Early losers: AC Milan and a miserable Champions League return
For the seven-time champions returning to the Champions League after a seven-year absence, it has been a grim return to the elite competition.
The draw, it has to be said, was not kind to the Italians, with Liverpool and Atletico Madrid two of the more consistent performers in this competition during Milan’s lengthy absence, and Porto always motivated and capable of causing the kind of upstart stink that prompts a fresh round of European Super League talks.
It’s now three games and three defeats for Milan, and defeat in Portugal now leaves even third place and the minor dignity-salve of a Europa League knockout spot looking a long way off. Atleti and Porto both now have four points to their name meaning pointless Milan really must win the return leg against the Portuguese to retain any hope of extending their European season into the new year.
But Atletico Madrid’s home defeat to Liverpool does mean that all is not lost for Milan. While bottom spot still looks the likeliest finishing place, second is still tantalisingly within reach if both results go Milan’s way on November 3.
Early winners: Ajax, who are very much at it again
But even then Milan would have to get a result at the Wanda Metropolitano three weeks later and on this evidence they simply don’t have it in them. Atleti may have been beaten by Liverpool, but it was a breathless and magnificent game of football in which both teams played to a standard this Milan side currently simply cannot match. The result may have been a good one for Milan’s theoretical prospects in this group, but the match itself should terrify them.
And when coupled with their own limp and mardy defeat to Porto, it all looks bleak for a once-proud Champions League giant.
The real frustration must come in the way this long-awaited return has been seemingly frittered away. There is nothing wrong with Milan’s domestic form, with seven wins and a draw from their opening eight Serie A games seeing them behind only flawless Napoli and well clear of the rest. At the very least it looks unlikely they’ll have to wait seven years for another crack.
But they have been utterly unable to transfer that form or energy into what should have been the highlight of their season. The fear of potential humiliation that now engulfs those upcoming return clashes with Liverpool and Atletico Madrid should have been pride at a club returning to what would be considered its rightful place.
Porto, with all due respect, undeniably marked a step down in level from Milan’s two opening defeats. But they were unable to muster any kind of performance to rekindle hopes. Nobody in red and black enhanced their reputation.
It’s been a timid and dispiriting return to the top level. Barring dramatic improvement it’s also going to be awfully brief.