Champions League

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Milan benefiting from youth project

Mario Balotelli, AC Milan
Mario Balotelli is one of the few players AC Milan shelled out big bucks for last season.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.



Champions League playoff draw leaves open-ended questions for many clubs.

There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when the Rossoneri gleefully snapped up the world’s best and brightest soccer players. And then, just for the fun of it, got a few more. Legend has it club president Silvio Berlusconi had seen just 30 seconds of video footage before he authorized the purchase of Ajax’s Marco van Basten, who would help them dominate the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

This isn’t your father’s AC Milan.

Today, after eight Italian and five European titles since buying the club in 1986, Berlusconi is fighting to stay out of jail on fraud charges. The club president, a media mogul and three-time Italian prime minister, is emblematic for the club’s recent slide, to an extent. He has fallen off his perch, and so has his club.

Like many European clubs, Milan is a victim of Europe’s dreary economy. Berlusconi hasn’t the money anymore, and the club’s revenue streams aren’t what they were. So Milan has had to find more clever ways to compete, nurturing a core of young players, rather than poaching one from others.

It’s the rare player who can coax a hefty transfer sum out of them anymore. Last summer, they bought wonderkid-cum-problem-child Mario Balotelli from Manchester City for some $28 million. But that’s the only serious fee they’ve paid for anybody in the last three off-seasons. And to the disillusionment of their fans, Milan sold its two best players -- striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva – to nouveaux riches Paris Saint-German a year ago.

So, Milan have reinvented themselves. Young forwards Balotelli (23), Stephan El Shaarawy (20) and M’baye Niang (18) are each tantalizingly talented in their own right. Midfielders Kevin-Prince Boateng, Riccardo Montolivo, Antonio Nocerino and Nigel de Jong form a solid block. And the defense is coming along, led by highly touted 20-year-old right back Matteo Di Sciglio.

After saying goodbye to a slew of club stalwarts in their mid-30s and making a dreadful 4-6-3 start, they rode that gifted young core to third place in Serie A last season. That put them on the cusp of this year’s UEFA Champions League. To get there, they’ll have to overcome PSV Eindhoven from the Netherlands in a two-game home-and-away series (live, FOX Sports 1, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET).


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PSV has its own rebuilding project on. They were the victims of other economic currents this summer: foreign investment and emerging markets. Dutch national team starters Jeremain Lens and Kevin Strootman were bought away by Dynamo Kiev and AS Roma, respectively – the latter now propped up by American money. Dries Mertens went to Napoli, newly flush from the stacks of oil money the Italians bagged from PSG in exchange for Edinson Cavani.

In their stead, PSV has assembled its own tremendous collective of prospects. Adam Maher, Karim Rekik, Jeffrey Bruma, Florian Jozefzoon came in. Memphis Depay and Zakaria Bakkali were promoted from the youth ranks. And the club already had Jetro Willems, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jurgen Locadia and Luciano Narsingh within its ranks. Together, they could be forged into a fearsome team by rookie head coach Philip Cocu. But they’ll need much maturing, and exposure to the Champions League would be a big help.

Also covetous of a spot in the main tournament are the other eight teams whose playoff round for one of the last 10 spots begins on Tuesday -- the other five series start Wednesday. Olympique Lyonnais is another European heavyweight whose owner took a beating in the recession and had to scale back its expenditure. But under the savvy management of Remi Garde, the products from the club’s prolific academy might yet prove worthy now that almost all the expensive names are gone. They’ll do battle with Real Sociedad (live, FOX Sports 2, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET), who could make the tournament for the first time in a decade after overcoming relegation and slowly climbing back into Europe.

Pacos de Ferreira, last year’s surprise third-place finisher in Portugal, hope to make their first foray into the Champions League. This plucky band of no-names faces the financial might of Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET), who stole the transfer show this time last year by landing Hulk and Axel Witsel, players thought beyond the reach of clubs in an emerging soccer market. The narrative for this tie seems predetermined.


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But if ever a tournament is prone to Cinderella stories, it’s proven to be the Champions League. Last year’s surprise run came from Celtic, of the slowly decaying Scottish league. They beat Barca at home and will now have to best Shakhter Karagandy (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Tuesday, 11 a.m. ET) from Kazakhstan, which has never played in European tournament proper before and is on its own dream run.

The final matchup is between Viktoria Plzen and Maribor (live, FOX Soccer 2 GO, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET), largely unknown quantities staffed by little-known players. Both teams have several years’ experience in Europe now, but have made few impressions.

But then those are exactly the sorts of teams who come into the main tournament and rattle the balance of power. Especially when many of Europe’s historically mightiest clubs aren’t what they once were.

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