Giampaolo Pazzini

Balotelli injury only worsens AC Milan’s miserable league season

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Mario Balotelli seemed like AC Milan’s biggest hope to take a lead against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday, giving their fans something to cling to in an otherwise wretched season.

Instead, just like things have the entire year for the Serie A giants, it all went wrong.

Not only did Atletico score in the waning seconds, stealing a win and away goal and leaving Milan with nothing to show for a promising performance, but the home side also lost their season’s best player.

Balotelli fell awkwardly on his shoulder, leaving him with a damaged AC joint and unable to make the pitch for at least 10 days, according to the Associated Press.

10 days, as the report says, as long as “there are no complications.” Most AC Milan fans are at the point where nothing would surprise them, including complications.

As it stands, however, Balotelli will be back for the reverse Champions League fixture in Madrid. Unfortunately, the immediate future is the biggest concern for the Rossoneri would be their upcoming Serie A fixtures.

With a trip to Sampdoria on Sunday and Juventus the following weekend, Milan will be forced to play 29-year-old striker Giampaolo Pazzini.  The Pescia-born forward has himself struggled with injury this year, seeing just 202 Serie A minutes this season.

Sitting in ninth position in the Serie A standings – 18 points back of a Champions League qualification spot and a whopping 31 off the top – Balotelli’s loss will be another blow to Milan’s chance to salvage whatever they can on the disappointing season.

Antonio Cassano doesn’t do authority, Part 78: Italian star, head coach nearly come to blows

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Antonio Cassano got into a fight with Inter Milan head coach Andrea Stramaccioni. This is the kind of stuff he does.

The 30-year-old Italian international has had contentious departures from Roma, Real Madrid, and Sampdoria, and now he’s becoming a hornet’s nest for the Nerazzurri. It’s all part of the bargain.

According to reports out of Italy, Cassano and his Inter boss nearly came to blows after Friday’s training session. Midfielder Dejan Stankovic and team manager Ivan Cordoba separated the two before the confrontation climaxed.

The young head coach confirmed the news on Saturday, albeit in muted words:

There was no physical contact, it was just a discussion. It annoys me that it was reported outside the training ground, as these things should stay behind closed doors. Antonio is one of the players I have used the most.

He won’t be using him on Sunday. Stramaccioni confirmed he has decided to drop Cassano for the team’s trip to Catania. The playmaker will, however, be back in the team mid-week:

Cassano will be called up for the Europa League game with Tottenham next week. This is my decision and he is not being punished, nor frozen out. Fredy Guarin and Ricky Alvarez are crucial to cover the gaps at the moment.

For Stramaccioni, a 37-year-old in his first full year on the job, the dressing room confrontation was less noteworthy than the fact news of it got out:

Leaving Cassano out was my decision. It happened in the locker room and we shouldn’t make a big deal of it. Whoever leaked this story outside clearly does not want what’s best for Inter. The locker room is sacred.

Not sacred enough to avoid going after your coach, but as Stramaccioni initmated, this is not the first time a player and coach have almost come to blows.

And it’s not the first time Cassano’s famously bad temper has gotten the best of him. Inter knew what they were acquiring when they traded Giampaolo Pazzini to get him last summer.

No use excoriating either party. Not that Cassano doesn’t deserve some censure. It just won’t do any good.

Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Milan 3, at Zenit St. Petersburg 2

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Man of the Match: Of Milan’s three goals, Stephan El Shaawary’s stands out. It was the one that didn’t need major help from a Zenit player to find nylon. El Shaawary’s goal didn’t need help from his own players, either. The Milan attacker took a pass on the left wing, and dribbled through Zenit’s defense before slotting the Rossoneri’s second goal just inside the right post.

