x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Milan prepare to do their time

Europe's elite clubs have pride to lose and nothing to gain from a Uefa Cup sentence.

AC Milan's Ronaldinho is congratulated by his teammates after scoring against Inter Milan.
AC Milan's Ronaldinho is congratulated by his teammates after scoring against Inter Milan.

From Munich to Milan, and from pillar to post, a somewhat bruised baton, that traipsed slavishly between obscure European stopping points last year such as Bolton, Braga, Aberdeen and Getafe has been gratefully passed on. Last year it was Bayern Munich, this season AC Milan. Failure to conduct themselves properly in their national league means such Behemoths must accept a mission to engage with the lesser lights, but hardly dimwits, of the European scene.

Bayern and now Milan, two premier sides in the world game with 11 European Cups hanging from their rafters, must feel like they have been shorn of their birthright by being left to rot in the makeshift environment of the Uefa Cup, soon to be renamed the Uefa Europa League from next season. Milan found themselves on Maudlin Street by finishing a brutish fifth in Italy's Serie A last season. Their punishment saw them collapse through a trapdoor, and condemned to a year's solitary confinement in the Uefa Cup. It is not only the ill-gotten journeys teams have to confront in Europe's second tournament, but the impoverished sheen that emanates from this competition.

If Milan's city rivals Inter and the Italian champions were somehow knocked out in the Champions League in the group stages, for example, they would receive almost double the prize money that AC would get from carrying off the Uefa Cup. The Uefa Cup trophy may continue to compete with the European Cup in size, but not at the bank. Players such as Ronaldinho and Kaka are not in Milan to contest such a tournament on a yearly basis.

Yet while they are there, they had better make the most of it. As Bayern discovered last year, it remains a competition that can make fools out of even the dispossessed of the Champions League. Bayern looked out of place in Europe's lesser competition for much of it, but they also discovered that it remains a tournament that is difficult to win. Despite regaining their self-esteem to win the German Bundesliga and national cup, they were left drowning in the Uefa Cup semi-finals.

The tournament's victors Zenit St Petersburg gained a 1-1 draw in Munich before rubbishing Bayern 4-0 in the return leg. AC Milan beat FC Zurich 3-1 in the opening leg of their Uefa Cup match, and should have enough stature to progress to the group stages of the tournament, however questionable that may be in the list of Milan's priorities this season. Their coach Carlo Ancelotti is content with his side's progress after two defeats blighted their start to the season.

They have gained wins from their past four matches, and continue to celebrate Ronaldinho's header that gave them a 1-0 win over city rivals Inter on Sunday. The 1997 European Cup winners Borussia Dortmund are also hanging by a thread ahead of their second leg. They lost 2-0 at home to the Italian side Udinese, and should be bundled out before they board a plane to return to Germany. As in the Champions League, the Spanish sides continue to project a feeling that the Spanish Primera Liga is made of sterner stuff.

Racing Santander, Sevilla and Valencia are all expected to progress. Santander carry a 1-0 lead to Finnish team Honka Espoo. Sevilla hold a 2-0 first-leg lead over Austria Salzburg. Valencia won 1-0 away to Portuguese side Maritimo in their first leg, and are unlikely to become embroiled in too much tomfoolery despite the resting of David Villa, David Albelda and Juan Mata. The English Premier League side Everton may perish where city rivals Liverpool succeeded. Liverpool were fortunate to pass the Belgian champions Standard Liege in the Champions League qualifiers, but David Moyes' side may not be so successful.

They travel to Liege after a 2-2 draw in the first leg at Goodison Park, and are not favourites to meander into the next phase. Aston Villa host the Bulgarians Litex Lovech to Villa Park, leading 3-1 from the first leg. Manager Martin O'Neill is likely to rest some of his better players. Portsmouth carry a 2-0 lead to Portugal to play Guimaraes, while Manchester City will expect to shrug off two defeats in the Premier League to see off Omonia Nicosia, having constructed a 2-1 lead from the first leg.