When Gennaro Gattuso took over as manager at AC Milan, the general view was that this was a club in serious trouble.
Whatever the issues that the San Siro club faced under Vincenzo Montella, bringing in a club legend who was more known for his aggression than his tactical nous was not seen as the smartest of moves, just as Gattuso was not the smartest of players – always the butt of the joke, according to former teammate Andrea Pirlo in his book, I Think Therefore I Play.
Yet just a glance at Milan’s results over the last few months show that no-one is joking about his managerial abilities: his side are unbeaten since December 23rd, and have won ten of their last 13 games in all competitions, drawing the other three. In that time they’ve conceded just four goals and have kept a clean sheet in each of their last six.
When Gattuso took charge in November, the club were 14 points off the fourth and final Champions League spot. Now they are just seven, with a game in hand over Lazio, who lost on Saturday evening before all Serie A games were postponed owing to the tragic death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori.
Sunday night would have seen AC Milan take on Inter, a side who have won just two of their last 13 games: once against whipping boys Benevento, the other against nine-man Bologna. A derby victory before Thursday night’s Europa League tie may well have given Rino’s side extra momentum and belief.
Their runaway train feel is stands in stark contrast to Arsenal, their opponents this weekend. The Gunners have lost their last four and their sole victory in their last six games was away to an Ostersund side who capitulated under pressure of the occasion in the first leg of their Europa League last 32 game, only to come back roaring with a victory at the Emirates in the return game.
The pressure is all on Arsenal: the damsel in distress, tied to the tracks and flailing furiously as the sound of the approaching freight train drowns out her frantic screams.
The audible cries at the moment come from the fans on social media and radio phone-ins, not from any effort made by the team on the pitch. The unstoppable force is about to collide with the easily movable object. It has the makings of a perversely compelling spectacle, like watching a lion maul a limp, three-legged gazelle.
All you have to do is contrast the trajectory of two teams. Since November 27th, when Gattuso arrived, Milan have cut the gap on fourth. But that day, Arsenal themselves were in fourth spot in the Premier League. Since then, whilst their opponents have climbed the ladder, the Gunners have fallen back: they are now 13 points behind the Champions League spots.
Since Gattuso took over, Arsenal have won just nine games. Milan have won that many since the turn of the year.
In the last decade, Arsenal have gone from title challengers to top four contenders to a team who win trophies people consider secondary competitions like the FA Cup. They’ve also made a habit of exiting the Champions League at the beginning of March when the last 16 round comes around.
All the evidence points to them doing that again, only this time, they’ll have fallen a step further: they will not even be Champions League or second tier trophy contenders any more, they’ll simply be down and out.