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Monday January 4 2021
Strength and unity defining Milan’s success

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been vital to Milan’s successful first half of the season and will continue to be in 2021, but Matthew Santangelo argues it’s truly a team effort…

If it is not Theo’s lung-bursting runs and late goals, then it is Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessie’s unrelenting work in the midfield trenches.

Simon Kjaer’s confidence to lead by example and emerge a role model deserves its plaudits, as does Hakan Calhanoglu’s breakout and Gianluigi Donnarumma imposing himself even further in the conversation for the world’s best goalkeepers.

There are so many unsung heroes though that, at one point or another in an injury-packed and positive-test year, have lent a helping hand in Milan’s first half rise to the top of Italy.

Milan’s strength derives from its collective approach. Each and every individual seems willing to get their hands dirty. It could be said that what Milan lacks in quality to its adversaries, they make up in unity and a sacrificial attitude towards obtaining the desired result.

There is a next man up mentality about this side that cannot be taught, and one may argue it is the sole element that differentiates them from the rest competing for the title.

Milan is currently unbeaten in 26 league matches entering 2021, with the most notable victories this season including Inter, Napoli and Lazio; all impressive, yet neither more important than the other.

Every single point has significance in finishing top four and, if the stars align, finishing as champions of Italy.

When asked about the idea of winning the Scudetto and ending Juventus decade of dominance, Ibrahimović put it best: "We must be hungry. Every day. We must have the courage to dream."

The year came to an end, but, as we saw on Sunday, the difficulties and challenges ahead are plenty.

Milan’s first test of the year away to Pippo Inzaghi’s Benevento called into action their resolve when, clinging to a 1-0 lead, Sandro Tonali was sent off with a red card.

Milan faced a 25-shot barrage from the Witches, yet with Gianluigi Donnarumma’s five crucial saves and Rafael Leão’s wonderfully curled in effort, that ability to dig deep within for one another prevailed in victory to remain top of the table.

Depleted of key resources, Stefano Pioli’s Milan also confronted last week’s match against Lazio with grit, energy and desire to win rather than rationalizing why anything but victory was acceptable.

After an early 2-0 advantage withered away, the Rossoneri’s resolve proved decisive yet again as Theo Hernandez’s last-gasp header snatched all three points from the visitors in a 3-2 finish befitting of all that has made them special in 2020.

As the world brings in the New Year, Milan sit atop the Serie A table ahead of rivals Inter to claim winter champion status. This feat, though lauded and celebrated, presents a moment to reflect on the year that was and understand how humble beginnings should serve as a firm reminder of all the work left to be done.

Prior to the stoppage of play in March due to COVID-19, Genoa dealt Milan a shock defeat inside an empty, grim-feeling San Siro. Rather than crumbling and writing the remainder of the campaign off completely, the restart became the opening chapter of an unforgettable year full of growth and optimism going forward.

Rewarding him with a new contract as oppose to hiring football revolutionist Ralf Rangnick, Milan’s decision to keep Pioli in the dugout, though bold, proved to be the correct one.

The former Lazio and Inter boss has not only provided stability at the post, but also forged a winning identity uncommon around the club this decade, creating an environment for one of Europe’s youngest sides to thrive and believe in achieving something great.

Pioli’s sheer guidance and tutelage is exactly what Milan have been missing, but on the pitch, it was Zlatan Ibrahimović who initially made the difference.

Bereft of offensive production, leadership and a winner’s mentality in the squad, Ibrahimović’sceremoniously returned last January on a free transfer as the archetypal signing necessary to carry out the vision for the youth-driven project.

From the moment he came off the bench for his second debut, Ibrahimović’s mere presence was felt; in the changing room, on the training ground and during match days.

His aura and commitment to winning had brushed off on the rest of the roster, sparking an immediate burst in form from the 11th position that was held at the time of the Swede’s arrival to what we see today.

“I knew we needed his character, his strength and his charisma,” Pioli explained to Sky Sport.

“I first met Zlatan at Milanello, at that point I knew I was dealing with a champion in terms of mentality, professionalism and skill.”

Since returning, the 39-year-old has lived up to the billing, featuring 30 times and scoring 22 goals while providing a further seven assists to significantly contribute towards Milan’s Serie A-best 79 points in the calendar year.

