Veteran Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho rediscovers his touch to repay coach Leonardo's faith. Ian Hawkey reports.
Milan have aged with perfection
Not so long ago, the very presence of Ronaldinho in a starting line-up for Milan was taken as negative evidence against the leadership of his young head coach, Leonardo. The argument was Ronaldinho was being picked on a reputation, a mere memory of brilliance that was fast fading and belonged only to his era as Barcelona player, three or four seasons ago. Worse, Leonardo was in some quarters suspected of selecting his compatriot mainly because Milan's club president Silvio Berlusconi retained a soft spot for the Brazilian with the toothy grin and the expanded waistline.
Not so long ago, moreover, the idea that Ronaldinho might start a match for Milan and still be full of zip and enterprise in the late stages of the second-half would have seemed far-fetched. Between August 29, the second fixture of the 2009-10 Serie A season, and October 31, he was named in Milan's matchday squad 11 times; he failed to play the full 90 minutes in any of them, adding to the impression of a few milanisti that the only thing Ronaldinho had the energy for as nights lengthened was strutting his stuff on Lombardy dance-floors.
Indeed, back in August, a group of supporters famously bumped into him in just those circumstances and told him firmly he ought be at home in bed. Yet last Sunday night, in conditions to stir the goose pimples and under a fog that offered any reluctant or tiring footballer plenty of space to hide, Ronaldinho looked liked he was powered by a set of Duracell batteries. His two goals in Milan's 3-0 win at Juventus both arrived in the final 20 minutes of the game, to turn the scoreline from good to emphatic and apparently to rule Juventus out of remaining interest in the race for the scudetto.
With the triumph over their old enemies, Milan have declared themselves the only serious threat to Inter's defence of the Serie A title, although they would need to win their match in hand - away at Fiorentina - to close the gap between first and second to five points. They may feel encouraged by the fact that Inter, like Juve, shipped three goals at home at the weekend - the champions beat Siena 4-3 with a late, late goal - but most of all Milan will feel confident their veterans have plenty in the way of stamina and know-how for maintaining the chase.
One such senior, 33-year-old Alessandro Nesta, scored a rare goal to begin the rout of Juve. Two others, 30-year-old Andrea Pirlo and David Beckham, 34, provided the openings for all three goals. Ronaldinho, meanwhile, will turn 30 in March. But it is the milestone of June that may be firing him into 2010 with the impressive fitness, pizzazz and some of his showy enthusiasm of his mid-twenties, like the way he directed himself to the cameras after his goals, pleased to say: "Look at Me!"
Much more of this form and he will be making a strong case for inclusion in Brazil's World Cup plans. "I am happy," Ronaldinho said of his performance against Juventus. "Milan have given me the conditions to let me work well and at the moment I'm going on to the field with the confidence and enthusiasm to do what I want." Feeling secure of his first XI place helped, he added. "Of course, when I don't play, I'm not happy about it.
"But I now I play regularly under Leonardo, I feel fit and I am in good shape." And the World Cup? "At the moment, things are going well with Milan, and I really want us to win something this season," he said diplomatically. Leonardo praised Ronaldinho and Beckham in particular for their tactical nous against Juventus. "Whatever the scoreline suggests, it wasn't easy," said the head coach. "We took a while to get organised, once Juve tried to pin us back. That worked for a period but we had the intelligence of knowing how to wait and work out a new way round them. Beckham and Ronaldinho worked really hard and well on spreading the ball out wide."
Set-pieces were the key to establishing Milan's advantage, and, although both Beckham and Ronaldinho have particular expertise in that area, the dead-ball demon against Juve was Pirlo. His corner, just before a first half-hour in which Juventus had attacked with gusto and threat, was converted at the far post by Nesta for the first goal. Ronaldinho, seldom hailed for his heading, glanced in another Pirlo corner for the second, and with the mist hampering visibility, Pirlo struck another corner short to Beckham whose cross provided Ronaldinho with his second of the night.
The executors of the move then ran through the fog to congratulate one another as Leonardo beamed from the touchline. "I love seeing my players celebrate like that," he smiled. "And it provides a wonderful atmosphere in the dressing room. And that makes me happier than anything else." firstname.lastname@example.org