Milan giants hoping new Chinese investment will lead to glory days again
Nine months after the Nanking-based Suning Group bought Inter Milan, the takeover of rivals AC Milan by Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux, led by Chinese businessmen Yonghong Li and Han Li, has finally been completed and just in time for Saturday's Derby della Madonnina.
An all-Chinese affair now, the belief that the drawn-out deal would get over the line by this Thursday persuaded the league to do something it has never done before and schedule its most prestigious fixture for a Saturday lunchtime kick-off -- prime-time viewing in China.
The game will reach an estimated audience of 862 million on TV, 566 million of which are in the Asian-Pacific market. This is fast becoming the new normal in Serie A (in fact the league announced on Thursday that the Rome derby will also be played in this timeslot come the end of the month) but, for Milan fans at least, the build-up to the Madonnina is replete with conflicting emotions of hope and melancholy, relief and concern.
They are forever grateful to Silvio Berlusconi but recognise, as he eventually did, that it is time for a change.
"Today, after more than 30 years, I am leaving my role as owner and President of Milan," Berlusconi wrote in an open letter to the club's supporters. "I do so with pain and deep feeling, but also the awareness that in order to compete at the highest level in Europe and the world, investments and resources are necessary that a single family is no longer in a position to sustain."
But is Yonghong Li? The mysterious financier has done little to inspire confidence. He missed deadlines to close the deal first in December and then in March, and only got this €740m takeover over the line by loaning €300m from the Elliott Management Corporation at a high interest rate.
Elliot have built a reputation for buying distressed countries' debt at a discount from institutions that have lost all hope in collecting it. They have made millions out of succeeding where others have failed in extracting payment in full. Yonghong Li now has the job of paying them back over the next 18 months while also making Milan great again. You can understand why some fans are nervous. Paolo Maldini's reasons for turning down the offer to return to the club as a director suggested that the new owners have some work to do in convincing people they are the real deal.
The papers on Friday are full of stories about bringing Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back to the club and signing the likes of Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas and Lazio's Keita Balde Diao. A deal breaker for Berlusconi was a commitment to invest €350m in the team over the next three years and chief executive Marco Fassone and director of sport Massimiliano Mirabelli have been working under that assumption since August.
The signing they absolutely must make above all others though is tying 18-year-old superstar goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to a new long-term contract. It has to be their No. 1 priority. Donnarumma's agent Mino Raiola wants to look Milan's new owners in the eye and see for himself if they are serious before allowing his client to commit to the team he supports. He has no such reservations about Inter.
Suning have already spent €174m and will go big again in the summer. There's talk of splurging on Ricardo Rodriguez, Kostas Manolas, Marco Verratti, Domenico Berardi and Federico Bernardeschi. In terms of resources, champions Juventus have not had a rival like them over the last five-and-a-half years. Suning won't settle for anything less than the title from next year forward and coach Stefano Pioli and a number of Inter's players know that the next seven games will have a bearing on whether they have a future at the club or not.
After reviving Inter impressively through the winter, and taking them within a point of the Champions League places, Pioli is now scrapping to make it into the Europa League and sit in seventh -- two points behind Milan and five off Lazio in fourth. Inter have lost back-to-back games and last weekend's defeat to Crotone was every bit as bad as those Europa League losses to Hapoel Be'er Sheva in the autumn.
Making up the ground they lost under Frank de Boer appears to have tired this team out. Pioli, who on the whole has done an admirable job, has, by his own admission, got things wrong on occasion -- like the system against Roma and the selection against Sampdoria when Marcelo Brozovic imploded and cost his team dearly. January signing Roberto Gagliardini has been a big miss lately; Inter lack balance without him, but it's the attitude and the character of the players that has been called into question.
The opposite is true of Milan who spent a fraction of what Inter did in the summer and can't claim to have the same talent spread as their rivals, but continue to over-perform. With six wins in their last nine, they leapfrogged Inter at the weekend and already have as many points as they finished last season with.
Suso, who twice put Milan in front in the 2-2 derby draw in November, is back after spending most of the spring on the sidelines and marked his return with a goal from a free kick and an assist in a 4-0 win against Palermo. Meanwhile, Gerard Deulofeu has been an instant hit since arriving on loan from Everton, earning a re-call to the Spain squad. He also scored against the beleaguered Sicilians and Inter will have to be careful not to allow him to get into a groove on Saturday.
A win would be the perfect start for Milan's new owners and a step closer to returning to Europe for the first time in four years. It would also serve to remind the owners of what a great job Montella has done to isolate this team and make it competitive, notwithstanding a limited budget and the distractions caused by the protracted takeover.
His future shouldn't be in any doubt, but you never know after a takeover. "I'd like to know directly from the new owners what they think of me," he said on Thursday.
The big picture as the Madonnina approaches, however, is one of cautious optimism. Suning are the real deal so there is plenty of hope for Inter's future; while judgement on Milan should be reserved until the dust has settled. But there is hope in Milan that this season finally brings an end to the two clubs' time in the wilderness.
The lobbying Serie A has done to relax FFP and reform the Champions League will facilitate that and while there have been some grumblings about it, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't want to see this pair of heavyweights back where they belong. "Step by step we will return to the top of the world," was the promise of Yonghong Li. And the first step could be taken on Saturday.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.