The loss of their coach, playmaker and legendary captain has left the Rossoneri searching for inspiration.
Ronaldinho's responsibility for Milan
It was, for Ronaldinho, something of a surprise. Not the being approached by fans; he is used to that and, for all the criticism about his bling and his ostentation, Ronaldinho is actually very charming with the public, a patient signer of autographs, an obedient poser for photographic snapshots. The surprise for Ronaldinho was that the supporters he met at the end of last week, late one night in a Milan disco, did not want to crowd around him. They wanted to see the back of him.
The Brazilian was having a night out on the dance floor with his compatriot and AC Milan colleague, the goalkeeper Dida, when it was cut short by a number of milanisti who urged him, some quite strongly, to go home and use the night for what it was meant: sleeping. Still a fortnight ahead of the beginning of the Serie A season, a footballer might be inclined to think he can keep the hours of a holidaymaker, but this footballer has a reputation and, as he was reminded that night, a responsibility that has grown.
Ronaldinho's brilliant career went off course about two years ago, amid too many sightings of him living it up in Barcelona, his previous home. Joining Milan a year ago gave him a chance to re-impose the self-discipline that his joyous talent needs to thrive, yet it can hardly be reported that he is back to his old, dynamic self as a player. There were encouraging cameos last autumn for Milan, but he has had his honeymoon, one that started when tens of thousands arrived at San Siro merely to welcome him to Italy. This, his second campaign in Serie A, is his make-or-break year. Milan need a vintage Ronaldinho, the artist who galvanised Barcelona between 2003 and 2006, who put the zing into Brazilian football after one of its lowest troughs.
The incident in the disco may turn out as just an anecdote, but in the context of a perplexing, insecure summer for Italy's most successful European club, Milan, it may soon be chronicled as a piece of writing on the wall. Milan have lost their head coach of eight years standing, Carlo Ancelotti. They have lost their most influential footballer of the last four years, Kaka. They have lost their captain and totem, Paolo Maldini, to retirement. And the new leadership, says their supreme leader, president Silvio Berlusconi, must chiefly come from within.
Leonardo, the urbane Brazilian who has had an executive role until now, is Ancelotti's replacement; Ronaldinho has been told he must be everything that Kaka was. So far, so unconvincing. The high profile matches of their pre-season have produced bad results: defeats against Inter Milan, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Benfica. A big tranche of the vast funds banked from Kaka's move to Real Madrid - over ?50million (Dh261m) - have been reserved to ease some of the club's debt burden, and having sold their biggest star, their principal summer recruit so far is a footballer Real did not want, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the centre-forward who had barely been six months in the Spanish capital. Berlusconi now presents as the transfer window's main triumph persuading Andrea Pirlo to stay rather than join Ancelotti at Chelsea.
The subject of Milan's keen need to rejuvenate the squad - defenders Giuseppe Favalli, Kakha Kaladze, Marek Jankulovski and the long-term injured Alessandro Nesta, midfielders Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Ambrosini and Pirlo, and striker Pippo Inzaghi are all over 30 - has been raised for so many summers now that it itself is a tired and old topic. For youth, Leonardo has to rely on the prosaic but energetic Matthieu Flamini, the promise of new defender Thiago Silva, the strength of Oguchi Onweyu and on Huntelaar, who is 26, but has scored most of his handsome tally of goals in the Dutch Eredivisie, where defences are less testing than in Serie A.
Milan may act again in the transfer window, but a treacherous degree of faith seems to be placed right now on Ronaldinho, whose feet may still be nimble under a strobe light, but whose dazzling changes of pace and direction mostly belong to an era stretching further and further back in the mind's eye. email@example.com