Montella could be victim of Milan’s top-four obligation

It has been a familiar reaction to Milan home games this season. Boos rang around the San Siro on Sunday afternoon following the Rossoneri’s 0-0 draw with Genoa, which came just 66 hours or so after Vincenzo Montella’s side were jeered by their own fans having been held to another goalless stalemate against AEK Athens in the Europa League. Needless to say, this has not been the start to the season Milan supporters were envisaging.

With nine games played Milan sit 11th in the standings, nine points adrift of the top four and a further three behind league leaders Napoli. Much more was expected after a summer spending spree which saw the Italian giants part with £175m, and although there is still a long way to go before anything is decided, it would take a monumental effort for the 18-time champions to add another Scudetto to their trophy cabinet this campaign.

In truth, that was always an ambitious goal, with most associated with the club instead targeting a top-four finish. Real Madrid are the only club on the planet to have won more European Cups than Milan’s seven, yet it is now four years since the Rossoneri competed in the Champions League and six seasons since they made it to the quarter-finals or beyond. That is far too long for an outfit of their standing and returning to the continent’s biggest stage was seen as a must before a ball had been kicked at the start of the season.

There is another reason why securing a place in the Champions League is so important this term, though. By the club’s own admission Milan gambled with their heavy investment in the transfer market, which was designed to accelerate their return to the top table; in this case, revolution was preferred to evolution.

The general reaction to their work in the window was positive, with Leonardo Bonucci, Franck Kessie, Andre Silva, Hakan Calhanoglu, Ricardo Rodriguez, Andrea Conti and Lucas Biglia among the new signings. Yet Montella has hitherto struggled to forge a unit which is stronger than the sum of its individual parts, and there have consequently been very few signs of cohesion up to now. That is a major concern for both the manager and, more pertinently, the club’s hierarchy, who must be beginning to fret even at this early stage of the season.

Milan’s protracted takeover by Chinese company Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing was finally completed in April, with former owner Silvio Berlusconi handing over the reins after more than two decades at the helm. The news was greeted with positivity by Milan fans, who acknowledged that an influx of cash was required to help get the team back on track after recent mid-table finishes.

Yet some of that optimism has been tempered by subsequent revelations. In a frank interview with The Observer in August, managing director Marco Fassone spoke both of the club’s objective in 2017/18 and why it was so important from them to achieve it.

“We are lucky because this is the first season that Italy will have four clubs who qualify [for the Champions League in 2018-19] so the target is difficult, but not impossible,” he said. “It represents the minimum goal that we want to achieve. The club is a giant that’s been sleeping for two or three years, but it’s like a Ferrari that’s been kept in a garage – you need to let a Ferrari out on the track to be free.”

Fassone then went on to explain that if Milan miss out on the top four, they could be sold on to a private equity fund in the US, whose intentions are unclear. Li Yonghong, the man who fronted the Chinese takeover, loaned €300m – at high interest rates – from Elliott Management, with repayment due next October. If Milan do not have Champions League revenue to help with reimbursement, ownership of the club could pass to Elliott. It adds another layer of pressure to a delicate situation.

“I think the disappointment and sense of irritation in the stadium was felt by the team and it was due to the three Serie A defeats rather than the performance itself,” Montella told Sky Sport Italia after Thursday’s draw with AEK.

“We created many chances and did not finish them off against a good side. I urge the fans and the club to stand by us and above all these players, who need to be embraced more than jeered during this difficult time.

“I see the lads want to do more, they want to prove they belong at Milan and that is creating a psychological block. It is my job to unblock it. It is a growth process and I am convinced we will get there because most of these players have never worn a jersey like this before and the situation is making them struggle to express themselves.”

Despite his appeals for calm, the former Fiorentina boss must be concerned for his long-term job prospects ahead of this weekend’s meeting with reigning champions Juventus. Montella deserves more time in the post following Milan’s summer overhaul, but he could ultimately be a victim of the club’s top-four obligation.

By Greg Lea

Greg Lea is a freelance football writer for FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various others. Follow his Twitter account @GregLeaFootball for anything and everything related to soccer and more.