AC Milan counting on continuity for title defense
Last season, AC Milan built its Serie A title around its new additions, starting with coach Massimiliano Allegri, moving on to preseason signings Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng, and rounding out the squad with January arrival Antonio Cassano.
This season it's all about maintaining continuity, with the only major change being midfielder Andrea Pirlo's departure to Juventus.
''I'm fortunate enough to coach an exceptional squad, which has even more motivation than last year,'' said the 44-year-old Allegri, adding that he believes Milan is only at the start of a long winning cycle. ''I would say so. I'm a young coach (44) and eight of the 11 (starters) are under 30.''
Milan already added another trophy with a 2-1 win over crosstown rival Inter Milan in the Italian Super Cup earlier this month in Beijing, when Ibrahimovic and Boateng replied to a score from Inter playmaker Wesley Sneijder.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Milan has been a solid preseason from Ibrahimovic, even though he picked up a slight ankle problem in a recent friendly.
Ibrahimovic struggled at the end of last season when he appeared frustrated after a large heap of the blame for Milan's elimination by Tottenham in the last 16 of the Champions League was placed on his inability to score.
The Sweden international was banned for a total of five matches for two separate incidents during the final weeks of the last league campaign, first for punching a defender then for insulting a linesman.
''I was stressed out, because it felt like we needed to win at all costs, especially against my former club (Inter),'' Ibrahimovic said. ''I felt tired mentally and Allegri has helped me to not feel so stressed. We're all much more relaxed.''
Cassano also appears in form after losing some weight, and he and Ibrahimovic will likely lead the attack at the start of the season while Alexandre Pato and Robinho recover from the Copa America.
The only significant additions were made in defense, with center back Philippe Mexes moving north from Roma and Nigeria left back Taye Taiwo joining from Marseille. Another signing was teenage striker Stephan El Shaarawy from Serie B side Padova.
Also, Milan president and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has given his approval to acquire midfielder Alberto Aquilani from Liverpool.
Still, the first-line squad appears set as is for Milan's opener at Cagliari on Saturday.