By Mark Doyle
AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri was unsurprisingly in a bullish frame of mind after Saturday’s shock Serie A defeat at home to Fiorentina. "I absolutely don't feel that my job is at risk," he declared. The defiance was impressive but Allegri was fooling nobody.
Granted, it may seem more than a little unfair and arguably even a tad ridiculous that the 44-year-old coach is currently having to field questions about his position. We are, after all, talking about a man who led Milan to the title last summer - their first since 2004 - in what was his debut season at San Siro. Then there is the fact that even after the loss to the Viola, the Rossoneri are just a point behind Juventus with seven rounds still to play.
However, that Allegri is now under scrutiny is hardly surprising. Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi's thirst for titles is matched only by his fondness for females and the former Italian Prime Minister's official return to the club last month in the role of 'Honorary President' was always going to increase the pressure on Allegri to deliver another major title in May.
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Indeed, speculation is rife that Berlusconi, who prides himself on European glory above all else, now has his doubts over whether Allegri is capable of delivering a Champions League title.
Of course, there should be no shame attached to being knocked out of the game’s most prestigious club cup competition by the Blaugrana, particularly in rather controversial circumstances, but it is now being reported that Berlusconi was not impressed by the Rossoneri's approach to the game at Camp Nou.
It is also worth remembering that Milan bowed out of last season’s tournament at the hands of a Tottenham Hotspur side making their debut in the Champions League.
In addition, while it would be going too far to hold Allegri solely accountable for the 3-1 aggregate defeat by Barca, it is undeniable that he did his side absolutely no favours at all by taking a horribly ill-advised gamble on the fitness of arguably the finest defender in the game today, Thiago Silva, in the run-up to the first leg.
The Brazilian defender had limped out of the Coppa Italia clash with Juventus the week before the visit of the Blaugrana, so why then was he risked in the Serie A showdown with Roma on the Saturday, especially when it was obvious to all and sundry during the warm-up for the game against the Giallorossi that the centre-half was still not 100 per cent?
Allegri has previous history in this regard, too, having rushed Alexandre Pato back for the league meeting with Juventus in February only to see the player break down again and hauled off after 45 minutes. Admittedly, Milan's medical team have hardly covered themselves in glory with their attempts at treating Pato's persistent thigh problems, but the buck stops with the coach when it comes to properly managing his squad.
Of course, that Milan have had to make do without so many first-team players at such regular intervals this term has contributed enormously to their current predicament. Losing Antonio Cassano for over five months was a particularly cruel blow given the enigmatic forward was in the form of his career when he was forced to undergo an emergency heart procedure last November.
But then, it is undeniable that the Rossoneri are blessed with the deepest playing pool in Italy. Antonio Conte is producing far better results with a less impressive squad at Juventus and comparisons between the pair are inevitable ... and from a tactical perspective, unfavourable. The former Bianconeri and Italy midfielder has proven himself to be a far more versatile coach, having started the season with a 4-4-2 and now currently switching between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 on a regular basis - and often during games.
Allegri, by contrast, sticks rigidly to his tried and trusted 4-3-1-2 with the result that Milan can sometimes look desperately one-dimensional and utterly devoid of a Plan B. Consequently, it is easy to see why Berlusconi might be beginning to suspect his coach lacks the versatility and bravery to succeed on the European stage. All coaches, of course, have a preferred system and Sir Alex Ferguson took a long time to add the kind of variety to Manchester United’s game that is required to win the Champions League, but Allegri’s stubbornness is disconcerting.
What is perhaps most worrying, though, is that it now seems Alessandro Nesta is seriously considering following Andrea Pirlo to Juventus just a season after the latter was inexplicably and unforgivably allowed to join one of the Rossoneri's greatest rivals on a free transfer. Nesta, it has been claimed, no longer sees eye to eye with Allegri, suggesting that Berlusconi is not the only influential figure at Milanello who is losing faith in the coach.
Only another Serie A title, therefore, is likely to guarantee Allegri another season at San Siro.