Flying high off last weekend’s major Derby della Madonnina victory against Inter, Milan set out to ride the momentum to Glasgow for the club’s UEFA Europa League Group H opener with Celtic, eyeing yet another win and a charging of the batteries for certain members in the squad.
Establishing staying power in a season filled with uncertainty amidst ongoing covid-19 concerns and a condensed schedule requires depth in numbers. Unlike in previous years where options were few and far in between when the Rossoneri were presented with a crisis, Milan boss Stefano Pioli can now go to the well and trot out a quality producer to turn in a shift - a luxury unknown to many of the failed coaches of previous years.
Boasting a bench that is showing to be fully adept at answering the call at any turn, Thursday’s trip to Scotland presented the perfect opportunity to spell the regulars a breather, experiment a bit and ultimately showcase some of the fresh faces expected to make a significant impact in what hopes to be memorable season for the red and black.
Adding reborn playmaker Hakan Çalhanoğlu to the inactive list with Ante Rebić, Pioli ushered out a starting XI with five changes from the previous weekend’s bout, producing varied results in the 1-3 win for the Italian outfit.
Across the front three in attack playing behind Zlatan Ibrahimović, it was Brahim Díaz who left the largest impression.
From the onset, the bright-eyed Spanish international who joined on loan from Real Madrid this past summer, demonstrated his array of raw, yet exciting, abilities.
A sleek and sharp dribbler with purpose and intent behind his attacking manuevers, the ex-Manchester City prospect showed desire to assert himself on the match early, calling for the ball and looking to get creative in the final third.
Running into space to pose as an optimal scoring outlet for Theo Hernandez to play through, the 21-year old navigated his way into position to show off his shiftiness and finishing ability for the club’s second goal of the evening. It was yet another exhibition for him that both validates and supports Milanisti calls for a permanent solution to be found to keep the talented Spaniard at the San Siro beyond 2020/21.
Rade Krunić was also summoned to start in a wide role most notable to those who frequent Bosnia on the international stage.
The former Empoli played out wide and certainly surprised many in the process, initiating strong runs forward and an admirable work rate that always kept Celtic’s backline on their toes.
Latching onto a wonderfully whipped in cross from the right by Samu Castillejo, the 27-year old’s glancing header opened the scoring, but more than anything else in the stat column, showed enthusiasm, preparedness and a focus that should prove reliable in a long season.
Heading into the midfield, Ismaël Bennacer was handed a much-needed breather to start this one, with Sandro Tonali occupying his role alongside Franck Kessie.
Since the turn of the calendar year, Bennacer and Kessie have forged a double pivot so balanced, so productive and steadfast committed to one another’s assignment that it is hard to imagine anyone unseating the young duo. Tonali was given the full 90 to challenge this, ultimately leaving much to be desired.
The highly-regarded Italian international has accumulated most of his minutes from the bench this season, showing glimpses of why his signature was so coveted by all in upper management. Yet, as the match progressed, it was clear Tonali lacked sharpness and comfort as he feels his way around his new home.
Despite a few misplaced passes and a positional error which led to Celtic’s lone tally, it is abundantly clear Tonali is still settling in at the club and will only find rhythm with reps. A rush to judgement on the Brescia academy graduate, while unfair, comes with the territory of a major move backed with heavy expectations. Ultimately though, the shared belief amongst most is his talent and sky-high potential will prevail.
Then, there was Diogo Dalot, the Manchester United loanee who made his anticipated debut from the opening whistle opposite Theo in the right-back role Davide Calabria appears to have secured of late due to a good run of form.
Dalot is a player with equal amounts potential and room for growth, evident in his mixed term at Old Trafford. Regardless, the English giants showed reluctance to include a cost-affordable buy option on the Portuguese fullback this summer, and we began to see why, executing four tackles and touching the ball a match-high 96 times.
The former Porto standout came prepared to show what he has to offer on the right, tasked with clamping down Diego Laxalt instead of more offensively-driven duties to whip in crosses. All in all, it was a strong debut that he surely looks to build from the next time out.
As one of the final subs on the occasion, Norwegian starlet Jens Petter Hauge delivered his first goal in rossonero to kill the game off, slithering through the defense to finish in a composed manner. Icing on the proverbial victory cake for Milan at Celtic Park.
Extending their unbeaten run in all competitions to 20 and pushing all the right buttons as far as rotation is concerned, Pioli and his red-hot Rossoneri have started to show they are better armed to last in a long season.