MILAN: Uncertainty over the future of AC Milan hovers over the stricken Italian giants as they look to avoid the ignominy of a season without European football by wresting the Italian Cup from Juventus on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
“It would be a huge victory for the team but also in terms of sealing direct entry to the Europa League,” club owner and president Silvio Berlusconi told the players at their training ground earlier this week.
Milan, the seven-time European champions, are now a pale shadow of the club that brought Berlusconi no fewer than five Champions League titles between 1989 and 2007.
Now increasingly frustrated at Milan’s slow decline, Berlusconi has put the club up for sale, recently signing exclusive negotiating rights with a Chinese consortium.
The potential new owners, as much as Berlusconi, will have a keen eye on Saturday’s final at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, where league champions Juventus could become the first Italian club to win successive league and Cup doubles.
The winner will earn direct entry to the Europa League, meaning if Juventus triumph the qualifying spot for Europe’s second-tier competition goes to Serie A’s sixth place finisher.
On the final day of the season, Milan were thumped 3-1 at home by Roma, while Sassuolo stunned 10-man Inter Milan 3-1 to finish four points ahead of the Rossoneri in sixth.
Unsurprisingly, town officials have set up large screens in the Tuscan town for thousands of fans to witness their possible and historic entry into European football.
Although a season without the revenues from the lucrative Champions League can be crippling, Milan’s failure to qualify for Europe’s second-tier club event would leave a bigger stain on their reputation.
Former Juventus, Middlesbrough and Derby striker Fabrizio Ravanelli blames Milan’s management and recruitment department, which is run by CEO Adriano Galliani.
“There’s been just too many changes made by Milan’s management. They’ve changed coaches too many times and had no consistency,” Ravanelli told Premium Sport.
No Juve complacency
In keeping with pre-Cup final tradition, both teams will meet Pope Francis on Friday and receive his wishes for a match which effectively brings the curtain down on the Italian club season.
Yet Milan will need a miracle if they are to shock a Juventus team that, despite sitting only a handful of points above the relegation zone in the autumn, were still too good for the rest in Italy’s top flight.
Juventus fought their way back into contention thanks to a defiant 26-game unbeaten run, and secured a record-equaling fifth successive title with three games to spare.
Still, coach Massimiliano Allegri is taking nothing for granted.
“I’m not worried, but we have to have a maximum of respect for them. Milan have a tradition of winning the Cup,” said Allegri, who is unlikely to have much sympathy for his old club.
Allegri was sacked by Milan in January 2014 after the Rossoneri threw away a three-goal half-time lead on their way to a 4-3 defeat to Sassuolo, and some Milan detractors still claim his sacking was the first step in their steady decline.
Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, however, said the magic of a Cup finals could spring a surprise.
“We can’t go there thinking we’re favorites. We have to remain humble, because it’s not always the strongest that wins,” said the Frenchman.
“It’s a final, and Milan aren’t going to Rome to hand us the win.”
Allegri will be without injury-hit German midfielder Sami Khedira due to a calf injury, while Juve are also without defender Leonardo Bonucci (suspended) and midfield creator Claudio Marchisio (knee).
The defending champions are likely to adopt a 3-5-2, with Mario Mandzukic set to be given the nod over Spanish striker Alvaro Morata to partner Paulo Dybala in attack.