Pitchside Europe

Milan ponder future without their boys from Brazil


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Almost a year ago, Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani posed for a photograph in a Rio de Janeiro restaurant with Carlos Tevez and his agent Kia Joorabchian. Negotiations to sign the then on-strike Manchester City forward would break down a week later when Milan president Silvio Berlusconi intervened and blocked the sale of Alexandre Pato to Paris Saint-Germain, which was required to fund it.

Now Galliani is back in Brazil. And this time he’s selling, not buying. On Thursday there was an appointment in Sao Paulo with Corinthians president Mario Gobbi Filho. And if that goes well, tomorrow there’ll be another with the brokers at Santos.

The first regards Alexandre Pato and the finalisation of his 15 million euro move to the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup champions; the second relates to Robinho and a return to the club that, it might be said, he has never really left.

According to the papers in Italy, the Pato deal is done. All that remains are a few minor details to resolve. Unlike a year ago, a sudden change of heart on Milan and the player’s behalf isn’t expected. Irrespective of his ongoing with relationship with Barbara Berlusconi, with whom he spent New Year’s in Courmayeur, he’s leaving.

And while there’s understandable regret and disappointment at promise unfulfilled – “Pato has the potential [to win] the Ballon d’Or,” says coach Massimiliano Allegri, “in the past they offered us 40m for [him]”, adds Silvio Berlusconi – the prevailing emotion is that it’s probably for the best.

San Siro, where he was whistled on his comeback after eight months out against Genoa in October, and Milanello, where he spent so much of his time over the past two-and-a-half years recuperating from 16 separate injuries, had become places of torment for him. Maybe a fresh start, a new challenge and a change of scenery [and manager] is exactly the medicine the despairing doctors at MilanLab couldn’t order or prescribe.

As for Robinho, well his is apparently a simple case of 'saudade', a nostalgic longing for something or someone, in this particular instance, home. And why not? It's not as though Milan is a Brazilian colony like it was in 2008, when there were eight in the dressing room. Should Pato and Robinho leave, only one will be left: the third-choice goalkeeper Gabriel. How times have changed.

Santos have reportedly offered 7m euros for their former academy graduate and although Milan want to make the player's wish for a third spell at the Vila Belmiro to come true, Galliani has let it be known that they won't settle for less than 10m. So, there's still a chance that he will stay.

Throughout the last month, Berlusconi has expressed his hope that "only one of Pato and Robinho will leave." Allegri too would like to keep hold of Robinho who, for all his glaring misses and other frustrating tendencies, is still a player he considers to be of a "superior category."

The prospect of losing both, however, looms large. Which means that the three forwards from his 2011 Scudetto-winning side - Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pato and Robinho - each of whom contributed 14 goals apiece will be gone just 18 months later.

After the "painful but necessary" cuts in the summer when Milan waved goodbye to legends Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf, Rino Gattuso and Filippo Inzaghi, and then sold Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain because, in the words of Berlusconi, "we will save 150m over the next two years", is this yet more evidence of Milan wielding the knife again even after Galliani claimed "we no longer need to sell?"

Well, not exactly. Because neither Pato nor Robinho are being forced out. Rather they appear to want out. Then there's their contribution. Pato's last goal for Milan in Serie A was over a year ago - against Chievo on November 27, 2011 - a drought owing to his aforementioned injury record - he's missed 83 games since 2010 - while Robinho, though excellent on occasion - particularly against Torino this season - has almost made as many substitute's appearances as starts - five of the former, six of the latter.

The question is: can Milan do without them? On the one hand, yes. Counting Kevin-Prince Boateng, a player sometimes used as a False 9 this season, they have five forwards excluding Pato and Robinho. Stephen El Shaarawy has been a revelation, scoring 14 goals - a figure greater than Ibrahimovic, the 2011-12 Capocannoniere, had at this stage last year - while Giampaolo Pazzini [solid enough in Serie A] M'Baye Niang [raw but talented] and Bojan [enigmatic, I know] do at least ensure that Milan have quantity if not the same quality in those positions as in recent years.

