Milan have gotten over the hump thanks to a series of victories, but they’ll have to confirm their progress against the high-flying Bologna, which are uncharacteristically coming off three consecutive faux-pas.
Serie A Week 22 – Saturday 27 January 2024 – Stadio Renato Dall’Ara | Preview by Enrico Passarella
It seems that every time the Milan brass starts to seriously question Stefano Pioli, the squad rallies around him and the ensuing results extinguish any concern. He certainly isn’t the best nor the most innovative coach around, but he’s surely empathic, and that’s no small thing. The next few months will be pivotal as his contract runs out in 2025. The club will have to either extend it or move on.
The smoke signals have been hinting at the second outcome, but he already upset the odds once or twice in the past. It’d be a tricky proposition as the hierarchy would have to lure a universally acclaimed name to be sure to upgrade, and there aren’t many of those around, and they make the big bucks. Or they go with a touted up-and-comer, and that pool is wider, but there would be no certainties he would pan out, at least right away. The previous management was in a similar spot a few years back and ultimately opted to stand pat rather than leap into the unknown, and then the Scudetto shielded him till now. The new front office might be bolder but not necessarily successful.
It took more than anticipated, and not all the acquisitions have worked out with flying colors, but their summer window has borne fruits almost in its entirety. There weren’t many doubts the Noah Okafor deal was worth it since it was cheap and he had potential, but staying healthy has been a problem for him. Even a late flier like Luka Jovic turned out to be a valuable addition once he got into shape, and they realized he worked better next to Olivier Giroud rather than instead of him. That messes up their rotation, as the Frenchman needs to rest from time to time, but it’s a smaller issue without Champions League football. If they both stay, they should definitely have three center-forwards next season, adding a physical talent with a high ceiling.
They have been tipped to add a center-back before the end of the January window, but Matteo Gabbia has been serviceable, Theo Hernandez has been more than fine there to the point that they should arguably use him there routinely in easier matches to have more punch, and a pair of their injured players shouldn’t be out for too long. If they buy one more, he’d have to be an extremely solid player who could earn a prominent role down the line, replacing either Simon Kjaer or maybe one of their top options, should they decide to take the cash as they did with Sandro Tonali.
They have been sound at home all season long, while they have resumed winning on the road only recently after a long dry spell. It took a very late push to down Udinese, so there’s more work to be done there. They are in no man’s land in the standings because they are clearly better than all the other teams vying for the fourth spot, and they have almost a double-digit cushion, but Juventus and Inter got going earlier than them.
Even with their rivals’ collision course on the horizon, making up that kind of ground on two teams that have looked like juggernauts is a long-shot proposition. They should go for it if the upcoming Derby d’Italia ends up in a draw. Otherwise, they should exploit their unique position to focus on trying to win the Europa League, as it wouldn’t hurt them much in Serie A and, in general, affect the outcome of their campaign domestically. Instead, a trophy is a trophy, and they wasted a golden opportunity with the Coppa Italia.
Ismael Bennacer returning from AFCON with a small injury spares them the trouble of choosing in this one, but Yacine Adli might have fared well enough to make it a proper duel. After all, the Algerian international needing time to return to his past levels would only be natural after a major knee injury.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Maignan; Calabria, Kjaer, Gabbia, Hernandez; Loftus-Cheek, Adli, Reijnders; Pulisic, Giroud, Leao.
Doubts: Gabbia/Florenzi, Adli/Musah.
Injury Report: Bennacer (thigh contracture), Kalulu, Thiaw, Tomori (thigh injuries), Caldara (ankle injury), Chukwueze (AFCON) – OUT.
Bologna have dipped in the last few weeks, which was physiological after a long undefeated streak, but they haven’t taken a nosedive. While they dropped points in matches they would have won in previous months, they haven’t lost their identity, nor have they been pushed around. If they are able to take command of the proceedings in San Siro, which is a tall order and unlikely, their maturation into a proper candidate for a European berth would be complete.
Those races are wide open, and they have shown more than enough to be a serious threat. Their recent lull mostly originated from some key absences up front. They aren’t as threatening without two speedsters next to Joshua Zirkzee, who’s marvelous but not the most productive forward. Kacper Urbanski is a quality prospect, and his performances have gone beyond the rosiest expectations, also because he isn’t really a winger, but Dan Ndoye, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Jesper Karlsson getting hurt at the same time hampered them severely.
The good news is that two of them will be back, although not the Swiss, who’s the best of the bunch. Even though he lacks some touch in the box, a recurring trend within their squad, he has impressed the most out of the trio. His blazing speed is an asset on its own, but he brings more than that to the table. The former Milan man is who he is at this point, and they will perhaps use him in a less attacking role when they are whole, really spicing up their formation. Instead, the Swede had a very promising start but ended up in the coach’s doghouse, maybe because he was playing too selfishly or not tracking back enough. The knee injury nipped the problem in the bud for a while, but they can’t really afford a major investment not to pan out. His talent and shooting prowess are obvious.
Thiago Motta is a bit peculiar with his ideas and selection, which will have to be taken into account by the team that scoops him up at the end of the season, perhaps their very own opponents this week. He’s not shy in benching players who don’t comply with his requests, no matter their stature, and he often comes up with new roles. He can get away with that in smaller clubs, especially if he brings the result, but that might rub stars the wrong way in a different scenario. It’ll take patience and some lumps, but things usually work out for him in the long run, and his vision eventually comes to fruition. Whoever hires him should embrace him entirely and keep a big-picture approach, overlooking the early stumbles rather than considering him King Midas.
And perhaps, if Bologna qualify for a European competition, he’ll opt to stay a while longer, which would only help him experience-wise. But he and Monza’s Raffaele Palladino have positioned themselves to be part of the coaching carousel, which might be busy, at the end of the season by agreeing to short-term contracts and not prolonging them.
They don’t have glaring holes, other than at back-up striker, but they are addressing it. Still, if they want to be taken seriously, a couple of additions wouldn’t hurt, as they are overachieving relative to the quality of their squad. They owe the gaffer a lot for the growth of a few players that will be hot commodities next summer.
Not only Zirkzee, who hadn’t shown much in previous spells nor last season here. They probably would have signed another striker if they found one they really liked after selling Marko Arnautovic, but they went all-in on him once it didn’t happen, and he has repaid them in spades. His numbers are acceptable, and he makes up for what he lacks in clutchness in class and spectacular feeds for his teammates.
While the boss had a strong base to work with for instance with Lewis Ferguson, who has developed into one of the most complete and menacing midfielders in the league, and Riccardo Orsolini, who just needed a little nudge from the mental standpoint to make a further leap, he turned Riccardo Calafiori from a middling left-back to a rock-solid defender, while he did the opposite in Stefan Posch’s case, even though he hasn’t been as great this season after a stupendous maiden one in Serie A. It would only be right to give him a couple more raw gems to work with.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Skorupski; De Silvestri, Beukema, Calafiori, Kristiansen; Aebischer, Freuler; Orsolini, Ferguson, Saelemaekers; Zirkzee.
Doubts: Kristiansen/Lucumi, Aebischer/Moro, Saelemaekers/Fabbian.
Injury Report: Ndoye (thigh strain), Soumaoro (knee injury), El Azzouzi (AFCON) – OUT
Milan win – Over 2.5