The Highs and Lows of Milan's 2021

Milan continued to rebuild this year under the careful watch of Maldini. We started 2021 top of the league, having had an incredible run of form after coming back from COVID-19 lockdown in the summer. This year we saw injuries leave us bare, mentality dip and then steady, and a return to the Champions League that was bittersweet. Finishing 2021 in second place in the league is actually perhaps more amazing than 2020 was, considering where we have been and what we have been through, even if a lot of fans are disappointed. That is why it pays to look at some of the highs and lows of Milan's 2021.

Facing 2021 without fear


Milan's undefeated streak in the league ended in our second match of 2021 with a very painful loss to Juve. Missing seven players, six of whom were starters, would become the theme for this year. Then came an even more painful 3-0 loss to Atalanta, followed by a Coppa Italia loss to Inter which included that incident between Ibrahimović and Lukaku. But hey, at least we learned that in Italy it is not okay to taunt about an old joke, but it is fine to threaten to kill someone on live television. Milan still ended the first half of the season as winter champions, a position that was desperately needed for Champions League qualification considering what was to come.

Transfers out included Conti, Duarte, and Colombo on loan, and also Musacchio to Lazio (finally.) Transfers in included Meité on loan and Mandzukić on a free, both six month deals. Remember those guys? The wisdom of six month contracts never served us better. In what was probably the transfer of the past few years, though, Tomori came to us on loan with option from Chelsea (although I prefer to think that he descended from heaven to grace us with his otherworldly defending.)

One of these players was not like the others


February began with the news that Inter were €411 in debt, putting up yet another roadblock in our plans for a stadium. Pioli shocked everyone by dropping Hauge from the Europa League squad, which he had to regret when players like Mandzukić were almost immediately injured and thus unavailable, limiting our squad size. On the pitch, our form continued to drop just as we were finally recovering players. Having played so many matches with so many starters missing took its toll on the mentality. We drew with Crotone, lost to 16th place Spezia, then brutally lost 3-0 in the derby

In the Europa League, we drew with Red Star Belgrade in both legs, but with the last season of the away goal rules, we went through. Of course, in Belgrade, Ibrahimović was racially abused by fans who shouldn't have even been in the stadium, and UEFA only offered a slap on the wrist as punishment after a lengthy investigation (although it was caught on video and only took moments to understand.) The month ended with a win against Roma, but of course, we had three new injuries in that match alone.

In spite of epic Europa League performances like this one, Hauge was dropped from the list


A draw to Udinese started this month off much like Milan's recent form, but despite popular sentiment implying the opposite at the time, results actually did come. There was a 2-0 win away to Verona, and a 3-2 win over a tricky Fiorentina at the end of the month, again missing six players. The painful one was the 1-0 loss to Napoli where the referee, Pasqua, lost his freaking mind, handed out cards like candy and refused to use VAR. Rebić insulted his mother to earn a pointless red card, and Donnarumma was abused by the Napoli bench for half of the match. Ouch.

In the Europa League, Milan drew 1-1 away to Manchester United, despite numerous injuries and questionable ref calls, with Kjaer scoring the epic goal that stood. When we loss 1-0 to them at the San Siro, it was actually kind of a relief, because our injury situation and tired legs were not helping our challenge for top four in Serie A.

Gazidis dragging us into this shameful and failed scheme


As the race for top four in Serie A heated up, Milan kept dropping points because of injuries, tired legs, or mentality that had been drained because of both of those things. To be fair, Milan were also making things difficult for ourselves, and at times winning with a little luck, too. But with losses to Sassuolo and then to Lazio, we would finish April in fifth place. One spot shy of Champions League qualification, and only a few matches left to play.

In the midst of it all, Gazidis and Elliott again left Maldini and Co. in the dark by agreeing to join the dark side – the notorious and quickly failed Super League that a few desperate clubs still claim to be clinging to, despite everything going against them. This seemed to impact the mentality as well, just like last year when Gazidis fired Boban the day before a match. Having completely different messages and methods of operation from owners and management vs. the sporting sector is confusing for everyone. Even if the players were playing well, the owners and management were determined to undermine them somehow.

It felt like that for all of us


This was it, the final race for the prize Milan fans had been dreaming of for seven years. But would we make the Champions League? The Curva Sud did their best to prevent it by going to Milanello hours before a crucial match and threatening Donnarumma (again) because the press said he was going to Juventus (although he had never even spoken to them.) In spite of this, Milan managed to dispatch poor Pippo Inzaghi's Benevento side 2-0, sending them closer to relegation as we got closer to top four. 

Next up was an iconic 3-0 win over Juventus at J Stadium. The mentality showed up, it was perfectly clear that this team wanted top four. All three goals were epic, including Tomori's first goal where he set a new height record and out-jumped Chiellini. In fact, all three of those goals made Milan's Top 10 goals of the year. That win was back to back with a take-no-prisoners 7-0 smackdown of Torino. The worrisome draw to Cagliari left us no chance but to win our final match. Which we did. A 2-0 victory over Atalanta in Bergamo. Amazing. Milan were finally back in the Champions League, having finished 2nd in the league. Watching the players celebrate by singing "Pioli's On Fire" on the bus home was amazing.

