Can depleted AC Milan mount Serie A title challenge in coming season?

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It seemed the 2008-09 season was barely seconds over before AC Milan turned just about everything on its head. Bad enough Captain Courageous, PaoloMaldini, has finally (at the age of almost 41) opted to retire, but next season, the Rossoneri will also be without two key figures of recent seasons: coach Carlo Ancelotti and Brazilian ace Kaká, who have left for Chelsea and Real Madrid, respectively.

In a sense, no one can say that any of this came as a total surprise. From the moment last January that Milan indicated a willingness to entertain Manchester City's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to buy Kaká, it was clear he would be on the market just as soon as a more famous and fashionable club came along. Many of us predicted Real Madrid might come knocking -- which it did, to the tune of $92 million, there or thereabouts, thus realizing an $84 million profit for Milan on its 2003 purchase price.

Likewise, failure to mount a serious Serie A challenge to champion Inter Milan in a season when it was exiled from the Champions League was always going to strain the Ancelotti-Milan relationship beyond breaking point. While in Egypt in early May for a bilateral summit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Milan's owner, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, rather let the cat out of the bag when telling a group of Italian tourists that Ancelotti had "got it all wrong" this season.

Little surprise, then, that within 24 hours of Milan beating Fiorentina 2-0 on the last day of the season to claim third place, Ancelotti announced he was on his way to Chelsea and the club named Leonardo as his successor.

Milan's win in Florence had wrapped up one of the few unresolved issues of the season as it joins Inter and runner-up Juventus in the Champions League group stage. Meanwhile, fourth-place Fiorentina will have to report back early for duty to prepare for the final qualifying round of the competition.

Genoa, Roma and Lazio qualified for the Europa League, while Reggina, Lecce and Torino were relegated and will be replaced next season by Bari, Parma and Livorno. All in all, these were verdicts very much in line with expectations.

So, whither Italian soccer? Do the many changes at Milan mean that, for the time being, the club has kissed goodbye to regaining its one-time position on top of the world? Will the Special One, José Mourinho, manage to keep his talented band of brothers (above all, Zlatan Ibrahimovic) at Appiano Gentile? Or will key elements in the current Inter set-up be tempted to follow Kaká and Ancelotti in heading for either Spain or the Premier League?

Maldini, never a man to fluff his lines, is certainly worried for his old club. On the day of his "end of career" news conference, he said: "This is a very big change for Milan. For the first time the club has opted to let go one of its true stars. That is bad news for Kaká's [ex-]teammates and the fans.

"Clearly, Italian football is facing tough times. Inter is the only Italian club that can spend big. It's logical that clubs will try to balance the books, but we should still fix reasonable objectives. One thing is for sure, it is pure utopia to think Milan can win the Champions League without Kaká."

Maldini acknowledged that in today's brave new world of Premier League -- along with Barcelona and Real Madrid -- economic dominance, Italian clubs will have to concentrate on developing and bringing youth-team players through the ranks. That process, according to Maldini, takes "three to five years before you see the first real results."

Maldini also expressed a certain perplexity about the appointment of Leonardo, pointing out that the talented Brazilian represents a major gamble for the good reason that he has never coached before, at any level. All in all, too many changes have been rung, concluded Maldini.

For the time being, Milan has moved carefully in the transfer market, recalling Massimo Oddo from Bayern Munich, picking up Thiago Silva from Fluminense last January and bidding for Wolfsburg's 23-year-old Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko (as well as signing American center back Oguchi Onyewu and making overtures for Sevilla's Luís Fabiano). Needless to say, such moves have hardly caused rapture among the fans who still feel Berlusconi and club director Adriano Galliani should have done more to hold onto Kaká. The same fans, too, remain concerned that Milan might even be tempted to cash in on their remaining Brazilian talent, striker Alexandre Pato. No way, says Galliani.

As for Milan's crosstown rival, Inter already looks stronger for next season with the signings of Argentina striker Diego Milito and Brazilian midfielder ThiagoMotta, both from Genoa, and the recall of Portugal's Ricardo Quaresma from Chelsea. Mourinho seems very confident, too, that he will hold on to Ibrahimovic. If he does, then Inter will start the season as red-hot favorites, such is the strength of its quality squad.

Two final notes of good news. According to the Italian soccer authorities, overall Serie A attendances were up nine percent on last year, with 9.5 million fans (as compared to 7.1 million three years ago) watching games, and 15 Serie A clubs reporting that, on average, they are more than half full every weekend.

Meanwhile, the Champions League final in Rome proved a major Italian (perhaps more UEFA?) soccer occasion that went off perfectly, despite Anglo-Saxon media misgivings about the city's choice.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.