AC Milan didn’t just go crashing out of the Champions League on Tuesday — it was unceremoniously dumped out with a real reminder of just how far it has fallen.
The 4-1 second-leg defeat to Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon will be the last we see of it in the competition for at least 18 months, and the manner of the humiliation only served to underline exactly how much work the club has to do if it is not to experience the same fate as neighboring Inter in recent years.
Clarence Seedorf’s pre-match rallying cry was full of the emotive language typical of a coach in Italy.
“We have to fight as a team and play with our hearts. These things come before the technical and tactical aspects,” the Dutchman asserted. “Milan have a great history and we have to honour the club and the shirt. We know we can write a beautiful page in this club’s history.”
But when the game got started it took less than three minutes for Atletico to remind the world which was the in-form team — Diego Costa launching himself at the ball to turn home Koke’s cross after Gabi had all too easily dispossessed Michael Essien.
Kaka briefly sparked hope of a comeback when his goalbound header was deflected past Thibaut Courtois by Juanfran, but the Brazilian would later fail to find the well-placed Mario Balotelli with a simple final pass and then — crucially, criminally — headed over from inside the 6-yard box.
The Rossoneri paid a heavy price, with Arda Turan’s heavily deflected shot late in the first half looping over Christian Abbiati, and Raul Garcia rising high to head home a third. By the time Diego Costa grabbed another, there had been other chances for both sides, but the margin of victory was by no means an exaggeration of the gap in quality.
Seedorf’s words of fight and honor were arguably upheld for the first half at least, but the difference in class was clear. Milan’s play was slow and ponderous, Atleti’s sharp and pacy.
The Rossoneri had the lesser of two disorganized defenses and missed the kind of chances that Atleti gobbled up with glee for the most part. If Balotelli had shown half of the hunger that Costa did, then Atleti might have had more of a scrap on its hands.
This might have been the final nail in Milan’s coffin, but the lid has been pressed shut for long enough that most of Europe will not even notice the club is gone. In reality, its elimination was only a matter of time. Milan has just not been good enough, domestically or on the continent.
It is the club that often boasts with some justification of its “Champions League DNA.” It has seven European titles to its name and used to be considered almost unstoppable by everyone else on the continent. But it has now been reduced to a minor hurdle for Serie A minnows and European hopefuls alike.
“This team is the worst of the Galliani era,” blasted former Rossoneri star Zvonimir Boban earlier this season. “Last season, Milan were playing well even in some of the matches where they didn’t get any points. You don’t see that now.”
He has a point. The Rossoneri have been humiliated in the Champions League before — think Deportivo 2004 — and have even missed out on the competition altogether — remember 2008? But they have never looked quite so desperate in so many aspects.
Milan as we once knew it has reached a very definite end. And while a resurrection cannot be ruled out, we could be waiting a long, long time to witness it.