Just how much can a team change after one defeat? That’s the question that popped up when re-watching Atalanta’s 5-0 win over Milan in Week 17. It was seven months ago in real time, but still technically only half a season away.
In fact, a case might be made that the defeat in Bergamo was the turning point in Milan’s campaign, as Stefano Pioli’s men have lost only two games since then.
In a way the Atalanta defeat decided the fate of contradictory figures like Krzysztof Piatek, Suso and Ricardo Rodriguez, who were all shown the door shortly after. At the same time, the disheartened display of the whole team was screaming for some fresh blood and despite the tricky financial situation and limited time, the club deserves credit for bringing in just that.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has undoubtedly been the most notable January addition, but even Alexis Saelemakers and Simon Kjaer have proved to be important signings and even difference makers on some occasions.
Since his arrival, Ibra has contributed with seven goals and four assists in 15 appearances and while those numbers look good, it would be unfair to judge the Swede’s impact only based on stats. Zlatan’s presence in the team demands a certain level of performance from everyone else, while his charisma and arrogance have done wonders for the confidence of the team.
A solid proof of the Zlatan effect is that Ante Rebic, who now has 11 goals to his name, was yet to score a single goal prior Ibra’s arrival. Rafael Leao is another player who appears to be much more confident ever since, netting four out of his five strikes in that period too.
Of course, as much as Ibra would like that, we can’t justify the dramatic improvement of the Rossoneri solely by his presence. Stefano Pioli has arguably been the main man behind the team’s resurrection in 2020, as the 54-year-old made some tactical twists and managed to get the best out of players like Rebic, Ismael Bennacer and Hakan Calhanoglu, who were simply not consistent enough earlier in the season.
The growth of Bennacer has been particularly exciting, as the 22-year-old Algerian has become one of the most influential midfielders in Serie A and has formed a formidable partnership with the rejuvenated Franck Kessie. The Ivorian was another frustrating figure in the pre-Pioli Milan, as his effort and motivation were often questioned, but his recent form makes him one of the team’s main pillars.
What’s been most impressive, however, is the fact that Milan have scored an average of 2.16 goals per game since the Atalanta defeat, as Stefano Pioli’s men have failed to find the back only once in 18 games played in 2020.
In fact, only Atalanta with a whopping 3.22 and Juventus (2.41) have managed a higher average of scored goals than the Rossoneri since the beginning of the year. Considering that Pioli’s men already defeated the Bianconeri a few weeks ago, we can easily say that, alongside La Dea, Milan has easily been the best team in the post-pandemic Serie A reality.
This makes the upcoming clash between the two sides completely different from the one-sided affair that we watched back in December and some might argue that the Rossoneri might even have a slight advantage.
Atalanta have continued to impress, but with what seems just a matter of time for Juventus to win their ninth consecutive Scudetto and a Champions League spot already secured, La Dea have shown signs of slowing down. Josip Ilicic has failed to reproduce his electric displays before the pandemic, even shelved entirely to prepare for the Champions League, while the games against Verona and Bologna were played in a much slower tempo than usual.
Gasperini himself confirmed that everyone in Bergamo is already thinking about their Champions League quarter-final clash with Paris Saint-Germain, so the timing of the game seems perfect for Milan.
Atalanta are still the same formidable attacking juggernaut that trashed the Rossoneri seven months ago, but might come short in terms of motivation and hunger, while Ilicic will be missed. On the other hand, despite already securing Europa League football, the Rossoneri have improved immensely and are obliged to defend their pride, as well as their choice to stick with Pioli beyond this season.
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