Berlusconi reaping the benefits of keeping faith with Allegri

Say what you like about Silvio Berlusconi’s political career, he’s proved a better judge of football than most owners.

Pausing in the midst of the election campaign last week to give an opinion on his team’s chances against Barcelona he told journalists: “We won’t be able to go out and play in the way I’ve always wanted Milan to play. This time Barca will boss the game and we will have to confront them so they don’t boss the game too much.”

Football and politics are so intertwined in Italy that Milan’s win was hailed as a definite boost to Berlusconi’s electoral chances. If you think that’s far-fetched, when he gave the go-ahead to sign Mario Balotelli last month the opinion polls recorded a 2% rise in his rating. Exactly the same happened in 2001 when Milan signed Rui Costa and again in 2008 with Ronaldinho.

With the Milan derby taking place on Sunday night there was even speculation that a Balotelli hat-trick might yet persuade voters to flock to the polls in the morning to throw in their lot with the old man again.

It might have been. Milan dominated Inter during the opening half hour. Stephan El Shaarawy, Italy’s newest rising star, opened the scoring with a cracking left-foot shot. But Super Mario missed two close-range chances, both from crosses, and in the second period Inter forced their way back into the game to equalise.

All-square at the end, a result that suited neither side, a little bit like the election, where the real victor seems to be the third force Five Star Movement.

Nevertheless in football terms, Berlusconi has definitely proved himself this season.

Most believed the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain was good business in cash terms but bad for the team. It left Milan with little up front and a less-than-inspiring defence — and not that strong in midfield either after the departure of the ageless Clarence Seedorf and above all the loss of Andrea Pirlo to Juventus.

Instead the plan was to bring through younger players, leavened with the experience of Massimo Ambrosini in midfield and former Roma centre back Philippe Mexes at the back.

It looked like a risk, and it was. Milan lost three of their opening four league games and five of the first eight, including the derby. Their young coach Massimino Allegri was no longer Super Max the title winner: it seemed just a matter of days before his departure.

But for all his ruthless reputation, Berlusconi is a surprisingly loyal owner to people he trusts. And he also can be surprisingly patient when it comes to rebuilding.

“There were a series of negative results and normally in such circumstances it is the manager who pays,” he explained last week.

“But we hung on in, we spoke about things and we found ourselves in agreement about the future. To put it briefly we wouldn’t go out and buy expensive players but give ourselves two or three years to build a young squad and start a new cycle.

“Allegri agreed — and signing Balotelli was part of that decision.”

Balotelli is hardly a bargain basement signing, but securing Riccardo Montolivo on a free transfer was a real coup.

The Fiorentina captain, 28 in January, had run down his contract with the aim of a big move. He and Antonio Nocerino have given Milan new energy as well craft in midfield.

The surprise is perhaps more that apparent journeymen such as Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng are doing so well. But both of them provide the sort of physical strength that sides such as Barcelona find it hard to cope with. At the back they are using relative unknowns such as Kevin Constant and Cristian Zapata, taken initially on loan.

Apart from El Shaarawy, who is just 20, this is not yet the revolution Berlusconi talks about but it’s a long way from the geriatric side of a few years ago.

The irony is it should coincide with the rise of a youthful protest movement which wants to remove not just Berlusconi but the entire Italian political establishment.

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