Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ronaldinho hits rock-bottom at maudlin Milan

Dropped by Dunga. Condemned as past-his-prime by the Milan hierarchy. Hauled-off by Leonardo with half-an-hour still to play against Serie A minnows Bari. Ronaldinho’s had better weeks, that’s for sure.

Winner of the Ballon d’Or just four years ago, the one-time star attraction at Camp Nou has slumped to a shocking low this season. His slump from pinnacle to past-it has been a dramatic one. Perhaps, though, it was an inevitable outcome for a footballer who has always focused more on the vibrant nightlife of Paris, Barcelona and now Milan, than dedicating extra hours preserving his fitness on the training ground.

Outrageous natural talent alone is simply not enough to maintain a sustained period at the very top of the game, as evergreen stars such as Raul, Ryan Giggs and Ronaldinho’s team-mate and good friend Clarence Seedorf have proven by matching their considerable natural reserves with an intense dedication. Aged a mere 29, Ronnie now faces being consigned to history as a quite brilliant flash-in-the-pan who fell short of true greatness.

His recent out-of-touch showing against little Bari, as the plucky visitors dominated proceedings before a hushed San Siro, was painful to behold. Countless stray passes, misguided flicks and tricks and a missed sitter from eight yards. Error after error was greeted by an increasingly familiar sheepish grin; as if to say to his frustrated team-mates “Sorry guys, I used to be good at this lark...honest.” A bad day at the office? Sure. But the malaise in Dinho’s game lies deeper than a shoddy 60 minutes on Sunday.

Milan’s long-serving Adriano Galliani, right-hand man to owner Silvio Berlusconi, admitted as much when talking of Ronaldinho’s sudden loss of eminence.

“He hasn’t a different status in comparison to the other Milan players,” said the Rossoneri’s general manger before Sunday evening’s game.

“Should coach Leonardo consider him in good condition he will play. Otherwise he will sit on the bench, like the others. He must become the player he was few years ago. But I don't know what he's missing,” he concluded.

Galliani’s boss, the Italian premier, refused to condemn his superstar purchase for his penchant for nocturnal misbehaviour, perhaps aware of subsequent ‘pot-kettle-black’ accusations (not that such considerations usually stop the veteran media mogul from speaking out). Tellingly though, Ronaldinho’s line manager, so to speak, Leonardo, publically confirmed that “he’s not the player of three years ago.”

The rookie manager, though, has more immediate concerns to deal with than the plight of his flamboyant compatriot. Former BBC pundit and World Cup winner (in that order) Leonardo accepted what increasingly looks like a poisoned chalice from his predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti.

A tired squad in inexorable decline reached the end of its natural cycle with the somewhat fortunate defeat of Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final. Talismanic figures such as Maldini, Kaka and Ancelotti have all since departed, but restructuring work has been minimal. The purchase of Brazilian prodigy Alexandre Pato aside, little serious investment in squad development has been forthcoming.

The potentially exciting capture of Wolfsburg’s prolific Bosnian striker Edin Džeko fell flat this summer, Real Madrid-reject Klaas-Jan Huntelaar arriving at a cut price instead. One-time free-scoring, KJH has been far from immune to the stodgy start to the campaign of his club – no goals in seven Serie A appearances (and nineteen games in all, for both clubs and country) has left the former Ajax hitman looking like a shadow of his former self. Three years on, Andriy Shevchenko (mk.1) has never been adequately replaced.

Another stat – set-piece specialist Andrea Pirlo has failed to score one of his once-trademark free kicks for the club since way back in December 2007 – symbolises the diminishing of the playmaker’s previously masterful influence. In the goalless draw with Bari, the back four featured Kakha Kaladze, also past his peak and still searching for fitness following a seven-month injury lay-off, and inexperienced Ignazio Abate, whose lack of defensive nous was exploited as a matter of routine by tricky winger Emanuel Rivas. Only the southern side’s last-third ineptitude and the spectacular agility of back-up ‘keeper Marco Storari spared Milan from a mortifying home defeat.

Gazzetta dello Sport recently reported a significant slump in season ticket sales at San Siro. The dedicated faithful currently stands at 25,984; down from last leason’s 41,606. The team were jeered from the field by the remaining few at the final whistle, while Ronaldinho absent-mindedly kicked his heels in the dugout following his early substitution.

Since he delighted us all with goals such as this sugar-coated treat against Chelsea, Ronnie’s career has hit a brick wall. Talk of a switch to his homeland, with Corinthians, has surfaced as he now struggles to hold onto a place in the Seleção set-up ahead of the World Cup. Perhaps his predicament is not irreversible, but the continuing decline of Ronaldinho illustrates perfectly that even a world-beating talent can fall from grace in the blink of an eye.