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Soccer: Big-spending AC Milan throw down the gauntlet to Juventus

File photo of AC Milan manager Vincenzo Montella. Reuters / Giampiero Sposito
File photo of AC Milan manager Vincenzo Montella. Reuters / Giampiero Sposito

MILAN (Reuters) - After years of midtable mediocrity, AC Milan have thrown down the gauntlet to Juventus by assembling a team which supporters believe can end the Turin side's run of six successive Serie A titles.

Under new Chinese owners, the seven-times European champions have splurged 190 million euros ($222.30 million) on transfers and, for a change, the money has gone on players who appear to have their best years ahead of them.

Milan, the last team to win Serie A before Juve's era of dominance began, have endured a decline which coincided with Serie A's own fall from grace.

For most of former Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's three decades as club president, they had enjoyed a golden era but his last few years became a story of unsuccessful transfers and musical chairs in the coach's seat.

As the world's top players eschewed Serie A, Berlusconi promised that his club would concentrate on developing its own young talents instead - but ended up signing players who were past their best.

The likes of Kaka, in his second spell, Fernando Torres, Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alessio Cerci, Mario Balotelli and Mattia Destro all came and went without making an impact.

Inevitably, the coach paid the price with Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Cristian Brocchi occupying the hot seat between Massimiliano Allegri's dismissal in January 2014 and Vincenzo Montella's arrival in June last year.

But there has been a dramatic change of direction since Berlusconi agreed to sell the club to a Chinese-led consortium in a 740 million-euro deal in April and the new owners installed Marco Fassone, an experienced business executive, as general manager.

New signings have included striker Andre Silva (21) from Porto who has scored eight goals in 13 appearances for Portugal; right back Andrea Conti (23), a product of Atalanta's impressive youth scheme; Ricardo Rodriguez (24), a Swiss international regarded as one of Europe's most accomplished left backs; and Turkish midfielder and free-kick specialist Hakan Calhanoglu (23).

The latter two were signed from Bundesliga clubs VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen respectively.

The biggest coup was landing Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, ending the Turin club's so-called BBC defence that also featured Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini and which had been together since 2010.

"We have chosen players who are ready to go and can give a great deal, who are top players for our level and for Italian football," said Montella. "The potential is there and it is only a matter of time."

Milan were still hoping to add a big-money striker to the squad before the end of the transfer window.

Juve were left to spend the summer contemplating their 4-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final and they started the season by losing 3-2 to Lazio in the Italian Supercup final.

But they still have the top four outstanding players in Serie A - goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Chiellini and Argentine forwards Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain -- and remain favourites.

Napoli, widely acclaimed as playing the best football on their way to third place last season, have kept their squad intact and once again pose a threat.

AS Roma, last season's runners-up, have seen the departure of several key players including defender Antonio Ruediger and winger Mohamed Salah, while Franceso Totti retired after a remarkable 25 seasons at the club.

Inter Milan, also under Chinese ownership, have not matched their neighbours' spending in the transfer market but have hired coach Luciano Spalletti after he also left Roma.

Last season, they employed three coaches and finished seventh despite having arguably one of the strongest squads in Serie A. It will now be up to the shaven-headed Spalletti to get the best from them.

($1 = 0.8547 euros)

(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis)

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