As showdowns for a Champions League dream go, it was not all that inspirational. For much of the match, Milan and Lazio looked as if they were as enthusiastic about a place in Europe as a Brexiteer cabinet minister. But, in the end, the side with by far the greater pedigree in continental competition seized its opportunity to rise above Roma into fourth place – for the time being at least.
If I were a fan of the Rossoneri, however, my celebrations would be doused with a dash of realism. No doubt the club has made progress this season under Rino Gattuso – you only have to look at their points haul and hopes of a Coppa Italia Final – but they are still far from the finished article.
Putting this squad up against the very best from other leagues would surely have fans peeking through their fingers in trepidation. For a club that once instilled fear in its rivals around the world, it would be curious to be considered something of an underdog.
It’s not fair, of course, to judge them entirely on one game. Over the season, the San Siro side has shown enough to suggest that it is on an upward path – especially compared with the shambolic approach under its old owners. There is a sense of direction, at least, even if the road ahead still feels like a long one.
On the positive side have been the Rossoneri’s younger Italian players and the impact of recent arrivals Lucas Paqueta – now sadly lost to injury – and Krzysztof Piatek. But how many people are convinced that the likes of Suso, Samu Castillejo and Hakan Calhanoglu are ready for the great leap forward? Forgive me if I have my doubts.
Not that anyone would think that Milan will not invest heavily – assuming they are permitted to do so – should they get their top four place. This is a club with the kind of Champions League and European clout that others can only dream about. If they start making their acquisitions with a little more planning than they did in recent times, they can get back to their rightful place once more.
They are not there, yet, though – at least on Saturday night’s evidence. The heart and character will have pleased their Coach, but the quality was still in short supply. They were never going to bridge the gap to the teams above them – and Juventus in particular – overnight. This season looks like a couple of steps forward, but it must still feel like looking through a telescope the wrong way round when they gaze at where they would like to be.
Still, it would be churlish to be too downbeat after an important win, no matter how tricky it was to achieve. This summer will be a test of the new regime, its ability to plan for the long-term and really create stable foundations for a serious recovery. If these players can deliver a top four spot, they will have done their bit.
As for Lazio, they looked a bit bedraggled in Milan, as they have done from time to time this campaign. They are still capable of some great performances, but they seem to have been much more intermittent this season. Some sparkle has gone and it has seen them slide down the Serie A standings. The Coppa Italia, of course, remains a major shot at redemption.
Nothing is set in stone, with Roma and Atalanta also still very much live contenders for a Champions League finish. In the absence of a title race, fans of Serie A will have to make do with the excitement of those twists and turns between now and the end of May. None of the sides involved in the battle may be perfect, but they are certainly giving their all. Any worries about how they might fare in Europe, I guess, can wait until another day.
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