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AC Milan in 2021: The return of Italy’s sleeping giant

AC Milan fans will be quite delighted by their club’s success in 2021, but there will still be feelings of disappointment in what could have been in the past year.

If we go back to January of last year, Milan were on top of the Serie A table and did not lose a single game until early January.

However, Stefano Pioli’s side suffered a significant drop of form in the coming months that would see them only secure a top-four finish on the final day of the season.

On the bright side, Milan managed to return to Europe’s biggest stage after a seven-year absence and gain global attention as one of the most promising clubs in Italy.

Although they were drawn in what was arguably the most difficult group in the Champions League draw, Milan were keen to demonstrate their quality.

After losing their opening three games, the club failed to qualify for the knockout phase.

They go into the new year in second place in Serie A, only four points behind Inter Milan and they will look to avoid the same fate as last season. Here’s a recap of their 2021.

Best player – Fikayo Tomori

After initially signing on loan from Chelsea back in January 2020, Tomori proved himself to be Milan’s best defender this year and has cemented himself as a key player on and off the pitch.

The Englishman featured in 44 matches this year with the Rossoneri, bagging two goals and 13 clean sheets in the process. 

Tomori is the perfect modern centre-back. He brings physicality, pace and defensive stability. He has been Milan’s most consistent player and has proved to be very effective at pressing high up the pitch.

Chelsea were wrong to let him leave for just €28 million as he has already established himself as one of the best defenders in Italy and currently has a Transfermarkt value of €45m. 

Expect him to maintain his form for the rest of the season and hopefully receive a long-awaited call from Gareth Southgate to join England’s setup.

Best game – Juventus 0-3 AC Milan 

With four games left in the 2020-21 campaign, Milan were in a fierce four-way battle for the remaining three Champions League qualification spots after Inter had run away with the title.

Juventus were amongst these teams, and the two sides met in Turin for what would be an enthralling encounter. 

The Rossoneri entered this match having lost two of their last three, and many fans had believed that they had burnt out at the worse possible time. 

Stefano Pioli’s men dominated the entire 90 minutes and struck early with a top corner finish from Brahim Diaz.

In the last 15 minutes, Milan added another two goals to the scoreline thanks to Ante Rebic and Tomori, who managed to break Cristiano Ronaldo’s Serie A jump record with his 2.63m header.

The victory put Milan in great spirits for the final three games and they ultimately finished in second place, their highest finish since the 2011-12 season.

Worst game – AC Milan 1-2 Liverpool

Matchday 6 was the decisive round for Group B after there was only a one-point margin separating Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Porto

The Rossoneri lost their opening three games. However, a draw against Porto and victory over Atletico provided Milan with a glimpse of hope of staying amongst Europe’s elite.

In the 28th minute, Milan took the lead after Tomori’s close-range finish off a corner. However, Milan’s advantage would not last long.

Mohammed Salah equalised 10 minutes before the break and Liverpool took the lead through Divock Origi, who capitalised on a giveaway from Tomori.

A packed-out San Siro and rotated Liverpool squad were not enough to help the home side come away with the victory, and it looked the Rossoneri had lost all hope and motivation after falling behind.

It is quite a shame that the club could not qualify for the knockout phase, considering how they took the lead in four of the six matches.

Despite this, the fans should be proud of the squad’s effort considering it was a majority of the players’ first Champions League campaign. 

All of Milan’s attention is now directed at securing Champions League football for next season and hopefully building on the progress they have made this year.

Transfer Business

Although Milan managed to finish second in Serie A, they spent most of their funds replacing departed players and redeeming loanees.

The most notable departure was goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who left for Paris Saint Germain.

The Italian wanted to use the European Championships as leverage in his contract negations, but Milan’s management signed Lille’s Mike Maignan after losing patience in their negotiations. 

Hakan Çalhanoğlu, who joined from Bayer Leverkusen back in 2017, also left on a free transfer to Inter Milan for just an extra million per year.

Tommaso Pobega, Lorenzo Colombo, Jens Petter Hauge and Yacine Adli, who joined on a permanent deal, were all sent out on loan for the 2021-22 season.

The club used their Champions League revenue to activate the buy-back clause of Fikayo Tomori and Sandro Tonali’s loans and addressed the team’s need for depth by bringing in Alessandro Florenzi, Brahim Diaz, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Junior Messias and Pietro Pellegri on loan. 

Olivier Giroud was also brought in from Chelsea to help lift some of the weight off of Zlatan Ibrahimović, who has struggled with injuries since rejoining the club.

How did the manager do?

Since Stefano Pioli arrived back in October 2019, Milan have had quite a remarkable resurgence. 

It’s funny to look back at his appointment as #PioliOut became the top trending topic on Twitter in Italy before he would even take charge for a single match. 

More than two years after his initial appointment, Rossoneri fans have nothing but praise for ‘Padre Pioli’.

Last season he helped Milan stay grounded amongst their initial overachievement and secure Champions League qualification for the first time since 2014.

Domestically, Milan have carried on where they left off last season and are just four points behind league-leaders Inter. Pioli will look to avoid last season’s fate and help his side win their first Scudetto in over ten years.

In November, the club confirmed that coach Pioli had extended his contract until 2023, signifying the management’s trust in his work and that he is the best man for their project moving forward.

Despite a plethora of injuries and what some fans consider to be a likely lack of signings during the winter transfer window, Pioli and his squad are motivated to continue their success in the coming year.

Overall Consensus

2021 was the best year for Milan since they won their last Scudetto back in 2011.

This year signified the end of the club’s so-called ‘banter era’ and saw the Rossoneri establish themselves amongst Europe’s best teams.

Their frustration in the Champions League will remain after failing to qualify for the knockout round by a narrow margin, but fans should be proud of their team’s progress after years of failing to qualify for the competition. 

After years of uncertainty and failed attempts to make Milan the great side they once were, it will be interesting to see if the club’s newfound success will be sustainable or if this year’s success was merely a fluke.

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