Champions League qualification. They actually did it.

However, no no one expected what transpired about 24 hours later. After years of rumors and not committing to a renewal, Maldini basically said "Thank you very much for your service" to Donnarumma and brought in Mike Maignan for medicals, signing him immediately. This left Donnarumma to scramble looking for a club that would pay him €12 million per year to sit on their bench. After all of the drama created by Mirabelli and Fassone, bought into by the fans and the media, suddenly, the sky was clear and everything was going to be fine.

This brilliant maneuver established Paolo Maldini's reputation as a serious and progressive football director who is committed to keeping costs down and quality up. Above all it is clear that he is willing to do what is in the best interests for the club, but also do it professionally and without any drama. This was emphasized by the Curva Sud's tribute to him and to the club's return to the Champions League, ironically 12 years to the day they infamously ruined his farewell.

A new era for transfer strategies, and a new era of goalkeeping


The reality of Donnarumma finally leaving hit in June when Maignan was brought in. Maldini very professionally and politely told Donnarumma not to let the door hit him and his wage demands on the way out. Maldini also pointed out that bandiere are no longer a reality with the departure of one of our favorite home grown Milan players. The choice of clubs and the manner in which Calhanoglu left was even more traitorous, and he was not even popular to begin with. 

Speaking of lecherous people, Conte gave himself a lot of accolades for Inter's Scudetto win, while glossing over the fact that they crashed out of Europe early and that advantage is the only reason they won. When you compare the two clubs and coaches, Pioli actually did it better, including staying in Europe much longer, playing more games, and finishing second with a far inferior and far less expensive team.

Pioli did more with less, even if he didn't dedicate a trophy to himself

Transfers out included a lot of contracts that ran out, including both of the Donnarummas, Calhanoglu, Mandzukić, and Meïté, and Laxalt finally getting off of our books by going to Dinamo Moscow, where, of course, no one has heard from him since. Two important signings were made official in Maignan and the outright purchase of Tomori, even if he took up a non-EU spot because of Brexit.

There was also a little tournament called the UEFA Euro Tournament, and our Viking defender gained worldwide acclaim for having a calm head in the face of tragedy as he helped to save the life of his Danish teammate and Inter rival, Christian Eriksen. Inter fans even honored him with a banner calling him a "great man and captain." But we already knew that, of course.

When The Viking led his team through hell and to a Euro semifinal


Raduno began without half of our players who were either still at the Euro tournament, on their way to the Olympics, or having a very quick vacation after their international duty. Also, Calabria and Ibrahimović were recovering from their respective surgeries at the end of the season. There was a friendly played at Milanello between Christian and Daniel Maldini's teams, and another friendly at the beginning of what was touted as Milan's preseason European Tour with a friendly at OGC Nice.

The real news in July, however, was a hat trick of signings. Two new French players in the tested and proven Olivier Giroud, a deal that Maldini and Massara worked long and hard for, and the completely surprise signing (even to him) of Fodo Ballo-Touré. The third signing was renewing a loan deal with Real Madrid for Brahim Diaz, another deal that took a lot of work. Also, a fan favorite was when Tonali reduced his salary to break the deadlock and lower his price to finalize his purchase from Brescia. It is so refreshing to have signings that are not all random, ex-Genoa players signed on the transfer deadline.

Signing a no. 9 who can score? Has Maldini gone mad?


The always busy August saw the friendlies with Valencia and Real Madrid, both with fans in attendance for the first time Milan had played since COVID-19 hit. Then the season started, with a strong 1-0 performance against Sampdoria and a 4-1 win over Cagliari at the San Siro, with the fans back home for the first time in 546 days.

August was also the end of the transfer window, and perhaps the most difficult transfer for fans was the loan of our beloved Hauge to Eintracht Frankfurt with an obligation to buy. So many times we could have used him in the squad already this season, especially if he was given the opportunity to play on the right sometimes as we have seen him do elsewhere. But the attempts to send Castillejo and also Conti out, even on loan, failed and Hauge was sacrificed because of a wealth of talent in his natural position in Rebić and Leão. 

Some transfers just hurt more than others

Pobega was sent on loan to Torino and Caldara was sent to Venezia with an option to purchase. Colombo went to Serie B side SPAL for the season. At the end of the window, we took Florenzi on a one year loan with option, Pellegri on a loan with possible obligation, and for some bizarre reason, Bakayoko was brought back on a two year loan with obligation. (Maybe we felt like we had too many players who were actually talented and needed one to shoot us in the foot? I don't know.)

We also purchased Yacine Adli from Bordeaux, with the agreement that he stays on loan for this season. (A purchase for the future? What is this dark magic?) Also, the last minute signing of Junior Messias on loan with right of redemption. His story is amazing, but he has earned his spot at Milan as much or more than anyone else. For some fans, maybe it wasn't the mercato of their dreams, but it was smart, cohesive, well-planned, and we actually invested well in some important players.

