Disappointed AC Milan can look to Atalanta for inspiration

MILAN (AP) — AC Milan will look to get over the disappointment of the Champions League when it visits one of its main rivals for a position in next year’s competition.

Milan heads to nearby Atalanta on Sunday five days after losing to Atlético Madrid 2-1 in its first home match in the Champions League in more than seven years.

There were nevertheless plenty of positives to be taken from that match. Milan dominated for the first half hour before midfielder Franck Kessié was sent off for a second bookable offense, and led until Antoine Griezmann’s 84th-minute equalizer. Luis Suárez’s winning penalty in the seventh minute of stoppage time finished it.

Milan’s second loss means getting out of its group will be an uphill struggle but it can take heart from Sunday’s opponent. Atalanta lost its first three matches in the Champions League in its debut campaign in 2019 but managed to get out of its group and go all the way to the coronavirus-affected quarterfinals.

There are many similarities between the teams. Atalanta’s success was built on a shrewd transfer policy and a young but talented squad, which fights until the end. It is written on the team jerseys, “La maglia sudata sempre,” which essentially means the players’ shirts should always be wet with sweat.

The Milan players’ grit and determination was amply shown on Tuesday. And it is a young side that has brought the Rossoneri back to Europe’s elite. Milan’s squad had the youngest average age in Serie A last season — despite the inclusion of Zlatan Ibrahimović, who turns 40 on Sunday. And it also had the second youngest squad on the opening day of the Champions League, behind only Salzburg.

The future looks rosy for the Rossoneri.

“First of all, there needs to be sporting results because without sporting results all the rest doesn’t really matter much,” AC Milan president Paolo Scaroni said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. “The sporting results are beginning to arrive. Yesterday, for the first time in seven, eight years we had a Champions League match at San Siro, so a great emotion for us.

“In the meantime we have created a squad that is young, fights hard and is full of talent. All that is in the trajectory that we have set ourselves for Milan.”

Milan has come a long way since 2018 when U.S.-based hedge fund Elliott Management took over control of a club with debts of 164 million euros (then $190 million) after Chinese owner Li Yonghong missed a deadline to repay part of a loan.

The fund had been expected to sell on the club, with a number of parties reportedly interested in buying the beleaguered Serie A outfit.

But, instead, Elliott started planning for the long term with founder and co-CEO Paul Singer at the time pledging to return the storied club “to the pantheon of top European football clubs where it rightly belongs.”

Singer’s son — Gordon Singer, a managing partner in Elliott — was in Milan on Wednesday at an event to launch one of the club’s charitable initiatives: “ Restore the Music Milan.”

“We didn’t talk yesterday but then we know the project well,” president Scaroni said. “Elliott is a fund, it has invested in Milan. Their strategies aren’t short term so for the moment we’ll continue like this. We’re on the right path.”

Stefano Pioli’s side led Serie A for much of the first half of last season before fading and finishing second, behind city rival Inter Milan.

Milan won the last of its seven European crowns in 2007, and the last of its 18 Serie A titles in 2011.

It is currently second in the Italian league after six matches and has yet to lose.

“My ambition — then there are people that are more ambitious than me — is to be in the Champions League next year, too. So my aim is to be at least fourth in the league,” Scaroni said.

Elliott’s ambition on the field is matched off it, where Milan plans to build a new stadium with Inter to replace the iconic San Siro.

Planning for the new stadium is expected to start in earnest after the municipal elections in Milan next month, with completion expected by 2024.

“It’s fundamental both for Milan and for Inter,” Scaroni said. “Without a new stadium it will be very difficult to be competitive in Europe.”

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