Going into the match against Paris Saint-Germain a couple of weeks ago at the French capital, there was no real sense of optimism around Milan’s chances to pick up a result.
A combination of playing in a tough environment away from home, facing a world-class outfit, and a poor run of form saw the Rossoneri completely bullied off the park for long stretches in a 3-0 defeat.
Most of those factors were unchanged heading into the return leg against Luis Enrique’s men. Not only were Milan up against one of the best teams in the world, but a bitterly disappointing loss to Udinese at home last week should have had most supporters dreading the prospect of another dull performance in midweek.
Instead, there was something special brewing in the air amongst the build-up. From the Gianluigi Donnarumma narrative combined with the incredible atmosphere at the San Siro, it had all the makings of one of those special European nights.
On the pitch, Milan delivered emphatically as they produced a near flawless display to claw themselves right back into contention in ‘the group of death’. Sure, you can say PSG were not at their firing best, but that also had to do with how impressively Milan was able to keep them at bay.
One victory in the past six before Tuesday night was all the proof needed that Milan was in the middle of battling a dark period, but should people really be surprised?
How often have we been accustomed to seeing Milan produce with their backs against the wall when the pressure is at its highest against the top team? Whenever questions circulate around coach Stefano Pioli’s future, his players seem to find another gear. For Milan supporters, they should feel extremely encouraged by the positives in the 2-1 win over the Parisians.
By now it’s no secret that Rafael Leão is a critical piece for Milan’s project if they wish to compete against the big boys. The former Serie A MVP was a menace against Achraf Hakim down the flank, and PSG’s defence simply had no answers to stop him.
Not only was Leão’s bicycle kick equaliser a thing of beauty; his defensive work rate (which has often been criticised) was commendable and proved that he is capable of putting in the hard yards without possession.
The Portuguese star may have received the official man of the match award, but Ruben Loftus-Cheek was simply sensational in the middle of the park, winning 81% of his duels coupled with an 80% dribbling success rate.
➤ 10 games, 7 wins, 1 draw, 2 defeats
➤ 1.7 goals per game
➤ 2.2 points per game
When he didn't play:
➤ 5 games, 1 win, 2 draws, 2 defeats
➤ 0.6 goals per game
➤ 1 point per game pic.twitter.com/LymVd89PDB
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) November 9, 2023
Taking charge of the midfield in the number eight role with his physical presence, the 27-year-old showcased his talent on the European stage with his link up play from defence to attack, as well as his bursting runs forward with the ball at his feet.
If it weren’t for a horrid run of injuries spanning since his Chelsea days, it’s scary to think of the untapped potential of Loftus-Cheek who is already making up for lost time.
Accompanied by him was the engine that is Tiijani Reijnders who has barely put a foot wrong this season besides failing to find the back of the net. American youngster Yunus Musah demonstrated a sense of maturity well beyond his years against PSG’s own inexperienced midfield to solidify his case for a regular starting berth.
This should serve as a confidence boost given the outstanding season that Yacine Adli has had along with the absence of Ismaël Bennacer who is hands down Milan’s most important midfielder.
Fikayo Tomori was a brick wall yet again in the backline (someone just needs to tell England manager Gareth Southgate to watch) who was part of a well-structured defence, forcing PSG sideways and backwards with no space to run in behind.
No player has made more interceptions than @fikayotomori_ (10) in the Champions League so far this season.
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) November 8, 2023
Captain Davide Calabria was dropped in favour of Pierre Kalulu in the first leg as Pioli felt the Frenchman would be best equipped to deal with the pace of Kylian Mbappé.
There have been a lot of negative reviews aimed at the Italian full-back, and that’s putting it kindly. However, he deserves all the praise for his handling of Mbappe in one-on-one situations which is an underrated asset in Calabria’s game. We saw it against Napoli in the Champions League quarter-finals last season when he had Khvicha Kvaratskhelia in his back pocket for 180 minutes.
And then there’s the ageless Oliver Giroud, coming up clutch in yet another monuments occasion when his team needed him most. At 37, a fair argument has been put forward by many that the time is now to move on from France’s all-time leading goalscorer and look ahead to the future with an aim to build around a more mobile centre-forward.
Yes, Giroud doesn’t possess the pace that so many modern-day strikers are blessed with, however, he’s never had that in his locker basically since the start of his career. The two goals against Napoli most recently and the winner in midweek is proof is the pudding that he thrives on great service in the box which is where he’s at his most lethal.
Despite Giroud’s constant hard running and work rate, how many times has he been almost non-existent during games because of a lack of service and minimal touches? No doubt the answer is more than a few.
Milan established evidence that their best football is attractive, efficient, and most importantly effective when the squad buys into the intensity and high press that Pioli envisions. After such a strong start to the campaign, why isn’t Milan able to replicate the same performance against PSG week in and week out?
Consistency has been a damning issue even when they managed to win the Scudetto only two seasons ago. There can be no hiding from the fact that an abysmal run of injuries has contributed significantly to the chopping and changing of the starting lineup, but the problems run deeper than that.
For as talented of a footballer as Leão is, the productivity needs to be much higher for a player with that kind of raw ability. Prior to PSG, his last goal came back in September against Hellas Verona.
The celebration aimed towards the Curva Sud with his finger on his mouth – to silence the critics rather than the fans – showed that Leão does take it to heart which is fantastic to see. However, those same critics will still be proven correct if he can’t sustain that same level of world-class consistency.
As mentioned earlier, the back four could not put a foot wrong aside from Loftus Cheek’s lacklustre man-marking from the corner for Milan Skriniar’s goal.
Nonetheless, the defence still can’t be trusted over the course of a full season as we have seen too many below-par individual performances, with the latest being Malik Thiaw throwing in some reckless showings.
Staying within the realms of Italy, city rivals Inter Milan are a class above purely based on the notion that you know what you’re going to be getting each week both in terms of performance and results. Although it may hurt to admit, that’s the benchmark that the Rossoneri need to aspire toward if they have any serious ambitions.
The most frustrating part about it all is that this Milan side contains solid foundations and some serious potential that is failing to blossom on a consistent basis.
They say certain matches can turn the tide and change the course of the season. Well, there’s no better match to build momentum on than a win over a Champions League contender.
Never mind responding to a loss, because let’s face it, Pioli’s men have silenced the outside noise on numerous occasions when the pressure has skyrocketed to an all-time high.
After a win against PSG, the time is not now to slack off, but rather the time for Milan to show their true character and personality to manifest some dependability.