With Juventus, Napoli and Inter Milan looking strong favourites to make up Serie A’s top three come May, there’s an almighty scrap developing to see who else will join them in Champions League next season.
After the twentieth round of fixtures, just six points separate fourth-placed AC Milan and Parma in ninth. With so many clubs holding genuine hopes of making it to UEFA’s promised land, the second half of the Italian season is sure to be full of drama.
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Monday afternoon’s 2-0 win at Genoa moved Gennaro Gattuso’s men above Roma and into that fourth spot, raising hopes of a return to a competition they’ve not graced since 2014.
But with the Rossoneri under new ownership since the summer and having shelled out massively on players in the last two years, Gattuso is probably under more pressure than any of rivals in vying for the last of UEFA’s golden tickets.
Set a target of Champions League qualification by Elliott Management, the US hedge fund that took control at the San Siro last July, “Rino” may well be looking for employment in May if he falls short.
Renowned as a hard-nosed business operation, Elliott’s long-term intentions for the club remain somewhat unclear.
They stepped in last July when Milan’s then owner, Li Yonghong, turned out to be just what many fans had feared – a Chinese Michael Knighton, with bells on. His high-profile purchase of the club in April 2017 had relied heavily on borrowings from the hedge fund – and his failure to meet his obligations saw the American operation swoop in and take control of the club.
For Gattuso, the uncertainty behind the scenes during his 14 months in charge has hardly been helpful.
That said, lavish spending under Li, which saw the club fall foul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, and further investment from the new owners mean the 41-year-old has had a talented squad at his disposal in that period.
And some progress has been made under his guidance – the Rossoneri have the equal third best points tally in Serie A in this calendar year. But falling short of Elliott’s target, even the suggestion of it, could make him P45 material.
The more so when you consider the big managerial names – Antonio Conte, Zinedine Zidane, Arsene Wenger, Leonardo Jardim and Jose Mourinho, for example – currently out of work.
Indeed, without a similarly strong body of work behind him and the fact that Gattuso is a legacy pick of the previous owner – even if he does make the top four, his long-term prospects must be in question.
Hedge funds hedge their bets, so you can be sure that all of Elliott’s smart money won’t riding on Gattuso.
So far this season, Milan have been solid and somewhat unspectacular. Defensively, they are sound.
The 20 goals they’ve conceded in their 20 league games make them the best defensive unit in Serie A outside of the top three but seven draws and a lack of goals – just 28, the lowest tally of any of the top 8 sides – have held them back.
If Gattuso is to make a strong case for retaining his position and grab that last Champions League spot, he needs to get much more from his side in the final third of the field.
Activity in the transfer market would suggest that sporting director Leonardo and the club’s hierarchy are well aware of the squad’s need for greater creativity and punch.
Gonzalo Higuain, the man brought in from Juventus in the summer on the promise of goals, has failed to live up to his billing – scoring just six times in the league – and looks set to join Chelsea.
His impending exit would suggest that Leonardo is close to securing his prime transfer target, Genoa striker Krzysztof Piatek. The 23-year-old Pole has been sensational in his debut season in Italy, scoring 19 times in his 21 league and cup appearances.
And Milan have already been active in this widow, shelling out €35 million on the highly rated Brazilian attacking midfielder Lucas Paqueta from Flamengo.
Such moves represent a gamble, despite the burgeoning reputation of both players. But as any good investor knows, you need to speculate to accumulate.
Should Gattuso capitalise on such talent and guide Milan into the Champions League, he’ll have made a solid case for Milan’s hedge fund owners to invest in his future as well.