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Champions League exit begins two months in limbo for Milan

Mar 11, 2014, 8:56 PM EST

milan_atletico AP

“The UEFA Champions League was an important objective for us,” Milan head coach Clarence Seedorf conceded after today’s loss. Leaving the competition after losing by four goals (aggregate), the Rossoneri’s performance made “loss” into a euphemism. It’s more accurate to call it a rout.

Champions League was also Milan’s last chance to redeem the 2013-14 season. Coppa Italia is gone. Resting 11th place in Serie A, Milan can neither compete for Europe nor reasonably worry about relegation. Of course they need to improve, and that’s what the next two months will be about, but with a squad so flawed that major moves will be needed this offseason, any squad building could be undone this summer. Pride is a significant part of sports, but 10 days before spring arrives, that’s all Milan’s playing for.

Had Milan pulled an upset today, it’d have one more round of Champions League. Maybe it catches lightning in a bottle, get a good draw, and get into the final four. Who knows? It wasn’t so long ago that Schalke was facing Manchester United for a spot in the finals. Regardless, as long as Milan was alive in Champions League, the squad had something to play for.

“[Now] now we have to give ourselves other targets …,” Seedorf confessed after today’s loss in Madrid. “There are 11 games left and we need precise aims because we cannot throw away the good things we have done.”

It’s tempting to ask ‘what good things’, but for the first 40, 45 minutes to today’s match, Milan looked like a team capable of competing against Atlético. Perhaps they were slightly feckless, as they have been throughout their time under Seedorf, but they also seemed on the verge. There is something about this Milan team that feels like that next gear is within reach. At this point, however, the transmission’s probably shot.

To the extent that anything can be gained if Milan manages to wake up, the team will be able to identify which players should (and should not) return next season. But more and more, the team seems to be going through what their San Siro cohabitants experienced last year.

Then, Inter fell to ninth, was forced to embrace their temporary irrelevance, and dropped a bomb on the operation last summer. Walter Mazzarri was brought in from Napoli, and while the Nerazzurri have yet to regain their title-contending relevance, they’ve made strides. Currently in fifth, Inter could yet find their way back into Europe.

That’s the path Milan is now on. This summer, they’ll surely regroup under Seedorf. They’ll try to find homes for some of their expensive talents while hoping Mario Balotelli, Keisuke Honda, and Kaká can meld. The midfield needs a better connector and the defense has to improve, but Seedorf has two months to decide what exactly he wants.

Until then, Milan is going to be irrelevant, if only in the competitive sense. Having been eliminated from Europe, the Rossoneri start the process that would have begun sooner had they been drawn in  tougher Champions League group. Now they get to look beyond this season and ask ‘How do we prevent this form happening next year?’

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