Suﬀering back to back defeats to Atalanta and Inter, Serie A’s Winter Champions Milan must make the necessary preparations to bounce back and ensure they stay on course to finish top of the table.
As Milan succumbed to a near-perfect Atalanta last Saturday in a 3-0 defeat, Inter followed up with a draw to Udinese that clinched winter champion status for the Rossoneri.
Though an impressive feat in its own right, and one that certainly serves as a good measure of the job Stefano Pioli and his youthful squad have done to date, the reality is nothing has been won. The focus must remain if Milan are to repeat their first-half success to finish what they have started.
On Tuesday, Inter presented the first of many diﬃcult tests to come, with both sides valiantly attempting to knock the other off their course and stymie any momentum they’d wish to build.
For Milan, the response after the heavy loss to Atalanta was important, as they have not suffered consecutive defeats this entire season across all competitions, this despite ongoing injury concerns and the never-ending pandemic keeping players out of the squad.
Nevertheless, Pioli approached the Coppa Italia quarter-final clash against Antonio Conte’s Nerazzurri with clear intent to win, fielding a strong XI that was eventually dealt a blow early with the injury exit of Simon Kjaer.
While Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori entered to make his debut for the club in a pressure- packed situation and fared extremely well, the loss of the Dane perhaps served as a harsh lesson in the dire reality Pioli will face going forward in managing the workload of his most prized assets.
Last night’s cagey affair had all the fixings of a classic Milan Derby. From choice words and flared tempers between Zlatan Ibrahimović and Romelu Lukaku and chippy play on both ends to the dramatic Christian Eriksen free kick goal to ice the victory for Inter, this match was for the calcio purist reminiscing of Italy’s glorious past.
A win against a rival can always provide a boost and massive shot in the arm, kickstarting a key run or evoking a reaction that has significant carryover effect into another important phase.
But, after bowing out of the Coppa Italia with a 2-1 defeat, there is one less competition for Milan to allocate resources towards.
If you are of the glass half fully way of thinking, there is perhaps some consolation in the loss, though it is a bit more of a harder pill to swallow given the opposition. This all must be put in the rear view mirror for Milan now though as the next 19 league matches become the priority. How will Pioli prepare?
A well-timed, properly executed rotation may be in order. Bologna (A), Crotone (H) and Spezia (A) combine for the next slate of league matches for Milan, of which was swept by the San Siro side earlier this season.
To put it bluntly, these are must wins for Pioli, especially with Inter breathing down their neck and another Derby della Madonnina where revenge will be sought.
The upcoming fixtures, followed by FK Crvena Zvezda in the UEFA Europa League, present an opportunity to preserve an ailing backline and worn down midfield.
Hakan Calhanoglu, Ismaël Bennacer and Matteo Gabbia should be making their returns to duty very soon, almost becoming “new signings” as Adriano Galliani would say.
The Turkish playmaker’s absence has been sorely felt, with his final ball, creativity, eﬃcient passing and harmonious play with Ibrahimovic set to be a refreshing sight once again.
Bennacer is ready to walk back into his starting role in the double pivot alongside Franck Kessie, together forming one of Serie A’s most balanced pairings. Gabbia, who began to find his footing and good form prior to his injury, can surely be an option for Pioli to utilize.
Spelling Kjaer and Kessie the occasional breathe and preservation, as they’ve been two of the main workhorses of the starting XI, must be a focus.
Barring any last minute additions, Soualiho Meïté, Mario Mandžukić and Tomori complete the market, adding the necessary reinforcement for Pioli to get to the finish line.
The preparations have been made by Paolo Maldini and the management to help the Italian coach and should be commended.
Now, with the pieces in place and a hopeful restoration of the squad from injuries and positive cases soon to follow shortly, the play on the pitch must do the talking and define a season that, if all goes according to plan, sees Milan as champions or, at the very least, back in the UEFA Champions League where they belong.