It was the 19 year old’s first Champions League goal, part of a day where he continuously created trouble for Zenit defenders. With Milan spending most of the match defending a lead, El Shaawary played as much as a conventional wide midfielder as attacker. But when he went forward, he created huge problems for Zenit.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • What do you get when two struggling but talented teams meet? Add the stakes of Champions League, and you get an unbalanced game with wild swings, a form of soccer chaos. Large swathes of this match were characterized by one team’s control meeting the other’s failings. There was never a time where both teams were at their best, and while that produced a compelling match, neither team was actually that good.
  • The sides began with near-identical setups – four man defenses, three-man midfields, two wingers flanking a central forward – but only one team showed up at the opening whistle.
  • Milan started strong, their energy allowing them to move quickly into attack, usually down left side worked by Stephan El Shaawary and, coming from the middle, Bojan Krkic. Attacking midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng was staying so high (right behind Krkic) and came back so little, Milan’s formation played like a 4-2-4.
  • In the 13th minute, Milan’s ambition met a little luck. Zenit had just started coming into the match when midfielder Viktor Fayzulin committed a ill-advised foul on Urby Emanuelson, the Milan attacker cutting into the middle from his wide right position. Emanuelson’s restart from 24 yards out got mostly wall but still deflected up and toward goal, with goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev unable to get back from his move to the left to prevent a fortunate opener.
  • Malafeev really should have stopped it. After hitting the wall, the ball seemed to hang in the air and briefly looked like it would go well wide. But the spin sent the ball diving back toward goal. Malafeev was slow to react, his momentum toward the opposite post leaving him off-balance.
  • Four minutes later, Milan doubled their lead, with El Shaawary dribbling in from the left, beating Fayzulin and defender Nicolas Lombaerts before putting the Rossoneri’s second goal inside Malafeev’s left post.
  • That wasn’t the first time El Shaawary had done damage. Minutes earlier, the 19-year-old was given too much space to run at Zenit right back Aleksandr Anyukov. He was able to cut in and, although Anyukov got a foot to the ball, create a chance for Krkic. Eventually, Luciano Spalletti would have to switch Hulk away from that flank, getting his more defensively responsible winger, Vladimir Bystrov, onto El Shaawary’s side.
  • It was an absolutely inept start from Zenit. Milan was the better side at the opening whistle, but they weren’t executing anything so remarkable that Zenit couldn’t have held out. The first goal was fortunate, but it was one that came from Milan control drawing a bad foul. On the second goal, defenders just blindly went into tackles, come up with nothing, and couldn’t stop a run that was inelegant if successful.
  • It wasn’t until the 22nd minute, six minutes after Milan’s second goal, that Zenit started to pick up their energy. By then, you could see Milan already adjusting. El Shaawary and Emanuelson were sitting deeper on the flanks. When Zenit set up in the final third, Milan’s highest man (Krkic) was playing off the last midfielder instead of the defense.
  • That approach looked set to preserve Milan’s two-goal lead into half before a breakdown in the second minute of injury time. Ignazio Abate was drawn away from his place at right back, opening up too much room to the left of Cristián Zapata. Roman Shirokov found Hulk in the channel, the Brazilian’s left-footed shot beating Christian Abbati for Zenit’s opener.
  • What a huge difference a goal makes. Without Hulk’s score, Zenit goes into half time with nothing positive to take from the first 45 minutes. Down only one, Zenit goes into the locker room on a positive note. They don’t have to start the second half in panic mode.
  • Four minutes into the second half, Zenit was even. Shirokov beat his mark, Riccardo Montolivo, on a corner. Hulk’s ball swung in perfectly, drawing Abbiati off his line, giving Shirokov the entire goal to finish his equalizer.
  • Zenit would dominate the next 20 minutes, forcing Max Allegri into a change. Early in the half he had brought on Giampaolo Pazzini for Krkic – a like for like – but on the verge of conceding a go-ahead goal, he changed the shape. Emanuelson was off and Antonio Nocerino, a central midfielder, was in. He’d play on the one side of a diamond-esque midfield. El Shaawary played high on the other side, Montolivo above Nigel de Jong in the middle.
  • The change worked. Almost immediately, Milan started seeing more of the ball, able to possess for meaningful periods of time and not have to play in their own end.
  • The move almost worked too well. Spalletti immediately responded. In the 72nd minute, Bystov made way for a central midfielder, Konstantin Zyryanov.
  • The change never had time to take effect. In the 75th minute, sloppy play from Zenit coming out of their own end let to a turnover. Milan swung the ball ahead of a Montolivo cross. Pazzini’s attempted redirect went off defender Tomas Hubocan’s left arm and into Malafeev’s net. It was the second huge piece of luck Milan’d gotten, the difference between being down one and up 3-2.
  • As you’d expect, Spelletti immediately changed again, bringing on a forward (Maksim Kanunnikov) for a midfielder (Fayzulni). Allegri responded by bringing in a third central defender, Mario Yepes coming on for Boateng.
  • Allegri’s change killed off the match. Any time Zenit set up in attack, they’d see a box crowded with red and black between them and goal. Attempts to play in from wide almost never got past the first man. That match was over.
  • It’s a huge win for Milan, if a very lucky one. There’s no arguing that they got two goals out of pure fortune. Both the first and third game from otherwise innocuous plays. Milan gets three points, but it’s hard to say if they earned or stumbled into them.
  • The Rossoneri do deserve credit for the energy they brought from the get-go. In the preview, we talked about the morose aura that’s enveloped the team. None of that was evident tonight. There was no self pity, only effort.
  • For Zenit, it’s a crushing loss, but they did little to win this match. They never led, only played well for a 30 minute span in the middle, and needed a first half wakeup call to even get in the match. Against a Milan team that hasn’t been that good, they allowed the game to be taken from them

Ground vacated by Milan, Zenit – UEFA Champions League Group C preview

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With one matchday in the books, Group C has been turned on its head. Milan and Zenit, favorites to go through, are playing like the group’s weakest sides. Málaga, thought on the edge of turmoil, are now the favorites, with Anderlecht’s opening round point at the San Siro positioning the Belgians to profit if the big two don’t wake up.

