Udinese 2.85, the draw 3.15, Milan 2.55
What difference four months can make. Milan and Udinese finished second and third respectively in Serie A back in May, yet just three games into the new season the prospect of a repeat seems unthinkable. If both teams’ results have been poor thus far, the truth is that those are only the tip of the iceberg.
Milan’s problems are well documented. Few teams could take the departures of two such important players as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in their stride, let alone do so in a summer when such elder statesmen as Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta, Mark van Bommel and Pippo Inzaghi were also allowed to leave. Their reinvestment in the transfer market was modest.
This was a necessary step towards meeting Financial Fair Play requirements for a club which made losses of close to €70m in each of the previous two years, yet the hope among the club’s hierarchy that their team could remain competitive in its diminished state has been made to look naïve. Even if not title contenders, most had still expected this team to obtain some kind of result from games against Atalanta and newly-promoted Sampdoria at San Siro.
Instead they became the first Milan team in 80 years – and only the second ever – to lose both of their first two home games of a top-flight season. The manager Massimiliano Allegri, already unpopular with many fans over perceived negative tactics, now stands accused also of inflexibility. Thus far he has refused to adjust a 4-3-1-2 formation which no longer seems best suited to the available personnel.
The change in mood around the club has been marked, with Milan recording their worst season-ticket sales figures since Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986. Yet if any other club’s fans understand how quickly fortunes can turn, it might be those who support this week’s opponents.
Udinese, after all, began this season just as they did the last: looking forward to a Champions League qualifier. Whereas getting a result against Arsenal in 2011 was always going to be a tall order, a match-up with Braga this time around did not look nearly so daunting. A 1-1 draw in the away leg only added to the belief that this could be the year.
An eventual elimination on penalties, then, was almost too much to bear. The manager Francesco Guidolin struggled to come to terms with it. In the past two seasons he had led his team to fourth and then third-place finishes despite the departures of Alexis Sánchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristián Zapata. This summer he had seen Samir Handanovic, Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah moved on. The thought of having to do it all again was overwhelming. He openly mooted resignation.
In the end he was convinced to stay, though for how long still remains to be seen. Beyond mere players, the energy and exuberance which has characterised this team at its best over the past two years seems to have been lost. Udinese were beaten by Fiorentina in their season opener, then routed 4-1 at home by Juventus in their second game.
Draws against Siena and Anzhi Makhachkala may have steadied the ship to some extent, but it is abundantly clear that neither team comes into this match-up high on confidence. Udinese have shipped eight goals already this season, scoring four, so a bet on over 2.5 goals makes good sense at even money.
Antonio Di Natale remains the most likely player to score for the home team – it was his late strike which earned his team the draw against Anzhi – but if you are looking for better value then Stephan El Shaarawy may be worth considering. He scored his first Serie A goal for Milan against these same opponents almost exactly one year ago.
Prediction: Udinese 2-2 Milan