Milan left to mourn passing of its legends

The Italian media labelled it the end game for the old masters, but were quick to hail Arsenal's young pretenders. Frank Dunne reports
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Milan's 2-0 defeat by Arsenal on Tuesday night at San Siro was the end of a cycle. Or the end of an era. Or an epoch. The Italian media couldn't quite agree on the time frame but the sense that this Milan team had come to the end of something was universal. In a rare burst of English, the country's largest-selling sports daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport, brought the curtain down on the team with the headline: 'Milan – The End'.

Given the scale of the team's achievements and the quality of Milan's play over the last five years, their desire was not to bury but to praise. In a leader piece entitled "When a glorious cycle comes to an end", Franco Arturi wrote: "Now that it's over, before trying to explain why it's over, we ask for a final round of applause for the champions of everything. Milan deserve it. For a long time they have carried their legend – based on their play, class and pride – around the world."

The Turin-based La Stampa was in equally elegiac mood. "It's the end of an epoch, that of Milan and their cavaliers. Unable this time to continue the European race, in that garden which, like nobody else, they had learned to dominate. This is the end of the line – since 2001, Milan have never been out of the quarter-finals of the Champions League."

The portent of the result hung heavily in the night air around San Siro but Milan were graceful in defeat. The coach, Carlo Ancelotti, admitted that Arsenal had been better over the two legs. "Over 180 minutes they managed to play like they can," he said. "We didn't manage to play with any continuity and the merit for that goes to Arsenal. They pressed us relentlessly, especially in midfield, never allowing us to get into the game."

Even the club president, Silvio Berlusconi, who famously refused to acknowledge the defeat of his Forza Italia party in the 2006 general election, was generous in his praise of Arsenal. "They had great play and athletic power and for a long time they didn't let us see the ball. Their victory was totally deserved."

With another general election due next month, when 71-year-old Berlusconi faces a showdown with Walter Veltroni, the sprightly 52-year-old leader of the Democratic Party, Milan's owner will not want to dwell on the symbolism of vibrant youth sweeping aside a creaking old guard.

But age was very much on the media's agenda. The relative average age of Tuesday night's teams – 24.5 for Arsenal, 30.2 for Milan – was cited as a factor in the defeat and Milan's 30-something squad was offered as one of the major underlying reasons for the team's decline. Probing questions about that decline are already replacing the eulogies, with attention focusing on the club's flawed transfer policy.

The charge against Milan's owners is that they didn't do what ruthlessly successful teams have always done: strengthen when they are winning. Milan have snapped up some world class players in recent years, most notably the Fifa World Player of the Year, Kaka. In 18-year-old Pato, Milan's network of contacts in Brazil may have struck gold again. But the quality in the squad has not been deep enough to allow Ancelotti to rest his older players in the way that, for example, Sir Alex Ferguson is able to do with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United.

Speculation about Ancelotti's future has redoubled following this defeat, despite the coach receiving a resounding vote of confidence from Berlusconi after the match. Milan's hierarchy knows that aristocrats like Kaka will not want to slum it for too long in the Uefa Cup. If Milan don't make fourth place in Serie A, allowing for a crack at the Champions League next season, Ancelotti will be expected to fall on his sword. Milan are currently fifth, four points behind in-form Fiorentina, with 12 games left to play.

The saddest sight of Tuesday evening was that of Paolo Maldini at the final whistle, with head bowed and shoulders hunched, knowing that he had just played his last game in Europe. He is set to retire at the end of the season. In a sport where players can be hyped to the stars after one good season, the 39-year-old Maldini is a true great, whose elegance as a defender has been matched by a profound sense of fair play over 23 years and more than 1,000 games at the top level.

Milan's immediate transfer target is Didier Drogba, but if the club want to lay the foundations for a new cycle of success, they probably need to start looking for an heir to Maldini.

Age concern: Exit stage right for Maldini and the 'Rossoneri'

Milan's ageing starting XI against Arsenal on Tuesday:

Keljko Kalac, goalkeeper, Age 35

Massimo Oddo, defender, 31

Alessandro Nesta, defender, 31

Kakha Kaladze, defender, 30

Paolo Maldini, defender, 39

Gennaro Gattuso, midfielder, 30

Andrea Pirlo, midfielder, 28

Massimo Ambrosini, midfielder, 30

Kaka, midfielder, 25

Alexandre Pato, forward, 18

Pippo Inzaghi, forward, 34

Average Age: 30.1 (Arsenal: 24.5)

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