AC Milan 3-0 Rennes: Five things we learned – Difference-makers and a master Mister

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan took a big step towards reaching the Europa League round of 16 as they beat Stade Rennais 3-0 in the first leg of their play-off round tie at San Siro on Thursday night.

The spotlight was once again on Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season with headers either side of half-time, the first a glancing one and the second a diving one.

Rafael Leao claimed the title of goal of the night as he thumped home a cut-back from Theo Hernandez after he had found the full-back initially with a brilliant backheel.

The result obviously means that Milan have a very commanding position in the tie but Rennes did have plenty of dangerous moments which means maximum attention will still be needed for the return game. Here are five things we learned.

1. Air Loftus

As mentioned, it is Loftus-Cheek who will go down as the match-winner as he once again showcased all of the abilities that a difference-making attacking midfielder should, scoring twice.

The first goal he scored was one that a centre-forward like Olivier Giroud would be proud of as he rose like a salmon and connected with just the right amount of power to ensure Alessandro Florenzi’s pinpoint cross nestled inside the far post.

He turned it into a brace with another goal that a striker would be very happy with; this time finding himself in the perfect position to convert a rebound from Mandanda deep inside the box.

From 2019 to 2023 Loftus-Cheek scored three goals while he is on six in 2024 alone. Other areas of his game can be frustrating at times, but when he is now developing a habit of scoring not just once but twice in games it certainly overshadows any negatives.

2. Worth the wait

In the 53rd minute the game on the night was pretty much put to bed, and it was thanks to that familiar combination on the left between Theo Hernandez and Leao, who linked up for the winner against Napoli.

The winger played a lovely backheel to the full-back, who then played a perfect cut-back to him which was met by a powerful first-time finish not dissimilar to the one against Atalanta in the Coppa Italia.

Not only was it brilliant to see the Portugal international get a goal after a month without one, but the way it came is something that can only inspire confidence moving forward and shows just how good Milan’s left flank can be.

Moreover, we couldn’t help but notice the absolute outpouring of emotion once the ball hit the net. Rada ran over to the corner flag but he let out a cry of joy that almost resembled pain, collapsing to the floor as if to suggest a big weight had been lifted.

3. Some missed opportunities

Milan have often been guilty of dominating this games this season but failing to take enough of their chances, and this is a criticism that can’t really be levelled at them after scoring three goals.

Despite this, it really could have been a bigger margin of victory in the end and there were a couple of players who perhaps need to be highlighted for failing to join the party.

The first is Olivier Giroud, who didn’t have an awful game by any means and managed to press hard for 90 minutes, but he barely had a moment of danger while everyone around him was racking up the chances.

Then, there was Christian Pulisic who got the nod on the right and had a few lively moments – including a nice interchange with Leao that ended with a shot saved – but generally was not as involved in the game as his partners in the trident.

Yunus Musah also could have got his name on the scoresheet as he missed a big opportunity while he bore down on goal. He looked very dynamic overall, and went on a fantastic run prior to surge into the box, but when the margins become finer against better opponents those chances must become goals.

4. Master Mister

There were various things that Stefano Pioli did tactically (which will be discussed further in our tactical analysis) which deserve credit, because they seemed to really overwhelm the opposition.

Pioli moved one key player in particular: during the non-possession phase Loftus-Cheek returned to a mezzala role in a 4-3-3, but then he shifted around to the right to open the defensive line of Stephan’s 4-4-2.

The second trick was Yunus Musah playing high and central, to keep the Rennes midfielders occupied and to force them deep. That left the two striker – Kalimuendo and Terrier – alone and without much service, apart from when they got down the flanks.

Finally, but fundamentally, Milan always attacked with five players. On one side Theo, Leao and Musah alternated roles in a triangle which seemed to confuse them a lot, then on the other side Loftus-Cheek pushed up to play alongside Giroud, who often ended up deeper than the Englishman.

There was no revolutionary formation change from Pioli nor did he fall guilty of overthinking things: he made tweaks regarding how individuals operate, and it was a tactical landslide.

5. A reality check

It’s very rare that we mention the opponents during the ‘five things’ pieces, but something must be said about Stade Rennais given all the hype surrounding them coming into the game.

Several pieces were written about how they had won eight games in a row, were perfect in 2024 and had surged from three points above the drop zone to seventh. The likes of Kalimuendo and Bourigeaud were expected to be very tough customers to deal with.

Despite this, the overwhelming feeling after the full-time whistle went was that Milan have arguably not played a worse opponent at San Siro this season. That may sound harsh, and they did create a few moments, but defensively they were unorganised.

For all the reasons mentioned in the fourth point it seems that systematically they were not well-equipped enough to play two banks of four and invite duels all over the pitch, but Stephan never really changed it and even he conceded that the result was fair.


Tags AC Milan Milan Rennes


  1. It’s hard to imagine a collapse in France next week but I’m not getting too excited until we’re through. For all the praise of Ancelotti, he did throw away similar leads in a quarter final in 2004 and a final in 2005. (Although I guess we probably would’ve won both matches without a muppet between the sticks.)

    1. Capello in 1997-98 also threw away an Italian Cup final against Lazio by letting Lazio score three goals in 10 minutes with a team that Rossi, Maldini, Desailly, Albertini, etc

      Lazio needed three goals to win (we had won first game 1-0 and were leading 1-0 in Olimpico)

    2. It happened so many times under Ancelotti: Ajax, Deportivo and that game…

      One of the reasons I think it was because that Ancelotti side relied so heavily on defending with the ball. When it came unstuck…

      1. Forgot about Ajax. This is from Wiki – Ancelotti definitely came with the good and the bad…

        “He made Dida, still maligned for his 2000–01 Champions League howler against Leeds United, his new starting goalkeeper barely a month into the season, while converting budding attacking midfielder Andrea Pirlo to a defensive midfielder, playing him behind the number 10 (either Rui Costa or Rivaldo) in front of the team’s back-line as a deep-lying playmaker…”

  2. Rennes is young. They had the same kind of naivete that Milan had a couple of years ago.

    One thing tho, we’ve been lacking clinical finishing since the start of the season.. The newcastle game comes to mind.. Still no change there

  3. Remember the 4-0 lead we almost blew away at Emirate Stadium. Only for Van Persie to try and lob our goalkeeper? Nerve moments next week indeed

    1. Ha yes – I remember Ibra going crazy at Allegri over that one. This tie’s by no means over yet – especially if they score early.


  5. It’s like the author cannot comprehend what happens off the ball.

    With Giroud and RLC one thing you might notice is that rarely will they both be involved in the play because usually one of them is a dummy runner.

    Depending on the opposition and the set up the ball either mostly go through the big man up front or RLC from deeper.

    In games where RLC has been criticised it’s been noticeable how he’s been involved in many goals and moments just by dragging opposition players out of position.

    Pulisic is similar. He and Leao will rarely both be involved in significant moments. Again Pulisic creates space for Leao and visa versa.

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