Man City. They had a few injuries but played pretty well and nicked a lead with Rendón’s first-ever goal after 73 minutes. But City got a late equaliser despite having a man sent off. But Milan upset all the odds as Lazaró’s more cautious approach and the excellent Lander Michielsen managed to negate City’s attack. They did manage to score their own goalkeeper though and Lassen sealed the tie with an injury-time strike. And Milan won 2-0 with just two shots on target!
Elsewhere in the first round, two of Lazaró’s former clubs faced off as Sporting took on Wolfsburg. Sporting won the first leg 2-0 with Christian Madsen scoring and Anderson Robles scored the only goal in Germany, which meant Sporting prevailed 2-1!
Three of Lazaró’s former clubs were in the hat for the quarter-final draw but they avoided all three and drew Real Madrid. First up was a trip to Santiago Bernabeu and Kolev scored in the second minute to give Milan something to hold on to. And they did all the way up to the 85th minute when Madrid nicked an equaliser.
The return leg in Milan was the worst match of all time until the 85th minute. The first highlight of the game saw Thor Gronnesby tuck home only for Madrid to go down the other end of the pitch and equalise with a 30-yard screamer, which was their first shot on target. Their second was a much better chance that forced a huge save out of Michielsen, which took the game to extra-time, in which absolutely nothing happened.
And that meant the lottery of penalties, in which Michielsen again came up big to save Madrid’s first spot kick. But Antonio missed Milan’s third and it went to sudden death. Hubert Drewnowski held his nerve to score and Michielsen was again the hero as he saved the sixth penalty to send Milan through.
The semi-finals contained two of Lazaró’s former side, so he of course drew one. Milan faced off against his previous club Sporting, while Liverpool took on Chelsea. Lazaró’s new club dominated his former club with a 3-0 win at San Siro with goals by two former Sporting players Mares and Lassen and an injury-time strike by Rendón. Lassen came back to haunt his former club again in the second leg as his second half brace and assist for Montano sealed a 3-2 win, and a 5-2 aggregate success. Milan were off to their first Champions League Final for 52 years!
Massive title decider
With seven games remaining, Milan were looking good to defend their Serie A title as they led Juventus by seven points. However, the title race could swing on a big trip to Juventus Stadium in mid-April.
Milan started the game superbly as Mares slipped a lovely ball through for Lassen to tuck home inside six minutes. But Juve responded three minutes later, Drewnowski got what looked like an unlucky straight red card on 27 minutes, then the ref awarded Juve a very dubious penalty two minutes before half-time. But Milan yet again had Michielsen to thank as he saved his former teammate Pagliero’s penalty and earned his side an unlikely point with a player of the match performance.
Milan handed two of those points back as an exhausted side drew 0-0 at Verona while Juve scored three goals after the 85th minute to beat Parma 3-1. And that sent the two sides into a title race with Milan leading by five points with five games to go.
Game 1: Inter (4th, home): The run-in began with a huge game in the Madonnina Derby. The strikeforce linked up as Montano dropped deep and Lassen smashed home the opener and Kolev curled home a delicious second five minutes later. Juve got one back before an unlikely source restored the two-goal lead as midfielder Antonio scored from 35 yards, which is just his third goal in 160 career appearances. And Milan secured a huge 3-1 victory. Juve drew 0-0 at Napoli to stretch the lead to seven points.
Game 2: Crotone (16th, home): Lazaró’s team was absolutely exhausted due to European commitments, so he had to rotate massively for Crotone. But they still had enough about them to secure a 2-0 win, largely thanks again to Michielsen for making eight saves as Kolev and Andrea D’Avino scored two goals in three minutes. Juve lost 4-1 at Fiorentina.
So AC Milan defended their Serie A title!!
After the game, the media asked Lazaró about his youthful squad, quoting the infamous comment that “you can’t win anything ith kids” in reference to his first-team squad having an average age of just 20. And that proves the size of the achievement Lazaró had pulled off. He threw all the youngsters in to rest the first team and they lost two and drew one of the last three.
Milan still won the league by four points, with 87 points after scoring 63 and conceding just 18 – five of which were in the last three games. Indeed, Michielsen won the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year for the fourth year in a row, conceding just 13 and keeping 24 clean sheets in 35 games. Kolev had the third-best average rating of 7.37 in 27 games but no other Milan players featured in the top goals and assists.
Champions League Final
Milan’s first Champions League Final in over half a century was, fittingly, against another of Lazaró’s former clubs, Liverpool, who’ve won the last three Champions League finals, lost the previous two, and won five of the last eight. They are absolutely the dominant force in Europe. But could Milan upset them?
Lazaró had no injury concerns, so he lined up:
Michielsen; Petrous, Veríssimo, Rendón, Ruiz; Mares, Antonio, Gronnesby; Kolev; Lassen, Montano
Subs: D’Avino, Ognjanovic, Canciani, Drewnowski, Ulle, Sonderby, Capello, Vásquez, Guinot, Lombardi, Schmidt
Nothing happened until just before the break when Michielsen made a decent save from striker Guillermo Soria. The sides went in 0-0 at half-time and an even quieter second half saw it finish 0-0.
100 minutes in, left-back Edgar Ruiz got himself foolishly sent off for a ridiculous two-foot challenge next to the corner flag. But Milan were handed a massive stroke of luck as Kolev won a penalty four minutes later. Lazaró’s heart stopped as Lassen stepped up to take, but the Dane held his nerve to slam the ball into the Liverpool net. Lazaró went super defensive, put all the time-wasting tactics on and it worked, as Milan frittered away the team and Liverpool couldn’t even muster an attack.
Milan won their 8th Champions League and first since 2007!!
What an amazing season this has been! Now 75 years of age, it was arguably Lazaró’s best season of his career, as his youthful Milan side defended their league title and conquered Europe.
The key man this season was undoubtedly Milan’s Champions League winner Lassen, who scored 28 in 43 with 12 assists and a 7.42 average rating in all competitions. And he won fans’ player of the season.
Mares scored 15 and got six assists, and earned fans’ young player of the season. Montano scored 14 in 47 and Kolev got 11 goals and 12 assists. But a special mention has to go to Michielsen, who got 31 clean sheets and only conceded 20 goals in 48 games in all competitions. Rendón also impressed, averaging a 7.13 in 22 games after only making his debut in January and finishing the season as a European champion.
The outrageous amount of young talent at Milan was proven by the Under 18s and Under 20s both winning league and cup doubles and the Under 20s winning the UEFA Youth League.
Should Lazaró stay or go?
This season’s treble saw Lazaró wrap up the 20th cup win and 28th league title of his illustrious 38-year career as a Football Manager. He also climbed to sixth place in the all-time managerial rankings, just 18 points behind the great Sir Alex Ferguson but a huge 3,600 points behind all-time leader Julian Nagelsmann. But Lazaró was now the most successful active manager in the world, given Nagelsmann, Ferguson, Thomas Tuchel, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti had all retired.
Lazaró had been considering his options and keeping an eye out for potential moves throughout the season. But nothing came up even at the end of the campaign and he was enjoying his time in Italy. So when Milan came in with another one-year contract offer worth £125,000-per-week he had no doubts about accepting it. And there aren’t too many 75-year-olds earning £125,000 a week!
How will Lazaró fare in his attempts to defend both Serie A and the Champions League? And could he possibly usurp Nagelsemann one day? Join us next time to find out!