AC Milan made it back-to-back wins in Serie A as they recorded a crucial 1-0 win over Empoli at San Siro on Saturday night.
In truth it was an unspectacular performance from Milan who at times struggled to play the intense and free-flowing football that they would like to, but unlike the Udinese game one goal would be enough this time as Pierre Kalulu got it.
A fantastic curling shot from outside the box inside the first half was the difference between the two sides and a sturdy second half performance at the back frustrated the visitors as much as they pushed, with Mike Maignan making one big save.
It is a win that puts Milan top of the table and five points clear of Inter in second for the time being, though they play Torino tomorrow while Napoli – who are six points behind – are away at Hellas Verona.
There was a lot of speculation in the days before the game about the changes that Stefano Pioli might make to his starting XI, but in the end the only alteration from the team that started against Napoli was Alessandro Florenzi coming in at left-back to replace the suspended Theo Hernandez.
After what was a cagey beginning to the game where the two sides tried to feel each other out, it was Milan who fashioned the first big chance in the 8th minute as a lovely move down the left side saw the ball fed into Franck Kessie and then through to Florenzi in behind, but Vicari made a fantastic diving stop.
There was almost a contender for freak goal of the season not long after as a cut-back from the right wing was behind Olivier Giroud, yet the defender’s clearance was straight at Sandro Tonali’s head and Vicari had to sprawl to watch it roll wide.
In the 19th minute, it was the Rossoneri who took the lead. A free-kick near the right corner of the box by Giroud was hit straight into the wall but the ball came back out to Pierre Kalulu, who rather surprisingly decided to take on a first time effort from over 20 yards out. The result was a gorgeous curling shot that nestled inside the far post, with Vicari motionless.
Milan then began to control and manage the game well, looking to get a two-goal lead that they did not get against Salernitana or Udinese which ended up costing them. Florenzi will have liked to have his effort back when a lovely backheel from Leao found him in space inside the box before he blazed over and wide.
The visiting side provided a reminder of the dangers that a one-goal lead carries as Pinamonti – on loan from Inter – fired a snapshot from the edge of the box as possession feel to him but it fizzed over.
Giroud was in a dangerous position on a couple of occasions in the last five minutes before the break, firstly looping a header over after a cross from the right and then seeing a first time shot blocked after excellent work from Leao who surged down the left.
It was Empoli who started the second half brighter and Maignan was called into a fantastic save inside the opening few minutes, tipped a header around the post after a flicked header from Luperto while Simone Romagnoli lay on the floor.
From the second corner that resulted there was another scramble inside the box as Maignan punched the ball in the air while on the line and eventually gathered as a number of Empoli players gathered threatening to stab it home.
Junior Messias had a difficult first half as he had little luck cutting in off the right, though he did test Vicari just over 10 minutes into the second half with a fierce low shot that ended up sailing into his grateful arms.
In the 67th minute he did the same thing again, darting in off the right wing and letting fly looking to bend one inside the far post but just getting a bit too much whip behind it and sending it straight at Vicari.
A double change came in the 72nd minute as Messias and Kessie made way for Brahim Diaz and Alexis Saelemaekers. Not long after, Giroud got on the end of a cross from the left and craned an effort wide that he maybe could have done better with.
A couple more changes came with just under eight minutes left on the clock as Leao and Giroud came off for Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Just after some excellent defending from Tomori stopped Pinamonti getting a shot off from a dangerous position, Pioli made his final change as former Empoli man Rade Krunic came on for another ex-Empoli man in Bennacer.
The four added minutes would drift by without much incident as Milan hung on for an unspectacular but ultimately crucial three points, racking up another clean sheet in the process.