AC Milan need to bounce back from their defeat against Napoli at the weekend and end 2021 in the best way possible with a win against Empoli.
The Rossoneri were beaten 1-0 by Luciano Spalletti’s side on Sunday night with Elman scoring the winner within five minutes amid some late VAR controversy over a disallowed goal, so the need for a response has never been greater as Milan have picked up just seven points from their last six games.
Stefano Pioli has already admitted that he is expecting a tough game against an Empoli side who have been very impressive this year, with plenty of injury problems still to battle.
Game date: Wednesday, 22 December
Kick-off time: 20:45 (CET)
Venue: San Siro
Referee: Di Bello (VAR: Mazzoleni)
Milan still have a lot of injuries to take into consideration when naming the squad for the game. The likes of Simon Kjaer, Davide Calabria, Ante Rebic and Rafael Leao are all out and Pioli confirmed in his pre-match press conference that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not play either as he has ‘overloaded’ his knee.
Theo Hernandez has been struggling with fever for the past week and did not train with the team right up until the game against Napoli on Sunday, forcing him to miss it, but everything suggests he should be back for the game in Tuscany.
MilanNews reports that it should be Mike Maignan in goal, Alessandro Florenzi at right-back, Fikayo Tomori and Alessio Romagnoli as the centre-backs and Theo Hernandez at left-back. In midfield a double pivot of Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer are tipped to get the nod again.
Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemaekers should be on the right and left wing respectively and Olivier Giroud is likely to take the spot of the injury Ibrahimovic up front. There is doubt about the playmaker role, with Krunic just edging the battle over the out of form Brahim Diaz at present.
Probable Milan XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Florenzi, Tomori, Romagnoli, Theo; Tonali, Bennacer (Kessie); Messias, Krunic (Diaz), Saelemaekers; Giroud.
Empoli came back up to the top flight for the first time since the 2018-19 season after winning Serie B impressively last season, and impressive is exactly how their return to Serie A could be judged so far.
After alternating wins with defeats in the early part of the season, the feeling is that Aurelio Andreazzoli has the Azzurri punching nicely above their weight at the moment as they are nestled in the top half in 9th, just a point behind Lazio and four points behind Juventus with 8 wins from their opening 18 games.
According to MilanNews, Empoli will be in good health as they close out a very successful year at the Castellani with every player available except Nicolas Haas. The Swiss midfielder will be out all season after injuring the cruciate ligament in his right knee.
The home side for Wednesday’s game are unbeaten in six games after Sunday’s 1-1 draw away against Spezia, where two own-goals in the second half meant a share of the spoils.
Probable Empoli XI (4-2-3-1): Vicario; Stojanovic, Romagnoli, Luperto, Parisi; Henderson, Ricci, Zurkowski; Bajrami; Pinamonti, Cutrone.
Head to head
Empoli are somewhat of a yo-yo club so it comes as no surprise that Milan have faced them only 30 times in their history and have a better record overall. The Rossoneri have won 16 times against the Azzurri with 10 draws and four defeats in that stretch.
Milan have scored 49 goals against Empoli and have conceded 21, with the last meetings being in the 2018-19 season. The game at the Castellani in the first half of that season was a 1-1 draw as Caputo’s penalty cancelled out an own-goal opener for Milan, while the Rossoneri ran out 3-0 winners at San Siro with Piatek, Castillejo and Kessie scoring.
➤ Milan have lost only one of their last nine Serie A matches against Empoli (1-2, in April 2017, with Vincenzo Montella on the bench): four wins and four draws.
➤ In their last 30 Serie A matches against teams from Lombardia, Empoli have only achieved two wins (2-1 v Milan in 2017 and 3-2 v Atalanta in 2018): nine draws and 19 defeats.
➤ Milan are unbeaten in 20 of their last 21 Serie A games against newly promoted teams (W15 D5): with the only exception, the 0-2 away defeat against Spezia in February 2021.
➤ Milan have won their last three games played on a Wednesday in the league, with an overall score of 12-0; their last Serie A defeat on this day of the week dates back to February 2012 (0-2 v Lazio); since then, eight wins and six draws.
➤ Empoli have won their last two home league games and could reach three wins in a row, at home in the competition, for the first time since December 2018, with Giuseppe Iachini on the bench.
➤ In their last away match in 2021, Milan could become the second team in Serie A history to achieve at least 17 away league wins in a single calendar year (after Napoli’s 18 in 2017 – Atalanta also on 16 before matchday 19); however, the Rossoneri have only won one of their three away games played since November (D1 L1).
➤ Empoli are unbeaten in five Serie A games: the Tuscans have not recorded a longer unbeaten streak in the competition since March 2015 (eight).
➤ Patrick Cutrone’s first 63 appearances and first 13 Serie A goals were in a Milan shirt between 2017 and 2019; the Empoli striker has played two games, for a total of 44 minutes, against the Rossoneri, in the top-flight, without finding goals, assists or shots.
➤ After scoring three goals and delivering one assist in his first six Serie A appearances this season, Brahim Díaz has failed to score in his last eight, assisting only two goals.
Ones to watch
If Theo Hernandez and Brahim Diaz do make it into the starting line-up, we are at the point now where serious scrutiny is being put on them to perform. They are both a big part of the build-up play and Pioli’s attacking manoeuvres but have been far from in-form since having Covid, and they need to sign the year off in the right way.
The same pressure is on Kessie to perform after another tough outing against Napoli but above all it is time for Giroud to deliver with an away goal and prove that he can lead the line on occasions where Ibrahimovic is either not fit or needs rotating out.
There is a Romagnoli in the line-up for Empoli but Simone has no relation to Milan centre-back Alessio. They have plenty of players who have started the season well though such as on-loan Inter striker Andrea Pinamonti who has six goals for the year.
Vicario between the sticks has a WhoScored rating for the season so far of 6.88 while Stojanovic leads the team for them with a score of 7. In terms of assists, the former Celtic midfielder Liam Henderson is joint-top with two and appears to be the creative force for them.
Finally, former Milan striker Patrick Cutrone would no doubt love to get one over on the club who let him go after over 60 appearances.
This feels like a Milan side limping to the end of 2021 rather than galloping due to a combination of injuries, fatigue and tactical problems that are probably a cause of the former two. Empoli will enter this game full of confidence and having already between the likes of Juventus, Fiorentina and Napoli this season, it will not be an easy game at all.
Prediction: Empoli 1-1 AC Milan