Ahead of Sunday's clash with AC Milan at the San Siro, I spoke to the East Coast's #1 Milanista and all round calcio fanatic Matt Santangelo.
RH: Hi Matt! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. First up, can you tell us a bit about your passion for Italian football in general and Milan in particular?
MS: My passion for football did not start like most. Growing up on the east coast of the United States, baseball, basketball and American football were my first passions. Somewhere in middle school, I began watching football, playing the FIFA franchise, and really just absorbing as much as I could. Milan were the team I fell in love with because of Kaka, Paolo Maldini and Andriy Shevchenko in the early 2000s. From there, I began digging deeper into their history and what made them so special in the football world.
RH: AC Milan, as everyone knows, is one of the biggest names in world football, but you've struggled a bit in recent seasons. What’s been going wrong for the Rossoneri of late?
MS: Where to begin? Poor signings, lack of investment from Silvio Berlusconi, bad decision making and essentially modern football's advancements. The fact is under Berlusconi, the Rossoneri became this titan we had come to know, but as the game evolved, it seemed to pass us by. It's a long and complex story - we should probably save it for another day!
RH: Milan are two points ahead of Hellas going into Sunday’s game. Is this where you expected to be at this point in the season? How would you assess your form so far this season?
MS: Milan's season certainly has been disappointing when you consider we only missed out on 4th last year by a single point. We have been stuck in this phase of rebuild for a few years now, and are currently undergoing the pains of that through inconsistency, coaching changes and not having the proper system that'll deliver the results required to make Milan great again. But, Theo Hernandez, Rafael Leao and Ismael Bennacer are proving to be three solid signings by Maldini and Boban that perhaps could help spark a revolution at the club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's arrival has without question stolen much of the attention and his presence alone has elevated others in the squad according to plan. Overall, fans need to understand the gravity of Milan's situation and accept that the club will not be reborn overnight.
RH: How would you assess Ibra's impact since arriving in December? What does he bring to the team, both on and off the pitch?
MS: Ibra's presence has been felt ever since he put pen to paper on a deal to return. Beyond ability, which he still has quite a bit of at 38, his champion-like mentality, persona and aura have brushed off on several of the younger players, which is very important for their own personal growth. In a young squad, Ibrahimovic is the guardian, a chaperone, the elder statesman.
RH: What have you seen of Hellas Verona this season? Which Verona players have caught your eye?
Verona have been one of the surprise packages this season. Credit to Ivan Juric who has certainly played to his squad's strengths of being organized, balanced and defensively sound. He has not tried to play this sexy, progressive style of football to gain attention. Instead, he knows who he is as a coach, what his preferred style is and how he can get the best from each player. Amir Rrahmani, Sofyan Amrabat and Marash Kumbulla have each stood out for different reasons, and are being rewarded for their efforts by either earning bigger moves or in position to earn bigger moves come summer time.
RH: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday?
AC Milan 2-0 Verona. Milan are in good form and playing with confidence, something we did not see much of pre-Ibrahimovic. Stefano Pioli has not been a perfect coach, but he has done a fairly decent job in implementing a 4-4-2 shape that works and gets the best out of certain players. Verona will try to play with Milan early in this one in an attempt to grab a goal, but I suspect the Rossoneri will keep their run going and pick up another three points on Sunday.
RH: Personally I hope it will be tighter than that! Hopefully Milan will still be recovering from that epic Coppa Italia game against Torino on Tuesday night! Whatever happens I'm sure it will be a great game. Thanks for talking to us Matt!
Don't forget you can follow Matt on twitter at @matt_santangelo and tune in to his European football podcast The State of Play