The Swede, however, has been out of action since the end of November and Milan have managed to achieve great results also without their undisputed leader on the pitch with the Rossoneri who remain the only unbeaten team in Europe’s leading leagues. 

Unity and gravitas will determine just how successful they will be in overcoming the many obstacles that lie in the wait, such as Juventus who will look to shrink the deficit Wednesday at San Siro.

@Matt_Santangelo

Have your say...
Milan have been a breath of fresh air in the past year. There has definitely been an element of luck in some games (Parma comes to mind) but you could argue the same for any team. While, like everyone else I'm not sure this team have the depth to win the league but I really do hope they win the Europa league - Serie A being competitive is not good enough if the clubs continue to underperform in Europe.
on the 5th January, 2021 at 3:32pm
The consistency all around from management to pitch is paying off. Z.Boban should take some credit too..if he didn't expos Ralph 'true-mours', maybe Pioli would have been replaced (to the disappointment of fans).The spine of the team is strong and Milan have been managing well thus far. Unlike past season,i don't see them throwing away 2-0 leads.Even if the league is not won, if we can consolidate a big gap (in pts) between 4th and 5th place come the business end of the season,that would be ace.
on the 5th January, 2021 at 10:44am
I've been saying it for so long, the 4-2-3-1 formation is the best tactic for this team given the players at our disposal. LAM and RAM need to have the energy and desire to get back when necessary, ST needs to be passive and save energy, CAM should only press the ball in the opposing half, LDM/RDM should cover the fullback when they go forward and pressure opponents hard when the team retains its shape defensively. If Piatek had this support behind him he would've been great.
on the 5th January, 2021 at 9:15am
@ Dev I agree except we can't judge them, one way or the other, until they've won something. That means that this team could become a team of champions like in the past. Those past champions were not champions when they started and this team is just getting started. People keep talking about a young team but we will only truly benefit from having a young team if we let them grow old. These guys could be with us for a decade if they maintain their hunger.
on the 5th January, 2021 at 9:11am
Just awesome. We're playing every game like it's a cup game. It's just awesome. And the defending against Benevento was like we were playing against Bayern in the Champions League final. We throwing bodies at everything. Excellent. Whatever happens this season the first half has been a joy. Who knows, and who cares, what happens with Juve. We have to lose eventually, expectations remain grounded, and each game is a surprise!
on the 5th January, 2021 at 9:03am
As a fan I'm very proud of what Milan have done since football restarted in 2020. It's not a team of champions like the ones we've had before, but I think these players have a lot more quality than they're often being given credit for in the media and among fans. We'll probably lose against Juve on Wednesday though, given the injury situation at the moment, but that's ok. There's a lot of other matches left to play this season.
on the 4th January, 2021 at 6:29pm
Four more games to be played before the honour of winter champion is awarded.

A fully packed San Siro for the upcoming Juve game would have been a fantastic spectacle.
Hopefully Ibra is fit to play a part
on the 4th January, 2021 at 4:20pm
Milan have a fantastic foundation built on youth, talent and most of all leadership. There are of course still areas that need improvement, including quality of depth. Yet there is so much success within the squad already, but management can not rest on this. If Elliott's project is to buy young talent, then it also precludes selling this talent at a profit down the road, so Milan will always need new and quality signings to buy into winning philosophy and the project. So far it's been magical!
on the 4th January, 2021 at 3:27pm
Milan have a good management framework now and some good young players. Keeping that structure and not messing around with it is key. The challenge is competing on economic terms (as it is for all Italian teams). A new stadium is much needed to bolster ticket sale revenue and qualifying into UCL. Hope they can do it. Good to see Serie A becoming more competitive at the top again
on the 4th January, 2021 at 2:11pm
Im a Juve fan & have been very impressed. So much hunger & desire and quality to boot (similar to Juve at the beginning of their winning cycle, it's what we need to capture again tbh!). Pioli has to take the credit and he's showed his class as a tactician; in addition, Milan have been shrewd in the transfer market, especially with Ibra and the loan signings. They will no doubt qualify for CL, if not win the league. It will be interesting to see if they can keep hold of those loan stars & kick on
on the 4th January, 2021 at 1:29pm

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