Hakan Çalhanoğlu has only recently started to shine for AC Milan – but as a No.10 with a penchant for a spectacular free-kick, he’s a player to remind you of the Rossoneri’s glory days.
Whenever we’re greeted with the sight of two European heavyweights facing off on a Thursday night, we know something, somewhere has gone wrong.
Occasionally it’s temporary, as was the case with the last-16 clash between Manchester United and Liverpool two years ago, but the meeting between AC Milan and Arsenal feels less like a blip and more like the way of things.
Despite meeting at this stage of the Champions League a decade ago, neither club looks even close to a return to that competition next season, with Milan eight points adrift of Italy’s top four and Arsenal even further behind in England: both clubs will surely feel a Europa League triumph is a far more likely route back than a late rally domestically.
Even calling these two clubs a shadow of their former selves is a bit of a stretch, so far have they fallen, but there is just enough still there to make us believe both are capable of producing famous European nights under the lights – and by that I mean nights that are famous for them, not just for their opponents.
Both might be some distance from their former glories, but there are still strands connecting them to their respective pasts, both directly and spiritually.
In Milan’s case, coach Rino Gattuso ticks the first of those boxes and, while auditions remain open for the latter category, Hakan Çalhanoğlu is as good a bet as any to rise to fill the gap.
The Turkey international hardly set the world alight at his new club after moving from Bayer Leverkusen over the summer, but he’s far from the only one to have struggled under Vincenzo Montella before turning a corner with Gattuso at the helm.
“I didn’t expect him to be such a complete player,” Gattuso said of the midfielder last month.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect Hakan to step up the way he has. He is only 24 years old, I like him a lot and he has impressed me.”
And, while it’s clearly far from the only area in which he has impressed, Çalhanoğlu’s dead-ball confidence continues in a long tradition of Rossoneri stars.
Even as clubs fall from the pinnacle, something within their identity will remain a constant: for last season’s Europa League finalists Ajax, it’s an ability to produce a stream of young and often local talent.
For Arsenal, it’s exciting attackers who can hurt opponents with their pace on the break. For Milan, it’s creative midfielders who double as free-kick wizards.
Andrea Pirlo is the ex-Milan player associated with the skill in the club’s Champions League glory days in the mid-2000s, but Ronaldinho took over in his short time with the club, as did David Beckham for a very brief spell.
Even more recently, with the club languishing lower down the Serie A table than usual, Keisuke Honda could be relied upon for deadly deliveries. And now it’s the turn of Çalhanoğlu to step up.
He is yet to score from a free-kick this season, but his first goal for the club – in a group stage win over Austria Vienna – shows what he’s capable of.
Çalhanoğlu’s set-piece technique has often been compared to that of a man whose name alone gets 2000s nostalgists all misty-eyed: former Lyon man Juninho Pernambucano.
The Brazilian reminds us of a time when yes, there were wealthy clubs in the competition, but the (relatively) little guy could put them to the sword.
Indeed he was part of a team which ran peak-era Milan dangerously close in 2006 before succumbing to two late goals at the San Siro.
The resemblance was even clearer before his Leverkusen days, when he was wearing the Lyon-esque white and blue of Hamburg, to the point where anyone squinting could be mistaken for thinking some of his strikes were vintage Juninho.
Take this example from a game between Brazil and Greece…
And now this Çalhanoğlu effort against Borussia Dortmund back in 2014…
Milan might be too wealthy to be considered ‘the little guy’, even now, but they have been out of the picture long enough for the next generation of fans to consider them ‘of another era’, in much the same way as Ryan Sessegnon made us all feel old by talking about growing up watching players like Luke Shaw.
Part of that came from having iconic players with iconic shirt numbers and – with respect to Honda and Kevin-Prince Boateng – they never reached the levels of predecessors in the No.10 shirt like Clarence Seedorf and Rui Costa.
Çalhanoğlu isn’t near that level either, and indeed few are, but there’s something intangibly iconic about that Milan No.10 shirt.
The appeal, indeed, comes precisely from the fact that it wasn’t worn by more eye-catching and long-serving players like Paolo Maldini or Andriy Shevchenko.
For years, your favourite player being the one in the No.10 shirt meant two things: you weren’t a local with that special bond with Maldini, and you probably weren’t even a Milan fan invested in their most prolific scorer. You watched Milan specifically for the man wearing 10, and for the magic he was capable of producing.
Çalhanoğlu already has the backing of his manager and some magic in his boots – now all he needs is a special European performance where he puts it all together.
When we settle down to watch Milan against Arsenal on Thursday night, a part of us will remember the big Champions League nights when we could legitimately call this a heavyweight clash.
We’ll wish we could see a real moment of highlight-reel quality, the sort of goal which deserves a European stage and which makes us think the glory days could return for these proud clubs.
We know Hakan Çalhanoğlu is capable of producing these moments. Now we just have to hope he has one ready.
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