Vincenzo Montella: ‘The Little Aeroplane’ tasked with making AC Milan fly again

After a spell of instability, AC Milan can fly again with Vincenzo Montella in charge, writes Ian Hawkey.
Vincenzo Montella has led AC Milan to third in the Serie A table after three wins from the opening five matches. Antonio Calanni / AP Photo
Vincenzo Montella has led AC Milan to third in the Serie A table after three wins from the opening five matches. Antonio Calanni / AP Photo

As a player, he was known as ‘The Little Aeroplane’. There was no mystery to the nickname, and Vincenzo Montella encouraged it.

He would celebrate his goals with arms stretched out like a pair of wings, head ducked forward like the nose of a fighter jet. This aeroplane took flight many, many times.

In all, Montella, a sharp, quick goal-poacher of a striker, scored 202 club goals in a career of 439 matches. Ninety-four of those goals were for Roma, where The Little Aeroplane reached his highest altitude.

Montella the manager still gets routinely referred to by the same sobriquet, although Montella the manager is a good deal less exuberant and demonstrative in his moments of triumph than he was as a penalty box predator.

Which is probably why Fiorentina fans have a particularly vivid memory of the last seconds of a Europa League knockout tie in Kiev in April 2015.

Montella was coming towards the end of his three-year spell as Fiorentina manager, and as striker Khouma Babacar clinched a 1-1 draw with an overhead kick in injury time, the normally cool Montella expressed his joy with abandon. “It was just spontaneous,” he said.

The ecstatic celebration was most unusual for the measured Montella, Mr Ice Cool.

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At Fiorentina, it was said that Montella, 42, could seem a little distant, too cool, in some of his relationships with players. But in terms of his instructions to them, he was mostly admired. When he appears out of the tunnel at Fiorentina’s Franchi arena on Sunday night, as the manager of AC Milan, he can anticipate applause.

When he last went back there as a rival, as manager of Sampdoria, last season, he was cheered by the supporters of his old club.

That Montella is taking charge of a third different club in as many seasons is a puzzle.

His break-up with Fiorentina was abrupt and brought to an end a stay he still looks back on as formative.

“Fiorentina was the part of my career that brought me the greatest satisfactions,” he said.

Fiorentina played some of the most attractive football in Europe with ‘The Little Aeroplane’ piloting the project. Their style drew comparisons with Barcelona’s pass-and-move.

There was even some talk of Barcelona assessing Montella’s candidacy to become their manager in the summer of 2014 when the current incumbent at Camp Nou, Luis Enrique, was eventually offered the job.

At Fiorentina, Montella came within touching distance of the sorts of prizes that would have endorsed his stay there as not just progressive on the pitch but very productive by the standards of a club who have finished in the top five of Serie A in each of the last four seasons, and fourth in each of their Montella-guided campaigns.

He took them to a Coppa Italia final, and a semi-final, and to the last four of the Europa League.

His relationship with the president, Andrea Della Valle, was beginning to deteriorate by then, though, and time has not healed what was a grave rupture around the sacking of Montella in June 2015.

According to Milan vice-president, Adriano Galliani, Milan first wanted to hire Montella two years ago.

That might have saved them a good deal of upheaval. Montella in July became the club’s sixth different manager — including caretakers — since January 2014, in what has been a messy, haphazard effort to arrest decline.

No trophies followed the appointments of Clarence Seedorf, Pippo Inzaghi or Sinisa Mihajlovic, the latter Montella’s immediate predecessor.

The Little Aeroplane had a sluggish take-off. Milan lost two of their first three matches of the Serie A season, and had accumulated three red cards by the end of matchday two. But they have had a good spell since.

They went into this weekend’s programme in third place and the Colombian striker, Carlos Bacca, is in the sort of form that Montella, as a former forward, knows needs careful nurturing: Bacca’s goal in the 2-0 win over Lazio in midweek was his fifth of a season that is only five fixtures old.

“Keeping Bacca was one of the great successes of the summer transfer window,” said Montella, whose Milan have no European commitments this season. “But we are not just about him. He is profiting from a strong team around him.”

Montella’s Milan are not by any means a Milan to stand comparison with the great sides of the 1990s or the European Cup winning teams of the next decade, but they may finally have found the right manager to turn prolonged slump into a steady climb.

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Published: September 23, 2016 04:00 AM


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