The problem with Pato
On accompanying Kaka and a Milan delegation to collect the Ballon d'Or in December 2007, Leonardo promised reporters that he would be back next time with Alexandre Pato, the teenage striker he had helped the club sign from Internacional for 19.4 million pounds.
Four years later he might still get that pleasure, if reports are to be believed that the modish director -- now in charge of recruitment at the big-spending, Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain -- would like to lure his former protege away from San Siro to the Parc des Princes.
Pato's future at Milan has come under scrutiny ever since he gave a pair of prickly interviews to Corriere della Sera and Corriere dello Sport on Dec. 27 in which he expressed his disillusionment at the way coach Massimiliano Allegri has treated him in contrast to one of his predecessors, Carlo Ancelotti.
"Carlo talked to me. He told me what to do on the pitch," Pato said. "If I must improve, [Allegri] should suggest how. Every now and again he gives me explanations, but a coach should suggest to his players the way they can correct their mistakes."
It was a bolt from the blue, as Pato, after the breakup of his first marriage, has usually been quite guarded in the media, but also because in October 2010, he had painted quite a different picture of Allegri to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "He is a coach who motivates you because he talks a lot and with everyone," he said.
So the question is: What has happened to change that opinion? Why has the relationship deteriorated? How can a player who has already scored 51 goals in 111 Serie A appearances and found the back of the net at the Bernabeu and Camp Nou in the Champions League at the age of just 22 seriously risk no longer figuring in Milan's long-term plans?
Cracks first began to appear on Nov. 27, when Pato was overlooked for the captain's armband before a home match against Chievo. It's a long-held tradition at Milan to give it to the most senior player, which is determined not by age but by how many games one has played for the club.
With veterans like Massimo Ambrosini, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta, Pippo Inzaghi and Christian Abbiati all out injured, Pato was the next in line to receive it. However, Allegri instead chose to hand it to Thiago Silva.
Snubbed, Pato added it to a list of grievances, which apparently includes being on the bench too often for his liking. Although he generally boasts a better minutes-per-goal ratio than his wasteful teammate Robinho, it's his fellow Brazilian who gets the nod to start alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front.
As a partnership, there's no denying they have better chemistry, partly because, with Pato's injury troubles, they have spent more time playing together and have developed a real understanding. "Off the pitch I'm not very close to [Ibra]," Pato admitted. "I know that he has kids and a beautiful family."
That feeling of aloofness comes from missing 47 games in the past two years after suffering 11 injuries. Muscle strains and tears have often seen Pato train on his own away from the group, either at Milanello or sometimes with an orthopedic specialist at Duke University in the United States.
With such a record it's entirely understandable that Allegri has, to an extent, come to rely on others. Opta figures show that although Milan's win percentage is down from 57 to 53 when Pato isn't playing, it's also up from 55 to 56 when he isn't starting.
That might appear marginal, but it does go some way toward justifying Allegri's strategy of keeping Pato on the bench and then using him as an explosive impact substitute as he has done in four of the player's 10 appearances for the club this season.
For someone with so much latent potential, Pato is a great tease. He has repeatedly threatened to but never really gone on to make the center forward role his own at Milan.
In Ancelotti's last season, Pippo Inzaghi had a better minutes-per-goal ratio in Serie A (121 to 149). So, too, did Marco Borriello in Leonardo's only season in charge (181 to 182), although at the time Pato was used out wide on the right. Then, under Allegri last season -- as Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic all scored 14 goals -- the former finally had the best minutes-to-goal ratio, but no one would dispute that the latter weighed more heavily in Milan winning their first Scudetto since 2004.
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Allowances must be made for Pato's age and development as a player. Yet as strange as it sounds, there is a sense that he has not entirely lived up to the expectation that came after that ever-so-bold assertion made by Leonardo at the 2007 Ballon d'Or gala. Ironically, one of the football men to have made that case is Ancelotti, the coach whom the player still regards as a father figure.
Working as a Sky Italia pundit before taking the job at PSG, he surprisingly picked his former student up on the matter during a postmatch interview after Milan's 2-2 draw against Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League on Dec. 6.
"From the very first time I saw you I thought that a goal a game for someone like you wasn't enough," Ancelotti said. "Once again, you could have scored three. At times it's like you play with sufficienza." What he meant was that Pato only does what's required, nothing more. "You're right, mister," the player replied deferentially.
"If we expect something more from Pato, it's because he's capable of that something more than other players," Gattuso said. Those are the words of support from a dressing room that Il Corriere della Sera claimed was a bit embarrassed by Pato's relationship with the club owner's daughter, Barbara Berlusconi, and the circus that it has created.
"Something of this nature has never been seen before," one insider told the paper. Even though Pato's teammates don't see him as a "mole," there have been suggestions that they aren't completely OK with the idea that what goes on at the training ground or in the dressing room might be the subject of their pillow talk.
Still, Barbara insists she has no influence over Pato's future and that any decision would be made in the club's best interests. "All players are sellable," she said, and she's right. While it's often with a heavy heart, Milan have in recent memory been prepared to part with their best-loved players, from Andriy Shevchenko, who moved to Chelsea in 2006, to Kaka, who joined Real Madrid in 2009.
Both went into unexpected declines shortly afterward, leaving Milan with a handsome profit and a sense of vindication. The fear with Pato however is that, as a player still only in his early 20s, he is yet to reach anywhere near his peak and that the club might come to regret selling him in the near future, even for a figure in excess of 50 million euros.
"I haven't received any kind of signal either from Pato saying that he wants to leave or Leonardo saying that he wants to sign him," club CEO Adriano Galliani said. "As far as I'm concerned he is absolutely staying with us." That sentiment has been echoed by Allegri, the player, and Ancelotti too.
Speaking after a friendly between Milan and PSG in Dubai last week, in which Pato scored the only goal, Ancelotti told reporters: "Pato is a Milan player. He has a contract so we're not interested in him."
To clarify, Pato is tied down to Milan until 2014. Whether he'll still be at the club then remains to be seen. The shadow of Carlos Tevez looms large over this transfer window, and although his proposed arrival wouldn't necessarily herald Pato's exit, it would perhaps lead him to seek further assurances ahead of the World Cup in two-and-a-half years' time.
On Sunday, Pato started against Atalanta. He hit the woodwork and won a penalty that Ibrahimovic converted to break the deadlock in a 2-0 victory that kept Milan at the top of the table. Allegri, however, hauled him off after 67 minutes. This morning's La Gazzetta dello Sport remarked on the absence of a high-five or a pat on the back to say "well done."
There's a temptation to read too much into it, and Allegri, when drawn on the subject in his postmatch press conference, said: "I was consumed by the game. There isn't any problem also because I am very happy with Pato's performance. I decided to take him off because we needed someone fresher."
While Serie A's winter break may be over and the Derby della Madonnina against Inter is approaching on the horizon, the sensation remains that all is not right and Pato, with only one goal in Serie A this season, is a striker yet to come in from the cold.