Two weeks ago, Group C changed in one, two-hour blink of the eye. On Wednesday, it could happen again, even it the Russia start time means it’d be a five-hour blink.

Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) versus Milan (Italy)
Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg, 12:00 p.m. Eastern

They were expected the best of Group C, but given how Zenit and Milan have started the tournament, Wednesday’s match comes with unexpectedly high stakes. Milan face the toughest trip of the group and the specter of being without a point and in last place by this time on Thursday. An after Zenit was surprisingly Isco’d in Andalusia, a home loss to a struggling Milan will only deepen the disillusionment that’s surrounding the club.

Zenit’s depression began in mid-August when the then 4-0-0 Russians embarked a 1-2-2 slump, falling to the middle of a Premier League table they’d dominated since the hire of Luciano Spalletti. Their 3-0 defeat at Málaga came in the middle of that downturn, a clear sign that the Hulk-Axel Witsel shopping spree was no red eye to Europe’s penthouse. With outsiders now questioning how Hulk’s settled in the team (the only issue is language, he says), Zenit’s spending spree seems more disruptive than helpful.

That can all turn around on Wednesday, and Zenit doesn’t even have to get their act together to make it happen. Milan’s been more adrift than Zenit, sitting 11th in Serie A after losing three of their first four. The Rossoneri have since rebounded, kind of. They beat last place Calgiari and drew a Parma team whose only win came against a Chievo side destined to battle relegation.

Most concerning about Milan is the morose attitude surrounding the team. Everybody is focusing on who left there rather than who stayed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were huge losses, sold to Parsi Saint-Germain, but the rest of the losses (a ton of veteran players like Clarence Seedorf, Mark van Bommel, Gennaro Gattuso and Alessandro Nesta) were not irreplaceable, especially given their sketchy injury records. Max Allegri was left with a team that had the likes of Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Kevin Prince Boateng, Ricardo Montolivo, Antonio Nocerino and Nigel de Jong. They’re since added Giampaolo Pazzini and seen youngsters Stephan El Shaaraawy and Mattia De Sciglio get off to strong starts. In Serie A’s new world order, that’s enough to complete for Champions League, but because of the defeatist attitude engulfing the club, nobody has noticed.

Perhaps somewhere along the 1722-mile trip to northwest Russia Milan will snap out of their funk. But long road trips usually calcify ennui. A struggling Rossoneri side iss unlikely to see a chilly, rainy St. Petersburg motivating.

More: Group A Group B Group C Group D

Anderlecht (Belgium) versus Málaga (Spain)
Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

How cool would it be if Oguchi Onyewu got to play for Málaga? It’s unlikely to happen, the U.S. international yet to appear domestically for his new club, but if he did, we’d have an American on each side of the ball, with former Chivas USA midfielder Sacha Kljestan a probable starter for Anderlecht. While we won’t get to see it, the mere possibility reminds us that U.S. players are slowly creeping deeper and deeper into the European game. It’s only a matter of time before two Yanks are shaking hands before a Champions League kickoff.

In terms of what will happen on the field tomorrow …

The match gives Anderlecht a chance to show they’re more than a team that can hold out against an idea-less Milan. At the San Siro, they put only two shots on Christian Abbiati, and while a point at Milan is not something for the likes of Anderlecht to second guess, there was a feeling the Belgians could have done more. It was worth taking a chance against the Milan side still learning how to create goals in an Ibrahimovic/Antonio Cassano-less world.

At home against Málaga, Anderlecht are going to have to do more, yet the Andalusians will present a more difficult challenge. Manuel Pellegrini’s team is better than Milan’s, an undefeated start in Spain complemented by their 3-0 Champions League win over Zenit. As he’s done at every place he’s coached over the last decade, Pellegrini’s instilled an approach that may not be flashy but produces tight, cohesive teams with enough flexibility to both take advantage of opponents as well as incorporate players like Juan Román Riquelme and Robert Pires.

Now Pellegrini may have another gem, one that has offset the preseason loss of Santi Cazorla. Even before his two-goal Champions League debut, Isco was drawing the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Though he hasn’t been able to build on that performance, he still has the type of game-breaking talent that could give Anderlecht defenders Marcin Wasilewski and Cheikhou Kouyate trouble. More worrisome or Anderlecht, he could prove a thorn in the side of Lucas Biglia, Anderlecht’s best distributor.

That Isco, like his club, is still a relative unknown to the broader Champions League audience fuels the idea that Anderlecht can build on the Milan result. They very well might, but if they do so, it will be against a better team. Málaga may not have Milan’s brand, but they’ll pose a much bigger challenge.

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