(Reuters) - Nineteen points adrift of Serie A leaders AS Roma and only three clear of the relegation zone, AC Milan head for their Champions League match against Barcelona on Wednesday in crisis mode.
The floundering giants have been left standing by domestic rivals who appear to have better youth programs, better scouting and clearer philosophies of how to run their club.
The last 18 months have seen constant changes in direction by a rudderless outfit with phlegmatic coach Massimiliano Allegri invariably left to pick up the pieces.
Milan’s difficulties began at the end of the 2011/12 season when they decided it was time to balance the books and sold talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and key defender Thiago Silva to Paris St Germain.
Other long-time servants also left including defender Alessandro Nesta and tough-tackling midfielder Gennaro Gattuso.
The club hailed a new philosophy based on finding and developing talented young players although they forgot to tell the supporters, causing expectations to remain unrealistically high.
“We can raise great champions at home,” said Barbara Berlusconi, director and daughter of club president Silvio Berlusconi, last December, pointing to forward Stephan El Shaarawy as one example.
Milan managed to muddle through last season with a combination of some late goals, fortunate refereeing decisions and the opportunist signing of Mario Balotelli and his short-lived resurgence.
After they scrambled to a third-place finish and the Champions League playoff spot, it seemed the worst was over.
The ultras even showed their support for Allegri and his “project” by publicly backing the coach after it was reported that president Berlusconi wanted to ditch him.
However, the summer transfer window brought an unexplained, change of direction. Instead of focusing on youth, Milan then went out and hired players in the middle or latter stages of their careers.
They splashed out 11 million euros on striker Alessandro Matri who has a respectable scoring record but, at 29, is something of a journeyman, while 26-year-old Slovenian midfielder Valter Birsa was signed from Genoa as a free agent.
Kaka, 31, returned to the club after four injury-prone years at Real Madrid in a classic case of what Italians call “reheated soup” (minestre recaldati), and promptly suffered a new injury in his first game.
Just as baffling was their last-minute decision to allow the mercurial Kevin-Prince Boateng to leave for Schalke 04, two days after he scored two goals against PSV Eindhoven in a Champions League qualifier.
Gattuso criticized his former club on Monday for not spending enough in the transfer market. “You have to spend a lot of money to build strong sides,” he said in a television interview. “At the moment, little investment is being made. Roma, Napoli and Juventus have something more than Milan because they have spent a lot on new players.”
In fact, Milan spent 27 million euros during the summer, according to the website transfermarkt.de., only slightly less than Juventus and Inter Milan, who are both flourishing.
Other clubs simply appear to have spent more wisely. Midfielder Kevin Strootman and defender Mehdi Benatia have helped transform Roma since their arrival while Napoli newcomers Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol and Gonzalo Higuain have more than made up for Edinson Cavani’s departure.
They also seem better at searching out and producing young talent than Milan where almost every player, including youngsters El Shaarawy and M‘Baye Niang, were raised elsewhere.
Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat to Fiorentina, another team who have left Milan standing this season, led to reports that Barbara Berlusconi wanted to remove long-standing chief executive Adriano Galliani, something she later denied.
“I have never asked for Galliani to be changed,” she said as the crisis started to resemble a second-rate soap opera. “In the numerous phone conversations with my dad after the Fiorentina defeat I simply called for a change in the business philosophy of AC Milan.”
Galliani, in turn, was left to issue yet another message of support for Allegri. “It’s not a decisive week,” he said. “We have faith in the coach.”
Reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Justin Palmer