Ah, if only Milan had the self-confidence of Philippe Mexes. One look at the Frenchman, with his panoply of tattoos and hair like a Mad Max villain, is enough to confirm that he has not a shred of insecurity. And every now and again, those enormous reserves of self-belief seem justified. Such as the 71st minute at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium last night, when Mexes punted a staggeringly audacious overhead kick into the top corner from outside the box.
Collectively, Milan are not quite so assured of their own brilliance. Their task was simple in Belgium last night – win and they would be guaranteed a place in the Champions League last 16. And they succeeded. Eventually. There can’t have been many Rossoneri fans that didn’t feel a touch queasy at half-time however.
Their team was outplayed by Anderlecht in the first 45, grateful to Christian Abbiati for making a crucial save when Milan Jovanovic was clean through and unable to exert any measure of control, their game plan consisting of long, hopeful Riccardo Montolivo passes and not much else.
But just two minutes into the second half, Stephan El Shaarawy intervened, controlling a cross from fellow youth Mattia De Sciglio and stroking in a finish. The Little Pharaoh has now scored 12 of Milan’s 27 goals this season, and is bound to face the same accusations that predecessor Zlatan Ibrahimovic faced – namely that the team are over-reliant on him. Given that he only turned 20 last month, he should take it as a compliment.
The sending off of Anderlecht’s Bram Nuytinck and the acrobatics of Mexes seemed to wrap things up, but Tom De Sutter’s goal inflicted another 10 minutes of nail-biting on the Diavolo support. In the land of the master chocolatiers, it was left to Alexandre Pato – a man who has this season often looked like the coffee flavoured one left to moulder in the box – to seal the victory in stoppage time, taking advantage of yet more excellent work from El Shaarawy.
Once upon a time Pato was the young sharp shooter Milan turned to in their moments of need, but that role now belongs to El Shaarawy and it was hard not to detect a hint of jealousy in the Duck’s ominous post-match declarations. “Milan are doing well and Stephan El Shaarawy is doing well, but I want to play. We’ll see what to do with my agent.”
As nervy and unconvincing as they were at times in Brussels, Milan have qualified from a difficult section with a game to spare, and given all of their problems this season, it’s a laudable achievement. That said, they owe a debt of gratitude to the shocking under-performance of Zenit St Petersburg. Favourites to win Group C when the tournament began, Luciano Spalletti’s side are now not even assured of a Europa League spot.
Kevin Prince Boateng on the right wing, Kevin Constant at left-back and Bojan Krkic at centre-forward – this is a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of a Milan side, cobbled together from mismatched parts, but not one completely devoid of quality, as their run of just one defeat in the last seven games proves. If they can throw a little of Mexes’ healthy arrogance into the mix, this season might not be beyond salvage after all.