AC Milan took massive strides towards Europa League qualification by going sixth with a rampant 5-1 win over Bologna. The thumping victory moved the San Siro side within a point of fifth-placed Roma with four games left of the season.
A return to European competition will be seen as very much-needed progress for the Italian giants, after six seasons out of the Champions League they have only taken in two Europa League campaigns since.
Indeed, Milan’s imperious form – the best in Serie A with eight matches unbeaten since the restart – Included some big scalps including Roma (2-0), Lazio (3-0), Juventus (a thrilling turnaround 4-2 win) and an entertaining 2-all draw with Napoli. Against mid-table Bologna, Milan were sharp across the park; confident, energetic and full of endeavour. There were wonderful transitions showing everyone knows their role and the intensity at which they do that was vital in moving the team forward.
On the plus side, Ismaël Bennacer, Alexis Saelemaekers and Davide Calabria all scored their first goal for I Rossoneri.
They work as a unit, every Milan player is confident and not just a couple of good players within a dysfunctional team as in previous years. This has been fundamentally aided by Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 setup ensuring a solidity that was missing in Marco Giampaolo’s rather complex 4-3-2-1/ 4-3-1-2.
Pioli’s impact has been a refreshing surprise since taking over in October.
Theo Hernández, their best player of the first half of the season, has added defensive steel to his game having registered six goals and three assists from left-back in his first season. Elsewhere, Hakan Çalhanoğlu has massively improved back in his preferred ‘number 10’ position, beginning to look like the top-class attacking midfielder from Leverkusen and scoring four times with five assists since the resumption. A fit-again Giacomo Bonaventura has also found form after his injury hell in recent years.
Pioli has succeeded in developing a spine across the team. Captain Alessio Romagnoli has formed a solid centre-half partnership with Simon Kjaer protecting Gigi Donnarumma’s goal, Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer understand their roles as a midfield pair, and the returning Zlatan Ibrahimović is the focal point in attack allowing Ante Rebić to build up his goalscoring run from the left flank.
The Croatian has seen a sharp upturn in goalscoring form in 2020, netting 12 times and assisting twice. After a barren first half of the season, Rebić is posing a particularly menacing threat on the left channel with the attack-minded Hernández.
This late productive run of form is placing them wonderfully ahead of next season as Milan have not enjoyed such a run of genuinely good form in results and performances, during a spectacular fall from grace since winning the Scudetto in 2011. Giampaolo’s appointment last summer proved disappointing yet again for Milan fans, with Pioli’s arrival not particularly breeding confidence.
What a fantastic impact the former Inter boss has made on the future of Milan which is undoubtedly on a green upward arrow. After a catalogue of ex-Milan players failed to inspire the desired progress, it is the return of Ibrahimović and the unfamiliar Pioli that have sparked an exciting revival.
It is an open secret that the Milan hierarchy have moved with the acquisition of the much-respected Ralf Rangnick from RB Leipzig ahead of next season. Although the capacity (manager, technical director, or both) which the German would fill is yet unclear, it appears Rangnick would be better off making sporting decisions behind the scenes. Pioli deserves a full season with the squad, at least, and smart backing in the transfer window.
The sleeping giant is wide awake.