By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Just as happened last year, AC Milan bowed out of the Coppa Italia at Juventus Stadium on a Wednesday night. But rather than it come as another kick in the teeth for a club struggling to emulate the successes of seasons past, this defeat at least came with a few glimmers of hope for the future.
The 2-1 reverse to Juventus came as no surprise, but it would be fair for the Rossoneri looking on to claim they had shown more than enough to have perhaps taken the game to penalties at the very least. And whereas you may expect that it would be some of the senior heads carrying the fight for Massimiliano Allegri’s foundering force, it was the young guns who once again gave Milan the drive that has often been missing from their more experienced team-mates this term.
Whilst the likes of Philippe Mexes, Massimo Ambrosini, Marco Amelia, Giampaolo Pazzini and Kevin-Prince Boateng continue to fall short of the mark, it is the very players who you’d expect to be lagging behind who are giving Milanisti cause for hope. Allegri asked for patience after the match, pointing to the presence of three youngsters in the forward line in extra time as an example of where Milan are right now, but in truth it is they who did the talking for him.
With Stephan El Shaarawy (20), Bojan Krkic (22) and M’Baye Niang (18) leading from the front, and Mattia De Sciglio (20) providing another solid show at full-back, Milan’s future appears brighter than their current league position would suggest. Last season, the team was packed with old legs, now it is littered with hope.
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El Shaarawy took advantage of an early lapse by Leonardo Bonucci, who had let Boateng bypass him completely, to give the Rossoneri an early lead, chalking up his 17th goal of the campaign in the process. But if Il Faraone’s talent has been well-documented thanks to his goalscoring feats, De Sciglio’s has been somewhat glossed over. The young full-back may not have an explosive presence in attack, but he can certainly cross a ball when given the opportunity to do so, and defensively he has been as assured as any Milan defender since the day Thiago Silva limped off against Roma in March last year, never to be seen in red and black again.
Bojan has been unlucky of late, with an impressive run in October and November curtailed by further assignments from the bench, but he once again impressed after replacing Pazzini, adding to recent goals against Roma and Siena with a dynamic display which proved once more that he has a dimension which few others in the squad can provide. Revelling in the freedom of a cavalier role, the ex-Barcelona man is still just 22, and could well suit the Diavolo’s set-up in the longer term.
Niang, meanwhile, has been the most closely-guarded secret of Milan’s young guns since arriving from Caen in the summer, with his off-the-field driving rap earning him more headlines than his football until recently. But after his goal in the previous round against Reggina, the French forward added an excellent display off the bench, with just a slight lack of composure in front of goal letting him down. His vast skill set, excellent drive, lightning turn of pace and clever brain combine to give Allegri plenty of options in how and where to best use him.
With the likes of El Shaarawy and Niang as potential long-term pillars in the strike force, the likely addition of Mario Balotelli – whatever Silvio Berlusconi says, it is bound to happen sooner or later – would leave Milan with three young forwards on whom to base their future around. Add in Bojan as a possible fourth option, and that locks in one department for the foreseeable. Then, it is just a case of finding the right ingredients elsewhere.
And for as long as they can keep finding sturdy individuals such as De Sciglio elsewhere in the line-up, that takes away some of their headaches, allows them the possibility to seriously consider bids for their under-performing first-teamers (if Zenit St Petersburg are really offering €10 million for Ignazio Abate, who was poor again on Wednesday, they should snap their hands off) and gives a much rosier outlook for the seasons ahead.
If Allegri can just get the rest of his team working as a cohesive unit on the training ground, then Milan can surely have a decent run-in during the second half of the Serie A season. Their young stars certainly deserve the support of their more senior team-mates as they attempt to drag the club back off its knees and make an impression on a league that nobody outside of Juventus has really taken by storm so far.
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