Milan makes a statement on behalf of Serie A in the Champions League
There is no broad conclusion to be drawn after Wednesday night's 4-0 thumping of Arsenal by AC Milan in the Champions League. One game doesn't tell you much about the relative health of entire leagues. So forget this whole "Serie A is back" business (fact is, it never really went away ... for all its self-destructive tendencies, rock-bottom was hit a few seasons back and it is -- very slowly -- climbing back out of the hole ... but it's a deep hole and there's a way to go).
And stow the "Premier League is not all its cracked up to be" conclusions too: yes, it's overhyped and, yes, apart from Tottenham, none of England's top sides have played consistently good soccer all season long, but nobody can match the English league's strength in depth at the top end of the table.
This doesn't mean however that Wednesday evening wasn't a seminal night for the "rossoneri" and not just because -- barring an Act of God -- they're through to the quarterfinal. The Arsenal victory exorcised some demons and turned question marks into possibilities. And that's no mean feat for a team which -- despite being defending champions and again topping Serie A -- hasn't really looked like a legitimate Champions League contender in several seasons.
Start with the big man. Zlatan Ibrahimovic dominates this Milan team much like he has dominated every team he has played on. (And, yes, that includes Barcelona. "Dominate" doesn't mean he's the best player on the team. It does mean that he's central to the attacking half of the pitch in a way nobody else is. Which, incidentally, is why Pep Guardiola dropped him). If Ibrahimovic plays badly, his team tends to play badly. On Wednesday, he reminded us of what he can do: when he's on song, he's nearly unplayable. And that's why Milan need to be taken seriously.
His supporting cast is talented, but imperfect. On paper, Robinho buzzing around Ibrahimovic makes him the perfect foil. Problem is, his finishing this year has been decidedly Walcottesque, as evidenced by his three goals in 18 Serie A appearances. Yet, when he's switched on, he can be lethal, as he was against the Gunners. Milan boss Massilimiliano Allegri needs a functioning (and finishing) Robinho, because he has few viable alternatives. Alexandre Pato seems to break down every few weeks and, in any case, is more of a center forward than a viable partner for Ibrahimovic. Antonio Cassano has the tools to complement the big Swede, but, of course, he has a heart condition and won't be back until April at the earliest. Stephan El Shaarawy has a bright future, but he's 19. And Maxi Lopez, well, he has the makings of a cult hero and the look of a superstar, but he's on a slightly different level in terms of quality.
Milan works best when the midfield provides adequate support and ensures Ibrahimovic has a steady supply, whether in the penalty box or in areas where he can work his magic. In that sense, Milan really misses the injured Alberto Aquilani, who is just the kind of tidy passer who can keep things ticking. It's interesting to see how Allegri coped in his absence. He started with Clarence Seedorf -- Milan's only other creative midfielder -- alongside the ballwinners, Antonio Nocerino and Mark Van Bommel. But when the Dutchman's 35-year-old legs gave out in the first half, he turned to his only option, Urby Emanuelson, a recycled wide player. Emanuelson's job is, essentially, to run with the ball until he either gets fouled or can play a one-two. It gets pretty darn predictable, which is why, if Ibrahimovic's heroics up front go missing, Milan have a problem.
The good news is that the rossoneri also have an X-Factor: Kevin Prince Boateng. The Ghanaian-German is the classic spoiler, operating somewhere between midfield and attack, harassing anybody near him with his heft and strength and free to unleash his offensive vein (see Milan's first goal for Exhibit A). He won't give you consistent creativity, but he will provide serious matchup problems (put a terrier-like holding midfielder on him and he'll simply brush him aside) and force opponents to adjust tactically. (Or not, in Arsenal's case).
At the back, Milan is solid. With Nemanja Vidic injured and Gerard Pique going through a rough patch, Thiago Silva is probably the best centerback in the world. Philippe Mexes can be inconsistent but he can also turn in stellar performances: until Alessandro Nesta regains his form (assuming he ever does: he's 35 now and has had seven knee operations) he's a competent partner. Luca Antonini is somewhat pedestrian on the left, while, on the right, Ignazio Abate gives you little other than raw speed, yet, as a unit, Milan works defensively, not least because the ferocious Nocerino and the wily Van Bommel provide a first-rate shield. Between the sticks, Christian Abbiati is solid enough.
What you're left with is a team that relies heavily on Ibrahimovic, yes, but also one with enough matchwinners who, on their day, can raise their game. From Robinho to Boateng to Pato, there are enough guys here who can pull off the superstar act when needed. And that, more than anything, is what makes Milan dangerous.
The Champions League isn't about consistency, it's about standout performances. If the right guys lift their game at the right time, the rossoneri can hang with anyone. Even Barcelona and Real Madrid. And if Ibrahimovic -- another one whose production is sometimes marred by Nasdaq-like volatility -- also happens to click on the night, well, Milan is going to be a serious headache for any opponent.