Great Calcio Sides: AC Milan 2003-08
Two Champions League titles, a near unbeaten run to the 2003-4 Scudetto and that infamous loss to Liverpool in the 2005 European Cup Final, the AC Milan side under Carlo Ancelotti through the middle part of the “noughties” was one of the most memorable and respected of that decade, and adored by Milan’s tifosi.
Built around a seemingly illogical amount of creative midfielders, Ancelotti often deployed Andrea Pirlo, Rui Costa, Clarence Seedorf and latterly Ricky Kaka’, sometimes all at the same time. It was a beautifully crafted and occasionally scintillating side, although notable Champions League exits against Deportivo and the aforementioned Istanbul incident is testament to the inevitable downside of playing a plethora of creative, but defensively secure players.
From back to front, the Rossoneri were full of stars. A defence made up of Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam, Cafu’ and arguably the greatest Milanista of them all Paolo Maldini, behind Pirlo, Kaka’, Rui Costa, Rino Gattuso, and the best forward of that decade; Andriy Shevchenko. Pippo Inzaghi heading a supporting cast of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Redondo wasn’t too shabby neither. This Milan were a living representation of the “champagne football” dream that Berlusconi long held as the head of the Lombardy club.
After the “Grande Milan” under Saachi and Capello faded into memory in the mid-nineties, and the likes of George Weah, Zvonomir Boban and Franco Baresi became ex-players, Silvio Berlusconi once again reached into his pocket and pumped cash into his team, securing the signatures of Alessandro Nesta, Rui Costa, Filippo Inzaghi and much to the exaltation of Milan fans; Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo from Inter. Berlusconi then capped off the transformation by hiring Carlo Ancelotti to lead the new look side.
Milan’s success over the decade is largely thanks to a combination of player versatility and Ancelotti’s ability to structure his side to take advantage of that versatility. Milan’s first season was unspectacular – a team still needing time to gel scraped into 4th place. But by the following season, Ancelotti’s vision became realised. Because Milan’s roster boasted two truly classic number 10’s in Seedorf and Rui Costa, it was impossible to fit a third – Andrea Pirlo had to find a new position.
However, since Pirlo’s time at Brescia playing second fiddle to Roberto Baggio, Carlo Mazzone’s idea to utilise Pirlo’s vision from a much deeper position was mimicked by the former Juventus tactician. Suddenly the Italian became a hidden gem for the Rossoneri, linking play from the bottom of the diamond in Ancelotti’s 4-3-1-2. Thanks to his midfield partners Gattuso and Seedorf’s tireless running, the former doing enough for several players on his own, Pirlo could orchestrate play free from defensive responsibility.
As the side around him changed, Pirlo was a constant and despite plaudits going to Shevchenko, Rui Costa and Kaka’, it was he and his fellow countryman Rino Gattuso who were the beating hearts of the Milan side, each allowing the other to flourish. With Gattuso putting in the challenges, Milan could afford to have multiple reference points in attack, and with Pirlo in the centre of the park – they could be sure they received the ball too.
And sure enough, when it clicked – it clicked. Smooth, professional and classy – Milan stormed to the Champions League title, disposing of holders Real Madrid on the way and beating Italian champions Juventus on penalties on the way. Usually sides tend to rest on their laurels after securing Europe’s most glamorous prize, but Milan went out and bought Riccardo Kaka’, who eventually pushed the previously untouchable Rui Costa out of the side, and latterly replaced Shevchenko as the side’s bona-fide match winner.
The following season Milan did not retain the Champions League, but were without question a much more complete side. With Kaka’ added to the ranks and Shevchenko reaching the peak of his powers, Milan were indomitable, and occasionally unstoppable. Losing just twice on the way to their 17th title, if it wasn’t for Milan’s complacency in Spain the Rossoneri would’ve been tough to overturn in Europe too, the footballing Gods of fate denying us the chance to see the holders face off against the other outstanding side in Europe that year – Arsenal’s invincible’s, the London club losing out out to Mourinho’s Chelsea’s in the last eight.
Milan were back with a new found resolve to overturn last seasons exit and returned once again to the Champions League final – only to lose out in even more spectacular style than the year before. After going 3-0 up in the first half after a dominating display, the Rossoneri displayed the worst side of their game, allowing a Steven Gerrard inspired Liverpool back into the match and win the match on penalties in what has been called the greatest European final in modern history, and the most memorable of all time.
After the shocking events in Turkey, Milan became a touch more conservative – employing another defensive midfielder alongside Gattuso in Massimo Ambrosini and looked to Kaka’ to take a more advanced role in Milan’s formation, especially after Shevchenko’s departure to Chelsea in the summer of 2006. After the Ukranian’s departure Ancelotti shifted to a 4-3-2-1, using Kaka’ as a wide attacking midfielder alongside Clarence Seedorf behind a combination of Pippo Inzaghi or Alberto Gilardino.
This move paid dividends in the 2006/7 as the Brazilian became Milan’s star player, and the outstanding player in the world – the future Real Madrid attacker enjoying freedom in a roaming role where he could link up play as well as be a truly devastating forward. 10 goals came in a Champions League campaign where quite often, the Brazilian would drag his team through matches. The superb double against Manchester United in the semi final, the hattrick against Anderlecht and the divine assist to Pippo Inzaghi in the final as Milan exercised their demons to beat Liverpool to lift their 7th Champions League trophy, and the most recent to date.
That European trophy proved to be the last in a glorious era for Milan, and maybe even Berlusconi’s last dominant period in charge of the Rossoneri, no longer able to conjure the massive funds required to build sides of great significance.
As one looks back on that era – it will be remembered as benchmark for a strategy and style that would be nearly impossible in today’s game. The idea of a “classic” number 10 is now nearly a lost art, very close to being reserved to the history books alongside the sweeper. Milan fielded 2 in every game. Most of the players who graced that side have now retired or moved on, and Ancelotti has taken his vision to France. The last great team of the Calciopoli era, Forza Italian Football salute Ancelotti’s Milan.