The man went from Serie D to scoring on his Champions League debut in less than 5 years


Milan started September off with a convincing win against Sarri's Lazio, even if their fans racially abused Kessié and Bakayoko. A tired 1-1 draw to Juve in which Maignan was racially abused, and a lackluster 2-0 win over Venezia kept our unbeaten streak alive in the league. Meanwhile, in Spezia, Daniel Maldini made history with his first start for Milan 4500 days after his father's last match, a third generation Milan player, and of course, he scored to mark the occasion.

A 3rd generation Maldini scores on his Serie A debut

Our Champions League debut was very eventful. Our first match marked most of our players' first experience on the big stage, as well as our first trip to Anfield against our hated European rivals, Liverpool. Milan started out incredibly shaky, but found their legs and scored two goals in as many minutes. Unfortunately, a massive save on a Salah penalty injured Maignan's hand, eventually requiring surgery, a devastating blow for Milan's season. Liverpool barely managed the 3-2 win, and despite the loss, Milan made a strong impression on their debut.

The most infamous match of our return to the Group Stage was when we hosted Atlético Madrid and one of the most horrible referee and VAR referee performances ever. Even outside critics agree that this match influenced the outcome of the group, as Milan only took a point in a match they absolutely should have won, had it not been for a wrongful penalty given. This was a difficult pill to swallow, and made our hopes of progressing very grim.

When your Champions League fate is ripped out of your hands


Milan kicked off October with one of our best matches of the season, a fiery 3-2 win over Atalanta where even Pioli got a yellow card. With all of the injuries, Milan showed heart and maybe a little recklessness with wins over Verona and Bologna, smashing records and keeping our undefeated streak with a home win to Torino and a win away to Roma in the face of more horrific racial abuse of our players and more horrific refereeing from Maresca.

Milan's horrific luck with injuries went from bad to worse. Having started with four goalkeepers, two of the four had to have surgery, forcing an emergency signing of free agent Antonio Mirante. As if that wasn't painful enough, we lost 1-0 to Porto in the Champions League, increasing our chances of dropping out of Europe early exponentially. At least in this match, Porto earned their win. A couple of positives this month were the renewals of Saelemaekers through 2026, who has improved a lot this season, and also securing Kjaer through 2024.

Milan had to make and emergency signing of a fifth goalkeeper


Milan earned our first point in the Champions League with a tough match against Porto at the San Siro that ended 1-1. In between our worst league results of the season, we pulled off a deserved 1-0 win against Atlético in Madrid, despite missing five players on our European squad list, four of whom were starters. 

The Derby was intense, with Calhanoglu showing his true colors, but Milan showing class and fighting equally to earn the point. Our first Derby coreo with fans back in the stadium was a beautiful tribute to the healthcare workers who worked so hard to save lives during the pandemic. Also, Tatarusanu, who knew?

Saving a penalty in the Derby, it's.... Tatarusanu?

Unfortunately, after the break, we conceded four goals in a 4-3 loss away to Fiorentina which also marked the end of our unbeaten run. Then, in Maignan's first match back, we conceded three more against Sassuolo. Seven goals in two matches, despite the three points earned in the Champions League in between. In both of those matches we missed Tomori dearly, amongst the long parade of five to seven players out injured for most of the season. One positive to end the month was Pioli's contract extension through 2023 with the option of another year. Certainly he has earned it.

After Maignan's injury, losing Kjaer for the rest of the season is a huge blow


Facing Shevchenko in his new role as Genoa's manager was emotionally difficult, but a 3-0 win on the pitch showed our desire to win. Unfortunately, less than two minutes into that match, we also lost our Viking, Kjaer, for the season to a horrible knee injury. His surgery marked the fifth surgery in the team so far this season, the seventh in six months.

A comfortable win over Salernitana saw us take first place for just one round, having followed Napoli on goal differential for much of the season. A flat draw to Udinese was followed by an unlucky loss to Napoli in which the rules for offside are now questioned more than ever. In spite of all of the injuries, Milan won 4-2 away to a tricky Empoli side, but all of the dropped points were enough to see Inter leapfrog us and take the winter champions title. 

He got us back into the Champions League and coached his first group stage, too

Milan's Champions League hopes came down to the final match, with other results in the group keeping our chances just barely alive. Liverpool killed them off, however, when we faced them missing five players, all of whom had been impactful in our first meeting. While on paper and for pride's sake, it would have been nice to continue our journey, realistically, due to injuries, we are better off having bowed out at this point this season.

Milan celebrated the club's 122nd birthday in second place in Serie A. In spite of having the most injuries of any Serie A team by far, we are still holding steady in a Champions League spot with 42 points out of a possible 57. If this is disappointing to you, perhaps you are new around here. Even as recently as two or three years ago, this would have been an unfathomable achievement. We have become the strongest brand in Italy, and are well on our way back to where we belong. Despite a year with all kinds of highs and lows, 2021 was actually quite good for Milan. Here's hoping for a 2022 that is even better.

This post inspired by the music of Diana Krall's "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Happy New Year!

Our next match is
Serie A Week 20
Milan vs. Roma
Thursday, January 6th 2022 • 18:30 CET (12:30pm EST)

The Highs and Lows of Milan's 2021 The Highs and Lows of Milan's 2021 Reviewed by Elaine on 11:29 AM Rating: 5
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