Football Features

Where are they now? The last AC Milan XI to start a Champions League game

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 17:55, 13 September 2021

On the list of most decorated clubs in European Cup history only Real Madrid have won more championships than AC Milan’s seven.

Seeing the Rossoneri reach quarter-finals and beyond was commonplace from the late-80s to mid-2000s. We might have taken it for granted, though, as these last few years the Champions League went ahead without their participation. Seven consecutive seasons to be precise.

But that is no longer the case as Milan are back and hoping to make up for lost time. Stefano Pioli’s men have been dealt a fascinating group that includes Liverpool, Porto and Atlético Madrid who just so happened to be their last opponent before this season’s festivities.

Diego Simeone was at the helm back then in the round-of-16 with club legend Clarence Seedorf leading Milan. Atléti would reach that season’s final, but what about those Milan players who started the 4-1 loss in Spain’s capital? We’ve taken a look to see where they are now.

Goalkeeper: Christian Abbiati

Milan appearances: 380

Current club: Retired

Christian Abbiati’s near two-decade association with AC Milan ended in 2016 though, for much of his time, the Italian wasn’t first choice. Between 2002/03 and 2009/10 he averaged just nine Serie A appearances per season.

The presence of Dida between the sticks meant Abbiati had to serve as a back-up but once the Brazilian shot-stopper left, Abbiati never looked back. Soon after hanging up his gloves Abbiati, who sparked controversy in 2008 after declaring he was “not ashamed to proclaim” his far-right ideology, would be appointed as a club manager, acting as a liaison between the first-team and higher-ups.

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Right-back: Ignazio Abate

Milan appearances: 306

Current club: Retired

A product of Milan’s youth set-up, Ignazio Abate had to wait his turn before holding down a regular starting berth. Despite turning professional in 2003 the Sant’Agata dè Goti native would go on several loan spells before leaving permanently for Empoli and Torino prior to returning in 2009.

He grabbed this new opportunity with both hands and soon accumulated over 200 league appearances. On his final San Siro game, the Milan Ultras of the Curva Sud honoured Abate by holding up a banner with the message “10 years of commitment and humility. You’ve gained the respect of the Ultras. Thank you Ignazio.” He was naturally moved to tears.

Centre-back: Adil Rami

Milan appearances: 44

Current club: Troyes

A member of the France squad that won the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it was around this period Adil Rami, whom former Lille teammates nicknamed “Shrek”, was dating Canadian actress Pamela Anderson but that relationship is no more. The second half of Rami’s playing career has seen him jump from club to club which is slightly different from his time at Milan which lasted for more than one campaign.

Rami ultimately made 21 league appearances for the Rossoneri before returning to Spain, where he previously represented Valencia, and turning out for Sevilla in a partnership that also lasted for two seasons. After spells at Marseille, Fenerbahçe and Boavista you now can find the French centre-back at Ligue 1 outfit Troyes.

Centre-back: Daniele Bonera

Milan appearances: 201

Current club: Retired

Of those who started for Milan at the Vicente Calderón, one name will be involved in their Champions League return, though not in a playing capacity. Daniele Bonera ended a 20-year career in 2019, with Villarreal being his last club, and the former Milan centre-back soon rejoined the Rossoneri as an assistant coach.

Bonera even stepped up after Pioli fell to illness in November 2020 and subsequently took charge of Milan’s away game at Napoli which they won 3-1 with his former teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring a brace at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

Left-back: Urby Emanuelson

Milan appearances: 106

Current club: FC Utrecht

Some players go an entire career without lifting a single league title. Urby Emanuelson managed to win two in one year.

This rare occurrence happened in the 2010/11 season as Emanuelson, a graduate of Ajax’s esteemed academy, left the only club he knew at the midpoint of the campaign having made 18 league appearances. Milan, no strangers to signing Dutch players, inherited his services and both clubs would go on to hoist their respective championships.

It meant Emanuelson would become a double champion and future pub quiz answer. His time in Milan wouldn’t be long-term and the Amsterdammer found himself moving from club to club, notably loan spells at Fulham and Atalanta whilst signing for Roma, but he’s now back in the Netherlands with FC Utrecht.

Central midfielder: Nigel de Jong

Milan appearances: 96

Current club: Al-Shahania SC

Following his second year with Manchester City, the Dutchman dubbed “Lawnmower”, due to a reputation of being a tireless warrior, made international news after producing a chest-high challenge on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final, with his studs making contact with the Spaniard’s ribs On-field referee Howard Webb later said with a better view of the incident Nigel de Jong would have been sent off.

