Spotlight on Seedorf as Atletico approach
AC Milan coach Clarence Seedorf awoke to the reality of the real challenges facing his side and question marks over his approach just over a week before welcoming Atletico Madrid to the San Siro.
Seedorf replaced Massimiliano Allegri in early January and after crashing out of the Italian Cup quarter-finals to Udinese, the Rossoneri's league form under the Dutchman has yet to fully convince.
The former Milan midfielder steered his side to two successive wins and a draw to pull clear of the bottom half of the Serie A table and instill some belief that a revival was on.
But the wake-up call came on Saturday when a clinical display by Rafael Benitez's Napoli exposed the task that awaits Milan if they are to snatch a top five finish and a place in the Europa League next season.
Seedorf's arrival at one of Italy's iconic clubs prompted a media storm, as much for his popularity during his successful 10-year spell at the club as for the fact it is his first real coaching appointment.
After being outclassed 3-1, his credentials faced a first grilling from the critics who have followed the steady decline of the seven-time European champions since a 2012 summer clear-out of top players, including the Dutchman.
So far, the jury remains out with reports on Monday claiming the defeat to Napoli had irked club president and owner Silvio Berlusconi.
Club CEO Adriano Galliani was quick to pour water on the embers when he told Sky Sport Italia: "There has been no criticism from Berlusconi regarding the work of Seedorf."
- Seedorf's tactics questioned -
-But a week before Atletico's visit for a Champions League last 16 clash that Milan will be desperately looking to win, Seedorf's choices for Saturday's game were widely questioned.
Some reports hastened to question the decision to leave captain Riccardo Montolivo and Sulley Muntari, who are both suspended for the Atletico fixture, on the bench against such a strong side as Napoli.
But he explained: "Montolivo is in good shape... but we have to think about the games coming up and against Atletico we will be without Montolivo and Sulley Muntari so I have to test alternatives."
It meant Michael Essien made his debut, albeit an unremarkable one, alongside Nigel de Jong and Seedorf later admitted the Ghanaian, like many of his players, will require some time to adapt to his demands.
There were also questions over central defenders Philippe Mexes, handed the captain's armband, and Adel Rami as well as an ineffective Mario Balotelli, who finished the match early and in tears.
Milan's defence, notably Mexes, crumbled under a Napoli attack which produced a brace for Argentinian Gonzalo Higuain, while Balotelli was virtually inexistent and replaced by a far more motivated Giampaolo Pazzini on 73 minutes.
Balotelli sat on the bench shedding tears that were later attributed to his emotional state only days after confirming paternity of a 14-month baby girl, Pia, born to model and former girlfriend Raffaella Fico.
Seedorf will expect a more focused approach against Atletico, but in the meantime he stood behind the 23-year-old striker.
"I don't see what the fuss is about. It's a human reaction and it's not the first time it's happened to a player. It's also happened to me," he said.
With next season's Champions League virtually beyond Milan -- Napoli are 18 points better off in third -- the only hope of qualifying is to win this year's competition.
Seedorf, meanwhile, hinted he is only beginning a project that could take several years to complete.
"It will take a long time to get the team the way I want it. We have professional pride so our goal is to improve," he told media on Monday.
"We have to remain calm and determined to bring out the best from here to the end of the season. I am not worried. When I said that there was much work to be done I am not telling stories."
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