Their attack remains the fourth best in Serie A. Instead it's in other areas that they're lacking, most notably in defence where replacing the irreplaceables, Nesta and Thiago Silva, has been so much more difficult than replacing Ibrahimovic. Milan's defence is the 10th worst in Serie A. They've already conceded 28 goals, only five fewer than they did throughout the entirety of last season.

Which makes the recurring paper talk of a move for Didier Drogba bizarre. Because if Milan were to sign the Shanghai Shenhua and former Chelsea striker, they would stray from the path indicated by Galliani and Berlusconi in the summer. Away at the African Cup of Nations in South Africa throughout January, Drogba, who will celebrate his 35th birthday in March, is a great player still capable of making the difference, but for how long and at what cost?

Although reportedly prepared to take a pay-cut from 12m to 10m a year, wasn't it only last week that Allegri reminded La Gazzetta dello Sport that "the road taken by the president is the right one. No one in Italy can allow themselves to pay players 6m or 7m a year". Not least when Berlusconi was recently ordered to pay his ex-wife 100k a day?

Or, to phrase it another way, "Does it seem normal to you that Milan are going to spend a boat-load of money on a 35-year-old player who can only be used for three months of this season?" asked Galliani. No, quite frankly, it doesn't, especially when Berlusconi has previously said: "We have to build a great team through young players and a scouting network... We are looking at a hundred footballers between 18 and 20."

Back in November, after Milan's surprising 1-0 win over Juventus, Berlusconi revealed that his companion that evening, Marco van Basten, had "given him the name of a very good Dutch player" thought to be one of either Vitesse's Marco van Ginkel or Heerenveen's Filip Đuričić [a Serb to be precise], both of whom are midfielders, with the latter playing under the former Milan striker at Heerenveen.

Milan have also been linked with Ajax right-back Ricardo van Rhijn [even though the emergence of Mattia De Sciglio in his position may end that interest], Feyenoord's left-back Bruno Martins Indi and PSV's all-round midfielder Kevin Strootman, all of whom, more or less, fit the age profile and address areas either in need of reinforcement or improvement in the team.

Maybe it's cynical to say so, but none, for the moment at least, have a name that sells papers quite like Drogba's on a front-page splash. According to Galliani, "Milan will buy a new striker only if Pato and Robinho leave. In the event that only one of the two are sold I don't foresee a new arrival. We will still have five strikers."

Yet what of the rumours about Mario Balotelli, the 21-year-old Manchester City centre-forward, self-proclaimed Milan supporter and recent strike partner of El Shaarawy at international level with Italy, who hasn't played since the Manchester derby on December 9 either because of Roberto Mancini's selection policy or the flu and a reported bust-up in training this morning?

For now, at least, there appears to be little to them, with Mancini telling La Gazzetta dello Sport and Il Giornale that "I believe in Balotelli", "Sheikh Mansour has a weakness for him" and that "City have made an important investment and this isn't a club that throws its capital out of the window." Whether that changes and Milan can then go on and meet City's valuation - a tough ask even with the funds raised from the prospective sales of Pato and Robinho and their strong relationship with the player's agent Mino Raiola, who only last month said his client is "too expensive for Italy" - remains to be seen.

Intriguing protagonists of the January transfer window in each of the last two years - they signed Mark van Bommel and Antonio Cassano in 2011, then once again in 2012, although more, it must be said, for who they nearly bought and sold [Tevez and Pato] rather than who they actually did buy [Maxi Lopez and Sulley Muntari] - it'll be worth watching what, if anything, Milan do over the course of the next month. January has been kind to them before, as in 2011, when their investments spurred them on to win the Scudetto, but it has been cruel too, like when they splurged £16.5m on Atletico Madrid's José Mari in 1999, a flop more chilling than the fog that descends on the Lombard city at this time of year.

One thing's for sure, though: Milan certainly can't afford to make a similar mistake now.

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