Tuesday 12 December 2017

Mihajlovic's fire burns but Milan's glory days just a distant memory

AC Milan's coach Sinisa Mihajlovic leaves the pitch after receiving a red card during the match against AS Roma. Photo: Reuters/Giampiero Sposito
AC Milan's coach Sinisa Mihajlovic leaves the pitch after receiving a red card during the match against AS Roma. Photo: Reuters/Giampiero Sposito

Ian Hawkey

Sinisa Mihajlovic lasted an hour of AC Milan's 1-1 draw at Roma. Pessimists had reckoned he had 90 minutes to save his job as head coach on Saturday night, a point the minimum he could post as bail against the sack.

In the event, referee Daniele Orsato prematurely removed him from the zone where he could carry out his functions and express his frustrations.

He thought the red card disproportionate. He had merely kicked a water bottle towards the broad moat that surrounds the pitch having just seen Juraj Kucka spoon the ball over the Roma crossbar, the best chance Milan would have to snatch a win and keep in closer touch with the clubs scrapping for a place in the top three.

Mihajlovic, inevitably, swiping at the plastic bottle with his left foot, connected with it sweetly. The tool that once made him the most effective striker of a dead-ball in Serie A still works. The Serbian then complained fiercely to the fourth official. As a player he never showed much bonhomie with referees.

"They need to understand," Mihajlovic (46) grumbled. "Out there, our jobs are at stake. I was disappointed we made a mistake. What should I do? Recite a poem?"

That remark drew laughter from reporters. Mihajlovic may have been an artist with his free-kicks while with Sampdoria, Roma, Lazio and Inter Milan in the 1990s and 2000s, but he was seldom lyrical, and sometimes loutish. He was once obliged to apologise for racially abusing Patrick Vieira during a Lazio-Arsenal collision. In middle age and after almost a decade in management, the aggression is tempered, even if the super-competitive instinct is never in full retreat.

The club Mihajlovic guides are less than super, and way behind the competitive jostle at the summit of their division. He may well become the fourth Milan coach in less than two years to be relieved of the position if his team fail against Carpi in the Coppa Italia on Wednesday or against Fiorentina next weekend.

A clear improvement in the second half against Roma, when, thanks to a Kucka header, they recovered from conceding after four minutes, soothed the pressure, but eighth in the table is not where Milan's president, Silvio Berlusconi, thinks the club should be lingering.

"The team is not performing as well as we expected," Adriano Galliani, the long-serving aide to Berlusconi, said. "We have dropped points against smaller clubs, so we are where we deserve to be." Which is located in a sort of groundhog day. This time a year ago, Milan were three points worse off than they are now, and stuck with Pippo Inzaghi, a novice in senior management. Two Januarys back, they sacked Massimiliano Allegri, overseer of Milan's last scudetto in 2011, and replaced him with Clarence Seedorf, who had been a player in a far more successful Milan and had no experience as an elite coach. Seedorf got half the time Inzaghi did; his record in his half a season was similar to Mihajlovic's so far.

So far Mihajlovic's most reliable alibi has been Gigio Donnarumma. He measures 1.98m, wears an XXL goalkeeping jersey and the only clue, to look at him, that he is scarcely into adolescence is the patchiness of his beard. Mihajlovic made a point of crediting Donnarumma's excellent reflex saves, one a right-handed, diving stop, the other a telescopic reach of his left palm, for restricting Roma's first-half lead to a single goal.

"I'd like to thank Gigetto," the coach said, referring to the prodigy by his boyish nickname. The gratitude is mutual.

Mihajlovic gave Donnarumma a surprise first-team debut in the autumn, promoted from third choice to first. He turns 17 at the end of next month.

That means he was just 12 when the once-great Milan were last Italian champions. It means the most recent of their seven European Cups was lifted more than half his lifetime ago. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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