After ending the Scudetto drought in the last campaign, AC Milan are hoping that the 2022-23 season will bring just as much if not more joy on the field.
The challenges for Stefano Pioli’s men are two-fold as they must look to defend their league title against a strengthened Juventus and Inter, while the aim must also be to go beyond the group stages of the Champions League given the pot one privileges that winning Serie A brings.
If both of those things are achieved it will have almost certainly been an effort from the whole squad that helped on the way, but for some players this does feel like a crossroads of a season where they must perform or their Milan futures are at risk, and we have picked out some names this applies to…
Given that Brahim Diaz is entering the second of a two-year loan it is perhaps obvious that this upcoming season will determine his fate, but with a €22m option to buy at Milan’s disposal and a €27m buy-back in Real Madrid’s favour, there is plenty at stake.
The Spanish playmaker started last season well with four goals in his first nine games – three of which were match-winners – but ultimately his form dripped post-Covid and never truly recovered, with his last goal coming back on September 25 against Spezia.
In order to prove to Milan that he is worth the investment and perhaps in turn to convince his parent club that they cannot lose him, a bounce-back year is needed from the 22-year-old who will face competition from Yacine Adli for the No.10 role plus any new signings in that area.
Sticking with the theme of players with a disappointing return, Saelemaekers unfortunately did not have the best of campaigns in 2021-22 as he had lost his starting spot to Junior Messias come the crucial phase of the season.
We all know by now that the Belgian offers excellent work rate and defensive coverage that gives balance to Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 system, but even the head coach himself tended to go with a player more capable of providing end product despite Messias’ age (31) and the fact he wasn’t even pulling up any trees himself.
There have been reports from numerous sources suggesting Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara might have entertained a bid for Saelemaekers this summer but as of now he seems destined to stay, though this time he may well be aware he is battling for his spot in the squad.
It was not the easiest of campaigns for Rebic in 2021-22 as he managed just 29 appearances across all competitions and barely any of them were starts, with the Croatia international battling repeated physical problems.
On top of that, he simply wasn’t as decisive in front of goal. After hitting double figures in each of the last two seasons, this time around he managed 3 goals and 2 assists (all competitions) which has cast doubt upon his future at the club.
Just like Saelemaekers there were rumours of a potential sale though he too seems likely to remain, yet Pioli needs more answers from the former Eintracht Frankfurt man in the important double role of back-up left winger and emergency centre-forward if needed.
Fode Ballo-Toure arrived at Milan from Monaco last summer and despite not having convinced last season, he seems to have the role of deputy to Theo Hernandez locked in heading into 2022-23 with other issues taking priority on the market.
The Senegalese full-back has a contract with Milan until June 2025 and though there was talk of offers from Turkish clubs being evaluated he is unlikely to leave, but what is needed now is some faith to be repaid.
The early signs from preseason have been promising as the 25-year-old was among the few players who did well in the 3-2 defeat against ZTE in Hungary on Saturday. After a year of adjusting to a new league and learning Pioli’s system, he could well fare much better.
This might well seem like a bold selection given his importance on and off the field since arriving from Sevilla, but the fact is that the 2022-23 season is a big one for understanding the future of Kjaer.
It is well known that he has undergone a major surgery on his knee after sustaining ligament damage in a game against Genoa last December, so now the question marks are all surrounding how the 33-year-old copes when he comes back.
The Dane has shown himself to be an exceptional defender on his day though he must get back to those levels after some time away. Not only that, but he is now an advanced age, has a deal until 2024 and could well be behind three centre-backs in the pecking order (Fikayo Tomori, Pierre Kalulu and a new signing).
There are some more players who might well be feeling a bit of added weight on their shoulders. Tommaso Pobega must prove he can fit Pioli’s system, plans and style well, while Olivier Giroud – who is entering the final year of his deal – needs to remain decisive in front of goal given the competition Divock Origi now provides.
If Matteo Gabbia stays then there will be obvious question marks about his role for the future, and then there is Rade Krunic who has been a ‘wild card’ that could now be behind Adli in the hierarchies. In short, there are plenty of sub-plots in the season ahead to keep an eye on.