Back in June 2013 when Riccardo Saponara was on his way from Empoli to AC Milan, the hype surrounding the midfielder was so much the then-21 year old was being referred to as the “new Kaka”. Milan had signed him for €4 million that January but allowed him to remain with Empoli until the end of the season, where he finished with 13 goals and 15 assists in Serie B.
The excitement that shadowed Saponara to the San Siro was perhaps unfair, he only had previous experience of playing in the league below and with comparisons to Milan’s last truly-elite player, the 2007 Ballon D’Or winner Kaka, came a foreboding weight. He has failed emphatically to live up to the billing; in the following 18 months he has mustered just 8 appearances for Milan, not scoring or assisting once, and having made only a single appearance in this campaign he finds himself returning to Empoli on loan for the rest of the season.
The Rossoneri he leaves behind is a troubled club languishing eighth in Serie A, 17 points behind leaders Juventus, with manager Filippo Inzaghi appearing to consent with Silvio Berlusconi that a targeted-third place finish is now out of reach. With desperation creeping in, a £15 million move for Alessio Cerci, the striker who had failed to settle in Spain with Atletico Madrid, has been completed but met with a degree of cynicism from fans with fond memories of recent success.
Cerci will take the number 22 shirt, which supporters were quick to point out was once previously worn by Kaka. That name again, still lingering over Milanello despite the Brazilian having departed to see out the final rungs of his career in the sunny climbs of Florida and Orlando City. Ricardo Montolivo has urged supporters to forget about the past, “It’s hard to draw comparisons, but we’re talking about two teams searching for an identity” said the midfielder, “it’s a different Milan team than it used to be, there’s no point denying that.”
League winners as recently as 2011, Milan have had to sit European football out this season for the first time since 1998 and given their current struggles- they have won just 2 of their last 11 games, it will be a tough task to return for next year. Expectations have been downgraded considerably and so has the wage bill, now €94 million from the €160 million it stood at just two years ago.
Financial Fair Play regulations means the neoteric days of shelling out £16 million for Robinho, £22 million for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and £17 million for Mario Balotelli have passed, with bargain-basement captures of Giacomo Bonaventura, Adil Rami and Fernando Torres, signed for a total of £12 million last summer, or even frees for those discarded by Europe’s top clubs, Alex, Diego Lopez, Michael Essien, Jeremy Menez, is now the order.
The policy of spending-restraint led to the capture of Saponara (who took Gennaro Gatusso’s number 8 shirt which became another thorny issue for the sentimental) and most latterly Suso, signed from Liverpool on a 4 and a half year deal as the January window reaches its mid-way point. Again it is underwhelming, a midfielder who had managed just 21 appearances for Liverpool since his debut in September 2012 and leaves Anfield under a cloud after attending his Milan medical without the permission of his former club, fitting a crescendo to a series of attitude problems that were rumoured to have hindered his progress on Merseyside.
There is unquestionable potential in the Spanish midfielder Rafael Benitez personally intervened to sign from Cadiz under the noses of Real Madrid and Barcelona in 2010, then honed with time in Liverpool’s reserves and the NextGen series in 2011. The following season impressive first-team appearances came against Manchester United, West Brom and Norwich City and he was rewarded with a long-term deal that October, with Brendan Rodgers praising his “outstanding technical qualities”.
A further 16 appearances followed that season before he was sent on loan to Almeria for first-team experience and his time in La Liga was, on the whole, successful, registering 7 assists (more than Arda Turan of Atletico Madrid and Iker Muniain of Athletic Bilbao) and scoring 3 goals to help Almeria avoid relegation by a single point. As a small, agile, nimble-footed playmaker, he was mostly used as a left-footed winger on the right-side, given license to move centrally to create with his incisive passes in support of Rodri, the lone striker favoured by manager Francisco Rodriguez, and that combination would link together for 4 goals.
His bad side would also be showcased in Spain, one that would often fall short with his end-product, translating into a pass completion percentage of just 72.2 and a poor return of 103 inaccurate crosses from a total of 129 attempted. He would be disposed often as he struggled with direction on the ball, usually committing an over-zealous tackle in order to compensate, resulting in the 9 bookings and 1 dismissal he picked up, a significant number for a creator who should be more concerned with the elegant and technical side of the game.
He would return to Merseyside with the void left behind by Luis Suarez’s departure harbouring promise of a first-team breakthrough, though his progress would be stymied by a talented list of midfielders in Adam Lallana, Phillipe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Lazar Markovic, and he found himself limited to just one appearance, as a substitute in the League Cup against Middlesbrough. His goal in extra-time became his last act in a Liverpool shirt as mentality issues would again come to the fore and Rodgers’s patience would ebb away.
The Spaniard will now compete with Bonaventura, Cerci, M’baye Niang, Keisuke Honda, Jeremy Menez and Stephen El-Shaarawy for the playmaking spots but Inzaghi’s welcome suggested he would be given added opportunities in a more central role. “We are very happy to have Suso here and the fact he arrived early means he’ll be given more of an opportunity to acclimatise”, said the manager, “Suso can give us an important hand this season. He has great quality”.
“Suso is here because Riccardo Saponara wanted more playing time and we could not guarantee him that” said Inzaghi, perhaps subscribing to the same hope that will be shared among most Milan fans that Suso will not become a similar disappointment.
It is still a shock to see Milan lumbering along in Serie A and the 21 year old will have to improve on his time at Liverpool and Almeria if he is to help avoid it becoming the normality.
Written by Adam Gray
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