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February 06, 2009

Ronaldinho Gaucho struggles to play at Milan

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Milan travelled to Glasgow yesterday, braving the British snow, hoping inclement weather would not have too diminishing an effect on the audience for their friendly against Rangers.

It might strike readers as odd that the most consistently successful Champions League club of the 21st century should schedule a non-competitive clash in the middle of the cut-and-thrust of the Serie A season, but, snow or sun, Milan like these dates. They earn them money, just as their winter expedition to Dubai did.

Analysing the business Milan have done in the last two openings of the transfer window, commentators had begun to think the catwalk of lucrative friendlies was turning into Milan’s prinicipal activity.

First Ronaldinho Gaucho came, a box-office name but a player unwanted at Barcelona; then Beckham, fished out of his marginal football in the US.

Milan agreed to recruit these two soccer players fully five years after they had animated one of the most intriguing transfer merry-go-rounds in history, the 2003 summer at the time Manchester United chased the Brazilian, sold Beckham to Real Madrid, after trying to steer him towards Barcelona, who in turn ended up with Ronaldinho. Beckham versus Ronaldinho became a dynamic storyline in Spanish football, Barcelona’s Ronaldinho transforming into the most influential player in the world, Real’s Beckham the most recognised.

Now a Beckham and Ronaldinho show animates Milanello, Milan’s training ground. Here are the bald facts: Beckham has started five out of five matches since he joined Milan; Ronaldinho has started the last three of those on the bench. For the Brazilian, this is a setback. He had been defying critics who imagined his decline at Barcelona was terminal. He had scored important goals – seven from 14 starts – for his new club; he seemed happy. He now looks ousted. And Beckham is where Ronaldinho was three months ago, feted for having performed beyond the many sceptics’ expectations. His last three Serie A outings have been very great indeed: He scored against Bologna and Genoa, the latter to earn a draw. He set up two goals last Sunday at Lazio, in a victory that pushed Milan up to second in the table.

They sit higher with Beckham than before he arrived.

Carlo Ancelotti, whose tone at the time Beckham was handed to him was clipped, now calls the former England captain “indispensable”. Milan say they want him to stay beyond the March 9 end of his loan.

One of Beckham’s main missions with this adventure was to re-establish his place in the England squad, with an eye on the record number of English international caps won by an outfield player, the late Bobby Moore’s 108. The England manager, Fabio Capello, came to Milan to watch Beckham curl in a free-kick against Genoa and will this weekend name his latest squad. Beckham could well be included.

Ronaldinho, meanwhile, is in Brazil’s squad to play Italy next week. His early season form for Milan helped to resurrect his international career. How the Brazil team boss Dunga might accommodate Ronaldinho and Kaka in the same XI will be of interest to Ancelotti.

Two months ago, Kaka expressed his discomfort at the effect Ronaldinho’s arrival had had on his game. But since Beckham eclipsed Ronaldinho in the Milan side, Kaka’s form has soared, the connection between the two handsomely exhibited by Beckham’s chip that released Kaka to shoot against a post last Sunday. Ronaldinho watched it from distance, from his customary berth on the bench.

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