Age Shall Not Weary Them has long seemed the unofficial motto of Milan. It is an ethos put into effective practice at the club's sheltered training ground, Milanello, in the hills some 50 kilometres outside the city, where it would be no surprise to discover a grey-haired, grizzled portrait of Paolo Maldini hidden in the basement beneath the players' lounge.
This is, though, a very different Milan from the heyday of Maldini, Franco Baresi et al when European titles and Scudetti were returned to San Siro with a regularity to satisfy even owner Silvio Berlusconi's appetite. The European Cup has not been won for five years, and while the Serie A crown was regained last season it was a first for seven years.
A late rally to beat Udinese last Sunday returned Massimiliano Allegri's side to the top of the table but that scrappy success in Udine only interrupted talk of a slump that has seen convincing form elude Milan over recent weeks. The victory was a first in four games.
The mood around San Siro has become one of gritty realism. In the transfer window they borrowed Sulley Muntari from neighbours Internazionale, a player who had been lent to Sunderland in the previous mid-season window. They also took on loan the Argentinian striker Maxi Lopez, who came off the bench to dramatic effect against Udinese. Reinforcements were desperately needed for a squad that has been beset by injury problems, including losing the striker Antonio Cassano for the foreseeable future as he undergoes heart surgery. Thirteen players were unavailable for the Udinese game.
It leaves a heavy reliance on a core of men undergoing the last rites of illustrious careers. Alessandro Nesta, the formidable centre-half, is 35 and injury is starting to take its toll. Gianluca Zambrotta, once one of the world's most exciting full-backs, is 34, as are Mark van Bommel (above) and Massimo Ambrosini. Clarence Seedorf turns 36 in April.
Suggestions that Arsenal are facing Papa's Army do not go down well in Milan, though. "It's not particularly helpful to say the two games against Arsenal is a story of Arsène Wenger's kids against the Milan old guard," said Van Bommel, as combative as ever. "Milan is not a retirement home for old players, you know. The technical quality in our side is amazing and believe me, we can play with as much exuberance and freshness as anyone when we are at our best."
They have not been at their best since 2011 turned into 2012. A 2-2 draw in the Nou Camp, thanks to goals in the first and last minutes of the opening group game, gave an indication of their capabilities, but they could do no better than draw at Plzen and Bate – an indication of their limitations in advancing to the knockout stages clinging on to Barcelona's coat-tails.
Under Allegri's stewardship there has been no stellar recruitment policy. Stephan El Shaarawy, an exciting 19-year-old forward with an Egyptian father and Italian mother, was bought for £7m, but the £500,000 for Antonio Nocerino, a 26-year-old creative midfielder from Naples, has proved canny. His eight goals make him the second top scorer behind the ever-mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has been serving a domestic ban for slapping a Napoli player.
Milan have the best attack in Serie A, even if Robinho still only flickers, but – as Pep Guardiola pointed out after that 2-2 draw in Barcelona – they have not lost the oldest of Italian football arts. "If Milan have to defend from their own penalty spot they will," warned the Barça coach.
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