The next 40 days for AC Milan could well be the ones that end up defining the season, with so many important games across two competitions.
La Gazzetta dello Sport (seen below) describe the path to the end of August as a ‘complex horoscope’ for Stefano Pioli. Milan are away to Cagliari tomorrow, then have Lazio at home, play in the Champions League in Dortmund, are away to Genoa, at home to Juventus, then have trips to Paris and Naples.
In 2023, Milan demonstrated that they have one quality and Pioli will focus on that: compactness. In January, amidst the worst crisis in recent years, the team remained together and found the strength to react, eliminate Tottenham and Napoli, and get to a Champions League semi-final.
Pioli expressed a revealing thought on Saturday: “We can’t go after everything and I think the negativity around my players is exaggerated a bit. As far as I’m concerned, I take all the responsibility, I train a very responsible group. The group knows that a team-mate’s mistake is everyone’s mistake.”
The message to the world is clear, Milan is a team and tries to unite, also by closing itself off against controversies and external attacks. At that moment, Pioli was referring to Leao – blamed for the unfortunate back-heel against Newcastle – but the discussion can be extended to some of his criticised team-mates.
Inter have a much simpler calendar between September and October with their only game against another ‘big seven’ club being Roma on 29 October. Milan’s challenge is to keep pace with them.
It’s easier to understand what Pioli will try to do in the next 40 days, starting tomorrow, against Cagliari. They are a team far away in the standings but can post a challenge, especially being a Ranieri-led side.
A key man will return tomorrow: Theo Hernandez is now training with the team. The other will most likely arrive at the weekend as Mike Maignan is already better but Milan’s idea today is to manage him, thus not risking him in Cagliari to have him ready to face Lazio in top condition.
If Maignan is probably Milan’s strongest player at the moment, Theo is fundamental to Pioli’s game. Milan with Theo can play their attacking 4-3-3 and surprise with runs infield or form the deadliest left side in Italy with Leao.
The second step in the desert will be to find energy, performances and goals from the new players. Pioli has gotten almost nothing from Okafor and Jovic so far, and just a bit more from Chukwueze.
Loftus-Cheek did well, Reijnders and Pulisic were excellent before the post-derby decline, Musah is growing but this is the moment for alternation, so here the reserves must become protagonists as never happened in the last season.
The third step is the most complex: ensuring defensive stability. Milan did not concede a goal in the two post-derby matches against Newcastle and Verona but they are an attacking team, with Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders much better at looking forward than backward.
Without Krunic, who was made the balancer, Pioli will have to study solutions. Protecting Thiaw and Tomori is a priority because teams that concede so many goals have never been seen fighting for the title.
One step at a time, Pioli can push himself through the desert and overcome these 40 days together with his team, which he helped to build and were not always brilliant but united. A second star might just be waiting at the end.