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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Hard-man Gattuso needs to instill warrior spirit in his AC Milan team if they are to return to European elite

Gattuso won Serie A multiple times as well as two European Cups as a Milan player, but he takes over a club longing for those halcyon days

Gennaro Gattuso began his career in charge with a 2-2 draw against Serie A's bottom club Benevento. Ciro De Luca / Reuters
Gennaro Gattuso began his career in charge with a 2-2 draw against Serie A's bottom club Benevento. Ciro De Luca / Reuters

The last time Gennaro "Rino" Gattuso represented AC Milan in a senior European competition, he lost his temper and picked the wrong fight.

It was a Uefa Champions League knockout game seven seasons ago that Milan were losing to Tottenham Hotspur, and Gattuso butted Spurs’ assistant coach, the former Milan player Joe Jordan. It proved to be an ignominious last act in a playing career in which aggression and a sense of theatre were always part of the package.

Gattuso the midfielder, tigerish and energetic, used to candidly admit his endeavour and pugnacity were compensations for the finesse he lacked. That appreciation of the distinct parts that make up a successful team won him respect.

As Gattuso grew into a senior member of an enduringly successful Milan team, it marked him out as - at the very least - a man to listen to. Certainly as a leader.

Nonetheless his appointment, following the dismissal last month of Vincenzo Montella, as Milan’s manager is startling.

As he guides the club into his first European fixture as manager, on Thursday night at Rijeka in a Europa League in which Milan have already qualified for the last-32 stage, there is scepticism about Gattuso’s finesse as a tactician, if not his capacity to fire up a dressing room.

Since retiring, not long after Jordan’s bruises had faded, with a World Cup, two European Cups, several Serie A titles and more than 450 Milan matches to his name, Gattuso made some poor choices as a would-be manager.

He accepted the job of player-manager at Sion, in Switzerland, a club with a notoriety for hiring and firing managers. Gattuso lasted three games, losing two of them.

His next job would be at the Italian club with perhaps the greatest fame of any for the short stays of its managers: Palermo. He was in charge for six Serie B games, half of them defeats. He worked in the Greek top flight, at Crete, for half a season, and then at last seemed to find settled employment, even if his two years at Pisa were something of roller-coaster: Promotion to Serie B followed immediately by relegation for a side afflicted by terrible shortcomings in front of goal. Gattuso’s Pisa contrived to finish bottom of their division last May with by far the meanest defence in that division.

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None of these employers, as Gattuso points out, made their manager’s life easy. Debt crises, and threats of bankruptcy have been part of the backdrop to Gattuso’s career as a manager so far.

“Milan is a paradise in comparison,” he said. “Salaries get paid on time.” Gattuso has been drawing one from Milan since the summer. He was working as a coach with the youth team when he was summoned to take over from Montella.

He turns 40 next month and has been told he has until the end of the season at least. That counts as an average length stay for what has been a unstable period for Milan. Since Max Allegri, the last man to guide Milan to the Italian title, left in 2014, seven others have taken charge, including three who had played alongside Gattuso for more successful Milan teams: Clarence Seedorf lasted half a campaign Pippo Inzaghi a full one and Christian Brocchi, a caretaker, for seven matches.

Gattuso would seem to have some advantages over those predecessors, namely the playing squad featuring close to €200 million (Dh868m) of recruits. “I don’t want to finish the same way as Seedorf and Inzaghi,” insists Gattuso.

What he can almost guarantee is that no new manager will ever start his career in the bizarre circumstances of last weekend. Gattuso’s first game in charge of Milan ended in a 2-2 draw at Benevento, Serie A’s bottom club, whose first point of the season was gained thanks to a 95th minute goal from their goalkeeper, who had come forward, in desperation, for a set piece and headed in the equaliser.

Tactical note to Rino: Make sure the opposition keeper is marked tightly at corners and free kicks. Strategic note: Take the Europa League seriously. Milan, eighth in Serie A, are already 11 points off the qualifying places for next season’s Champions League, which is where they and Gattuso believe the club belongs, so winning the secondary European competition already looks their likeliest route back into the elite.