This was the season when the normality of success was expected to return to AC Milan following heavy investment from the club’s new Chinese owners.
The Rossoneri are traditional giants on both the Italian and European stage – only Real Madrid have won more European Cup titles – but have fallen on hard times recently, unable to match the power of Juventus and their assortment of title rivals.
The Milanese club endured three consecutive seasons without any European football whatsoever, less than a decade after winning the Champions League and having qualified for the competitions in each campaign this century prior to that.
Controversial owner Silvio Berlusconi’s leadership came under heavy criticism with resources viewed as insufficient while the structure of the club was not one befitting of their status – underinvestment mixed with substandard recruitment created a scenario of instability both on and off the pitch.
Li Yonghong’s long-awaited takeover of Milan was completed in April last year amid the promise of heavy and sustained investment in the playing squad, yet the nature of the deal was met with great scepticism in the Italian press and by former players.
Despite initial claims the takeover had the backing of the Chinese government, Li’s Hong Kong-based Sino-Europe Sports Investment paid a reported €100 million as a deposit in 2016 before three further payments totalling €150 million.
The remaining lump sum was then paid off using a different holding company based in Luxembourg called Rossoneri Sport Investment. As the takeover was completed, it emerged Li had borrowed €300 million from the US private equity fund Elliott Management – which has been described as “a vulture fund” due to its tendency to lend funds to failing companies.
Reports suggest the Chinese government are reluctant to sanction significant investment in outbound projects hence the withdrawal of their backing and forcing Li to scramble away for significant funds to complete the deal.
There have been various reports since of bankruptcy fears, with the projection of Champions League football for the 2018/19 season now appearing to be wide of the mark.
That is due to a shambolic opening four months to Milan’s league campaign, which saw Vincenzo Montella sacked with the club well adrift of the top four.
Gennaro Gattuso has since steadied the ship but despite a commendable 22 points from their most eight recent league games, they still sit six points adrift of fourth-placed Lazio. Their 2-0 loss at home to Arsenal looks set to bring their Europa League ambitions to a premature end also.
The remarkable capture of Leonardo Bonucci from champions Juventus dominated the headlines in Italy last summer – one of 13 first-team squad recruits in a £200 million spending spree.
Significant sums were invested in striker Andre Silva from Porto, Atalanta duo Frank Kessie and Andrea Conti, alongside moves for Lazio’s Lucas Biglia, Swiss international Ricardo Rodriguez and Turkish playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu from Bayer Leverkusen.
Until their recent resurgence in form, the side appeared to have little tactical cohesion or firm identity – an inevitable consequence of substantial squad turnover in a short space of time. The club paid a premium for players partly due to their status within football but mainly because of the public nature of their new-found investment.
But unlike clubs who are finding success this season – Juventus, Napoli, Manchester City – the approach to the transfer market did not appear to fit a strict plan or system. No player has scored more than six league goals while nobody has struggled more than Portuguese international Silva, who has just one Serie A goal to his name.
Gattuso has galvanised his troops and they are in fine form but, ultimately, only a handful of their players would play any part in a team with ambitions of a domestic title or success in Europe, while many appear to possess the level of motivation required to succeed at the top level.
Such recent victories may only provide a sticking plaster over open wounds both on and off the pitch for a club with an uncertain future.
What do you think? Will Gattuso get his team into the Champions League spots?