De Jong brought this relentless playing style to Milan but he couldn’t reach the heights of his compatriots that came before him (notably Seedorf and Frank Rijkaard). Time would later be spent at LA Galaxy, Galatasaray and Mainz 05 before journeying to Qatar where he’s since represented Al Ahli and Al-Shahania.

Central midfielder: Michael Essien

Milan appearances: 22

Current club: Retired

After being appointed Inter Milan manager in 2008 it was reported that José Mourinho told club president Massimo Moratti he needed Michael Essien, with whom he had successfully worked together at Chelsea, but his request was never granted. However, the combative Ghanian midfielder would soon make his way to Milan though in the colours of their arch-rivals.

Essien’s time with the Rossoneri was brief, he would spend two seasons before closing out an illustrious playing career in Greece, Indonesia and Azerbaijan. He’s since entered the world of coaching and can now be found at Danish outfit FC Nordsjælland where he is a coach.

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Right-winger: Adel Taarabt

Milan appearances: 16

Current club: Benfica

Those who followed Adel Taarabt during his loan spell at Queens Park Rangers saw a player with unbridled potential. Tottenham had a future superstar on their hands but, as with so many youngsters before him, Taarabt couldn’t be controlled and that stardom looked destined to be unfulfilled. While on QPR’s books the Morocco-born forward temporarily spent a couple of months at Milan where he managed four goals across 14 league appearances. Not long after returning to London the former Spurs man signed for Benfica where it seems he’s back on track, however, Taarabt has since established himself in an unfamiliar defensive midfield position.

Attacking midfielder: Andrea Poli

Milan appearances: 109

Current club: Antalyaspor

Another member of this Milan team who previously turned out for city rivals Inter, though in Andrea Poli’s case it was a season-long loan from Sampdoria. But that caveat goes unnoticed by a passionate fanbase and the onus was on Poli to win their support. During a four-year stay with Milan he became somewhat of a regular face but three goals across 90 league appearances by a midfielder is nothing to be proud about especially when Poli had earmarked Steven Gerrard as a role model.

“In Italy, I am inspired by [Daniele] De Rossi, [Andrea] Pirlo and [Angelo] Palombo. Looking abroad I like [Cesc] Fabregas, [Frank] Lampard and [Steven] Gerrard, who for me is the best midfielder in the world,” the former Sampdoria man told La Gazzetta dello Sport back in 2009.

“One day I’d like to meet him and ask for his autograph.” A change in scenery was needed and Bologna came to Poli’s rescue. He’s since moved on by relocating to Süper Lig club Antalyaspor.

Left-winger: Kaká

Milan appearances: 307

Current club: Retired

In 2002, ormer Real Madrid manager Jorge Valdano suggested to club president Florentino Pérez about the possibility of signing a promising young Brazilian playmaker called Kaká. His pitch was that in four years’ time, Kaká — then representing boyhood club São Paulo — would in cost €60m but right now he’d be worth €12m. “The answer from Florentino for me was unforgettable: ‘Don’t worry Jorge. We’ll wait till he costs €60m'”.

Madrid’s loss was Milan’s gain and Kaká would soon establish himself as an all-time great and Rossoneri legend. Pérez ended up signing him in 2009 for a reported €68.5m. It never quite worked out for the Brazilian at the Santiago Bernabéu, injuries never helped, and Kaká soon returned home before leaving for MLS side Orlando City. The last Ballon d’Or recipient before the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era would call time on a respectable career at São Paulo where it all began.

Striker: Mario Balotelli

Milan appearances: 77

Current club: Adana Demirspor

Arguably the most talked about Italian footballer this century and it’s not always regarding his on-field performance. What makes the Mario Balotelli story frustrating is he possesses God-given ability, but we’ve only caught glimpses of his explosive power, and like an explosion it all vanished with the moment, it couldn’t be controlled. And that goes a long way to explain Balotelli’s journeyman career.

Milan would be his third professional club after Manchester City, where plenty of unsavoury headlines were made, and Inter Milan – meaning he’s part of an elite group to play for both Milanese giants. It was said Silvio Berlusconi’s signing of Balotelli would help him gain extra votes in the 2013 Italian general election. A move to Liverpool would follow, but he never really settled; the same couldn’t be said at Nice though it felt too good to be true and “Super Mario” spent time at Marseille, Brescia and Monza before joining Adana Demirspor this summer.