Bonucci’s burden: AC Milan captain still learning to lead
ROME (AP) — After directing Juventus’ defense during six straight Serie A titles, Leonardo Bonucci began this season dragged down by the weight of his leadership duties at AC Milan.
Touted as the cornerstone of Milan’s revival project under the club’s new, big-spending Chinese owners, Bonucci instead turned in performances that left him wondering if his best days were behind him at the age of 30.
Beaten twice by Mauro Icardi in a 3-2 derby loss to Inter Milan, things got even worse for Bonucci when he was sent off during a 0-0 draw with Genoa for elbowing a defender in the head, resulting in a two-match ban.
“There was a time when my performance on the pitch didn’t coincide with the real Bonucci, because my mind was running wild,” Bonucci says in an interview this week with The Associated Press ahead of the Milan derby on Sunday.
Having clashed with coach Massimiliano Allegri at Juventus last season, Bonucci transferred to Milan for a fee that topped 40 million euros (nearly $50 million). He then signed a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros per season, making him the highest-paid player in Serie A.
Bonucci was also made captain before he wore the Milan shirt.
During his two-match ban — which prevented him from facing Juventus — Bonucci called a team meeting and put his captaincy up for discussion.
“I felt responsible for a mistake that I made and I spoke to the squad about this,” he says. “A captain can’t leave the squad with 10 men for a gesture like that — even if it was involuntary.
“But the squad reiterated its desire to continue with the club’s choice and that’s when we laid the first brick in this rebuilding process.”
The real turning point, however, came a month later when Milan’s former midfield stalwart, Gennaro Gattuso, was named coach to replace the fired Vincenzo Montella.
Mired in the bottom half of the standings at midseason, Milan is on an eight-match unbeaten run in Serie A, is unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions, and hasn’t conceded a goal in six straight matches in all competitions.
What’s more, the Rossoneri showed flair with two second-half goals to beat Roma 2-0 last weekend and showed resolve in a penalty shootout win over Lazio on Wednesday to reach the Italian Cup final.
The goals against Roma came from two Milan youth academy graduates, Patrick Cutrone and Davide Calabria, while Bonucci and center back partner Alessio Romagnoli didn’t concede anything to Edin Dzeko and Roma’s attack.
“We knew from the start that this squad has the quality to play great football,” Bonucci says. “We were lacking the glue to put together all the pieces. We found that with Gattuso and the improvement of every single one of us.”
Milan spent more than 200 million euros on new players in the offseason, also bringing in forwards Nikola Kalinic from Fiorentina and Andre Silva from Porto.
But there have been questions about the financial stability of the Chinese-led consortium that purchased the club from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April.
Milan took a loan from U.S. private equity fund Elliott worth more than 300 million euros and UEFA has opened a financial fair play investigation into the club.
Still, player salaries are being paid regularly.
“Very punctual. Down to the cent mark,” Bonucci says. “The club is operating very transparently despite everything that is being said externally. They’re not depriving us of anything.”
But it can’t be comforting reading regularly published reports about how the club is on the brink of financial disaster.
“That’s part of the game,” he adds. “We’ve got to focus on the pitch. The results on the field have calmed us down.”
The results could also add a big chunk of change to the club’s coffers if Milan finishes in the top four and qualifies for the Champions League.
A seven-time European champion, Milan hasn’t played in the Champions League for four straight seasons.
The Rossoneri are level on points with sixth-place Sampdoria, seven points behind fourth-place Inter.
Milan could also qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League.
The Rossoneri face Arsenal in the round of 16 next week in the second-tier competition.
“We were used to seeing Milan-Arsenal in bigger settings, like the Champions League,” Bonucci says. “It means that both clubs are experiencing a moment of reorganization and embarking on new paths.”
First, though, there’s the derby and Icardi to contain.
Bonucci and Romagnoli shut down Icardi when Milan beat Inter 1-0 with a 104th-minute goal from Cutrone in the Italian Cup quarterfinals in December.
But Bonucci still hasn’t forgotten Icardi’s hat trick in the season’s first derby.
“He had a great derby but the past doesn’t count now,” Bonucci says. “We need to look forward and take confidence from what we’ve built over these past two months, use that as our foundation, and improve from there.”
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