On 23rd May 2007, as the sun began to set on the Greek capital of Athens, two of Europe’s biggest clubs prepared to do battle for the UEFA Champions League. AC Milan vs Liverpool was a final UEFA were pleased to have, a rematch of the epic contest of 2005 and involving two clubs who, between them, had picked up the heavy, beautiful trophy eleven times. Only Real Madrid could claim to be further up the European social ladder. Fast forward five years though and both Milan and Liverpool are a lowly 13th in their respective leagues – but astonishingly, only one is gripped by a sense of crisis.
Much water has passed under the bridge for both clubs since that night in Athens, when Paolo Maldini prowled the Milan defence, Javier Mascherano stuck to Kaka like glue, and Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso showcased measured passing which, five years on, is still the benchmark in world football. Now things are different for both Milan and Liverpool. And the summer of 2012 offered a peek into the new realities taking hold of two of Europe’s grandest institutions. As football began to look to Euro 2012, axes were being sharpened in both Milan and Boston, where Liverpool’s American owners are based.
Milan had just finished 2nd in Serie A, four points off champions Juventus, but president Silvio Berlusconi believed the time had come to change course by slashing the wage bill and reducing the age of the team. Established, seasoned professionals commanded wages relative to their standing and Milan’s president believed they cost too much. Berlusconi and his right hand man Adriano Galliani allowed a virtual team to leave, with departures for goalkeeper Flavio Roma, defenders Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta, midfielders Mark van Bommel, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Alberto Aquilani and Alexander Merkel, and strikers Filippo Inzaghi and Maxi Lopez. But, despite all that, the hardest bullet for fans to bite was the sale of 2011/12’s Serie A top goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, a defender the Rossoneri faithful had affectionately referred to as a "new Franco Baresi". Replacements were bought, but on a budget, with Galliani scurrying around in the final week of the transfer window to sign up more new faces as appalling season ticket sales hit home. Milan signed no one to rival Ibrahimovic and Silva. Season ticket sales were just 21,000.
In England, Liverpool were grappling with different problems, but came to the same conclusion: slash the wage bill and bring down the age of the team. Unlike at Milan, where coach Massimilano Allegri could hardly be replaced for finishing second, Liverpool did bring change to the dugout, axing club icon Kenny Dalglish. The Scot paid the price for a finish of eighth after presiding over a spending spree of around £100M. The Reds’ owners also sacked sporting director Damien Comolli. For Fenway Sports Group, the well was dry, though with £50M of the cash splurge being funded through selling striker Fernando Torres to Chelsea on the extremely unusual terms of a lump sum up front payment and release from the annual interest payment burden caused by previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, some fans questioned whether FSG had ever even dug a new well in the first place. Luckily, with a fresh face in place, in the form of Brendan Rodgers, the facade of a brand new era beginning allowed a downgrade of resources and limited spending under the guise of "a long term project". Free of worrying about a collapse in season ticket sales – English fans support their clubs regardless of how they are being run – Liverpool chopped their own seasoned professionals, with defender Fabio Aurelio, midfielders Maxi Rodriguez, Charlie Adam and Alberto Aquilani, and strikers Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy all exiting.
Liverpool followed Milan’s lead in shedding experienced senior players on substantial wages, bringing in younger talents, able to command smaller pay packets – at least until they progress up the ladder. The Reds even toyed with selling their own Thiago Silva, in Daniel Agger, but Manchester City would not dig as deep as PSG were prepared to for the Brazilian. Rodgers signed four players on permanent deals; the respective ages being 18, 21, 22 and 24. In the 2010/11 campaign, Liverpool had the fourth highest wage bill in the Premier League. If the following summer was another great heave towards the top four, the summer of 2012 marked the beginning of retrenchment, of a tacit admission that the Champions League places would no longer be a minimum target, but more a hopeful ambition, which was not essential to sustaining a profit-making company.
But while Liverpool retreated, Milan continued to give the outward impression befitting their reputation. As the transfer clock ticked, Milan were linked with moves for Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez, Leandro Damiao, Kaka and Dimitar Berbatov. Yet none were ever serious options for a club looking to trim wage spending, while in the end, Giampaolo Pazzini, in a hastily concocted swap plus cash deal for Antonio Cassano, and out-of-favour Manchester City midfielder Nigel de Jong, were the only notable names to arrive.
Just as Milan were scurrying around, attempting to reassure supporters that they still intended to be major players in European football, all was calm at Anfield. £35M man Andy Carroll was allowed to leave with the expectation that a replacement would be forthcoming. None though arrived, as once again the money beans were a primary consideration. Liverpool are still living with the consequences of that decision, which made a mockery of chairman Tom Werner’s declaration earlier in the year that: "I would say we certainly have the resources to compete with anybody in football." It was a statement which could have been made by Galliani, who told the club’s fans in December 2011: "We have dropped all other leads to bring someone who is one of the best in the world", on a swoop for Tevez.
Two similar paths have brought about two similar seasons so far. Each sit 13th in their respective leagues and seem light-years away from a spot in the Champions League. Milan struggle to keep clean sheets, while Liverpool struggle to score – both outcomes a result of the summer’s activity. In Milan and Liverpool the ground has shifted, but the reaction to the changed circumstances are where the similarities end. Allegri has needed to be backed numerous times by Galliani, as the pressure grows. Understanding for the situation the former Cagliari man must grapple with is abundant, but patience is not, especially when Milan’s status is on the line. Despair has gripped the San Siro; fans are worried; and every defeat brings Allegri closer to the sack. Yet his results are not dissimilar to Rodgers’. While Liverpool have lost less, Milan have won more.
Milan’s ambition remains undimmed, as does the belief in their status and place within the game, perhaps kept up by involvement in this season’s Champions League, despite the shortcomings it has illustrated. Former Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola is openly discussed as a replacement for Allegri; Kaka’s name once again swirls round as a potential January signing; a budget cut does not mean an aspiration cut. Time will tell if it is yet more bluster or the start of a fightback.
Liverpool could be expected to be the same as Milan, yet there is almost an acceptance of the club’s current position. When it came to appointing a new manager over the summer, rather than the biggest names in the game, Liverpool felt a man with one year’s Premier League experience was the best they could do.
Rodgers’ job is not under threat; fans still turn up at Anfield in droves, with the new manager’s long-term plan to turn Liverpool into a mini Barcelona clutched close, providing warmth as the barbarians’ rampage about the club’s fortress with little fear. Expectations at Liverpool, unlike at Milan, have had their flames quenched. Rodgers has declared any improvement on last season’s eighth place finish would be a "fantastic" achievement, while local rivals Everton prepare for a Champions League spot tilt with the ambition which once kitted itself out in red.
As the sun set on Athens amid Paolo Maldini caressing his fifth European Cup, both sets of fans had reason to believe they would be back in a Champions League final again soon. In 2012, Milan still expect, while Liverpool only dare to dream.