Within the context of a disappointing 2013-14 season, Milan’s performance on Wednesday against Atlético Madrid was a small ray of sunshine, even if the Rossoneri left the San Siro down 1-0 in the teams’ UEFA Champions LeagueRound of 16 matchup. Particularly in the middle of the first half, Milan played as well as they have all season, generating two near-goals for Kaká and another for Andrea Poli. While a 83rd minute winner from Diego Costa meant the day was ultimately an unsuccessful one, the performance highlighted the slow progress the team has been able to make under Clarence Seedorf.
“I think everybody saw what my players did tonight, and I am proud of what they did, really,” Seedorf said after his first Champions League match as a head coach (as relayed by UEFA.com). “In the last 20 minutes we were tired and we were also a bit unlucky with their goal, I have to say … It will be tough in the return leg, I know, but I also remember I have had some fun in that stadium.”
A four-time Champions League winner as a player, Seedorf was hired to replace former Milan boss Max Allegri on Jan. 16, lifting some fans’ hopes that a disappointing season could still see Milan do some damage in Champions League. Although Wednesday’s result means that’s now less likely, the performance showed the Rossoneri have become a more capable side than the one Seedorf inherited last month.
“My players are trying to improve, they are working hard, and I see the team spirit growing,” Seedorf said after his first Champions League game as a head coach. “My past experience tells me that team spirit can make you go far in the competition.”
As Wednesday showed, it will take more than team spirit to oust the favored Atlético, but given three more weeks to help his players adjust to a new system (as well as each other), Milan may be even stronger when the teams take the field at the Vicente Calderón.
“Balotelli is improving match by match but it takes time for strikers to adapt to each other,” Seedorf explained. “They have not played many games together.”
Between Wednesday and Milan’s visit to Madrid, Seedorf’s team will get three chances to improve that familiarity: league matches against Sampdoria, Juventus, and Udinese. On Mar. 11, they try to turn around their one-goal deficit at the Calderón.