AC Milan’s recent history could come full circle this weekend. Sassuolo’s Mapei Stadium provided the backdrop for Massimiliano Allegri’s sacking as Milan manager in January 2014. Allegri being the last manager to have guided the club to the Serie A title, in 2011.
This weekend Milan return to Sassuolo knowing that avoiding defeat will see them claim their first Scudetto since then and herald an end to the Rossoneri’s ‘lost decade’.
For 11 seasons Milan’s 19th league title has proved illusive. Come Sunday, however, they have the chance to return to the summit of Italian football. Eight permanent managers have attempted to bring title glory back to this historic club and it is Stefano Pioli’s 2022 incarnation that can achieve it.
This is a club that has won it all — just not for a while. Even Pioli’s project took time to get off the ground. He has been in situ since October 2019 and admits that getting to this stage has not been easy. “When we took charge, the team had completely different tactical ideals and concepts, so we had to change everything,” said Pioli, who won Serie A as a player with Juventus in 1986 and began his coaching career with Bologna Under-18s before stints at Inter, Lazio and, ironically, Sassuolo.
Experience few and far between
Apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, none of Milan’s squad has tasted Scudetto success before. Yet, Pioli’s players have summoned an impressive campaign and, even if tempting fate, their recent form suggests that they should see it through. Milan have won their last five games and are unbeaten in 15 in Serie A with their last loss coming against Spezia on January 17. “The good thing is that the players enjoy making the most of our strengths and preparing tactically,” Pioli added. “We’re adaptable and can limit our opponents.”
They look unstoppable now and last weekend’s win over Atalanta, sealed by Theo Hernandez’s splendid goal, ensured that matters remain in their own hands come Sunday’s final match-day. However, it will be tense until the close with their city rivals ready to pounce. They themselves have won seven of their last eight while also sowing up Coppa Italia success last week with a 4-2 extra-time win over Juventus.
Simone Inzaghi’s team are the reigning Serie A champions, which was won under his predecessor Antonio Conte and relied on the talents of Romelu Lukaku and Christian Eriksen, who have all since departed. Inzaghi has experience of being involved in late-season drama having won the title as a Lazio player on the final day of the 1999/2000 season.
Serie A hasn’t gone to the wire like that too much since; the jeopardy of 2008 jumps to mind and 2010 was close too — the procession of Juventus wracking up nine successive Scudetti appear over for now. Few can argue that Milan and Inter don’t deserve their shot at the title either. They have been the two best teams this term, although Inter’s three losses since the turn of the year appear to have been costly. “Now we are here, we’ve got to try to go all the way,” Inzaghi said.
Two very different teams
Inter have evolved this season with Lukaku’s replacement, Edin Dzeko, being paired with standout talent Lautaro Martinez and the duo have scored 34 goals between them in the league. The continued use of a 3-5-2 system has brought the attacking best out of players such as Ivan Perisic, Hakan Calhanoglu and Nicolo Barella. Inter are the league’s top-scorers with 81 goals.
Meanwhile, Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 set-up has made Milan a tough team to beat — they have lost just four all season, albeit the same amount as Inter. Milan’s title charge has been built on a strong defence. French goalkeeper Mike Maignan has kept eight clean sheets in his last 10 games and is pushing for a starting place in Didier Deschamps' World Cup team. His countryman, Pierre Kalulu, has been equally as valuable in defence and formed a strong partnership with English centre-back Fikayo Tomori.
Unlike Inter, who face Sampdoria on the final day, Milan rarely feature in high-scoring shoot-outs — 11 of their past 15 matches have featured two goals or less — and they spread the goals around. Rafael Leao’s 11 is the most, which places him 18th in the standings for the entire division, while six of his teammates have scored five or more.
Goals may not be required on Sunday, however; two results out of the possible three would see Milan over the line. The anticipation of ending the 11-year wait for a title has been evident in recent weeks. The welcome that the team received ahead of their final home match was ferocious, so much so that Ibrahimovic smashed one of the team bus’ windows amidst the pre-match clamour. Yet, Pioli is keen for his team to remain focused until it’s sealed.
“I showed the lads an interview with Kobe Bryant, who said at 2-0 up in the NBA Playoffs, ‘the job is not done’. We’re not done,” he said. “We need to maintain that calm and concentration that can in the end prove decisive. The last few weeks have been very normal, because I see the attitude of my players, they are smiling, joking, determined and focused when they arrive at the training ground every day.
“We had 10,000 fans waiting for us as we arrived on the bus, that obviously fired everyone up. I don’t need to worry, because I see the focus.”