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Soccer-Milan face prospect of another 'transitional' season

Reuters

Sept 19 (Reuters) - AC Milan spent most of last season playing catch-up, lamenting injuries and somehow muddling through with a combination of luck and tenacity.

Their scrappy 2-0 Champions League win over Celtic on Wednesday, thanks to two goals in the last 10 minutes, suggested that this season will not be any different.

The seven-times European champions, who seem to be in a perennial transition phase, may have been forgiven thinking that the worst was over after they somehow managed to finish last season third in Serie A to qualify for the Champions League.

Coach Massimiliano Allegri kept his job during the summer, largely thanks to pressure from the ultras, and with Mario Balotelli leading the attack, there was general optimism that this season would see a sharp improvement.

But some last minute wheeling and dealing in the summer transfer window seems to have unsettled the team rather than strengthening it.

Forward Alessandro Matri, replacing the injured Stephan El Shaarawy, was signed from Juventus but he spent most of Wednesday's game on the ground, complaining to the referee, and there was no sign of any understanding with Balotelli.

Midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has had highs and lows in three years at San Siro, was surprisingly sold to Schalke 04 at the last minute, before former World Player of the Year Kaka was brought back from Real Madrid.

Although the club were delighted to see the Brazilian return, it was always going to be a risky move given his recent history of injuries and a loss of form which has also seen him drop out of favour with Brazil.

GAMBLE BACKFIRED

That gamble quickly backfired when Kaka, 31, pulled on a muscle on his debut against Torino, ruling him out for at least 10 days.

Boateng, meanwhile, has enjoyed a storming start at Schalke, inspiring them to three straight wins since his arrival and scoring in two of them.

A thigh injury to Riccardo Montolivo left the midfield desperately short of creativity, especially as the purely destructive Nigel de Jong was fielded in front of the defence.

There was no fluidity to Milan's play and Celtic even took control for most of the second half before the hosts somehow grabbed three points with a deflected shot by Cristian Zapata and a Sulley Muntari header.

It was all very similar to last season when Milan managed to snatch a number of late wins, including one in their final game at Siena which allowed them to finish third at Fioretina's expense grab a spot in the Champions League qualifiers.

There was a familiar air to Allegri's post-match verdict as well, as he stressed the importance of winning and admitted his team did not play well.

"In the end, it's the win that counts," he said. "The boys have heart and desire, and they know a game is never over until the final whistle as we saw against Torino.

"We need to improve how we read the game, knowing when to raise or drop the tempo. We started playing Celtic's game with long balls, which is what we should not be doing."

All that is lacking now is for a poor performance at home to Napoli in Serie A on Sunday to spark new speculation about Allegri's future as coach. (Reporting by Brian Homewood in Berne; Editing by John O'Brien)

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