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 Scudettos were returned to San Siro with enough regularity to satisfy even Silvio Berlusconi's prodigious appetite. The European Cup has not been seen – at least on the Rossoneri side of the stadium – for five years, and while the Serie A crown was regained last season it was a first for seven years. Memories of elimination by English clubs at the last-16 stage in their last three Champions League campaigns hang heavy.
A late rally to beat Udinese last Sunday returned Massimiliano Allegri's side to the top of the table but they have not regained the summit on a spur of optimism, rather the scrappy success in Udine interrupted talk of a slump that has seen convincing form elude Milan over recent weeks. The victory was a first in four games. Juventus sit a point behind, having played two games fewer.
The mood around San Siro has become one of gritty realism. This is a club that during the transfer window borrowed Sulley Muntari from their neighbours, a player who had been lent to Sunderland during 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, and spent a minimal amount on Djamel Mesbah, an Algerian left-back from Lecce. 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 and Massimo Ambrosini. Clarence Seedorf is a year older.
Suggestions that Arsenal are facing Papa's Army do not go down well in Milan. "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.
There is a needs-must approach to Allegri's stewardship. The former Cagliari coach followed Fabio Capello and Arrigo Sacchi in securing a Scudetto in his first season, but 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 spent on Antonio Nocerino, a 26-year-old creative midfielder from Naples, has brought more immediate reward. 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 the 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," remarked the Barça coach.
Milan have won Europe's ultimate prize seven times, which is seven more than tonight's opponents, but there is one area where the Rossoneri, like the rest of Italian football, trail Arsenal, and the rest of English football.
Italian football is gripped by financial constraints. Where the Premier League has proved recession-resistant, Serie A has found itself less well barricaded, and things will get worse. From next season only three Italian clubs will enter the Champions League. This season it was four; instead, the Bundesliga, with its modern stadiums and rousing fan bases, will take four spots. That will have financial implications in Italy, although Milan have a good chance of taking one of the three places on offer.
Milan are the highest-ranked Italian side in the latest Deloitte's Money League. They are seventh, two places below Arsenal, who have a matchday revenue nearly three times that of their hosts. Internazionale are eighth, Juventus behind Tottenham in 13th, Roma 15th below Marseilles. Just 15 per cent of Milan's revenues come on matchday with 46 per cent from broadcasting deals, an area that will come under intense pressure as economic restraint sweeps Italy.
But owner Berlusconi has said he remains committed to the club that has been his since 1986. His daughter Barbara, who joined the board last April, said earlier this week that her father, who is now 75, is going nowhere.
"The family has invested significantly in Milan and those who think it's just a luxury toy for us haven't understood how football has changed," she told the Bloomberg financial news service. "Football has also become a business, not just a sport passion. Either you change or there is the risk of not being able to face the new challenges. Italian football is growing less than other countries'. In 2000, Serie A revenue was €1bn and today it's €1.5bn. In the same period it has more than doubled in the UK.
"Italian football has strong brands and it can still attract money and interests. But it needs a long-term vision. Teams need to get the right structure and implement a strategy that goes beyond the Sunday-to-Sunday business."
Long-term vision is a rarity in football – Arsenal stand proudly as an exception, although that has its consequences (witness an empty trophy cabinet in north London). Making running repairs may sit oddly in a city renowned for its immaculate tailoring but it is becoming the Rossoneri's second nature.Reuse content