AC Milan head coach Stefano Pioli fought the corner of Rafael Leao amid recent criticism, while also praising Bologna and Joshua Zirkzee in particular.
Milan are on a good run of form in the league having won their last four games against Sassuolo, Empoli, Roma and Udinese, allowing them to consolidate third place and pad the gap to fifth.
However, the problem is that Inter and Juventus – seven and six points ahead respectively, with the Nerazzurri having a game in hand – have not slipped up and given any hope in the Scudetto race.
A win against Bologna on Saturday night would allow the Rossoneri to at least put some table pressure on the leaders ahead of their games and their meeting one week on Sunday.
It could be a potential glimpse into the future for fans too, given that Thiago Motta has been strongly linked with the Milan head coach job, and Joshua Zirkzee as a striker signing.
Pioli spoke to the reporters who gathered at Milanello on the eve of the game for his pre-match press conference, with his comments relayed by MilanNews.
Firstly, a memory of Gigi Riva and Sinisa Mihajlovic…
“One cannot help but remember Sinisa, a coach and a person who is missed by the whole environment, just as a person of other times and of value like Gigi Riva will be missed.”
Would you like your team to have some of Jakkub Sinner’s qualities?
“I saw the match, I’m lucky enough to go to bed early and wake up early. He did something incredible, beating the number one like he beat him…
“In these years in our journey we have shown that we can work in a certain way and to have the right mentality to try to move up the level. In that I think we are similar to Jannik. He is at the top in the world, we are working to get there.”
From the outside it seems that the wind has changed in your favor…
“I think the team is having a good moment and is mentally well. We are mentally well because we have won some matches. We only have to think about tomorrow’s match, our future must be tomorrow’s match.
“Today I prepared for the match, I tried to motivate the boys, we know how important it is to do well in the second round. Tomorrow is difficult, Bologna play excellent football. We have prepared ourselves for put in a performance worthy of our qualities.”
One of your players who could be a grand slam, but often forgets to be one, is Rafael Leao…
“This story has been going on for too long and I think it’s not like that. If we scored much more than last year and we are the second best attack in the league, Rafa has a lot to do with these figures.
“He is a point of reference for us and also for the opposing defences, he is offering us many solutions, he is serving great balls. He is one of the players who provides the most in Serie A assists. I love Rafa the way he is, he’s an artist. He’s a genius, but he listens. This is the important thing.”
Let’s go back to the events in Udine, and the abuse Mike Maignan got…
“Congratulations to Udinese Calcio for how they behaved and how they managed the situation. There must be the certainty of punishment for those who do certain things, these episodes must be cancelled.
“Everything that has been done, also by our club, must be carried forward because it is the time to act firmly. I found Mike to be serene, strong, proud of the support he received from all over the world and from the entire football environment. He worked well.”
Should Milan improve in defence?
“We must continue with our style of play, which is to defend by controlling the game more; we must not force many plays: we always look for the winning play even when there aren’t the solutions and the space to look for it.
“I believe we will never be one such a solid team without the ball, but we can be solid with the ball. And this is very important.”
Your career began in Bologna, if you wanted to condense everything that happened to you would you be able to do it in just one adjective?
“It’s a career… During the week a coach came to visit me with whom we won the Allievi Nazionali Scudetto in 2001. It’s difficult to find just one adjective.
“It’s the experience that has allowed me to grow as a coach, which It made me experience both positive and negative moments that strengthened me.”
Inzaghi and Allegri put Milan in the Scudetto fight…
“They are very good, at the moment we are not in that lottery. We are in the lottery of our results and of thinking game by game.”
Giroud said he spoke to you during the storm. Do you think the storm has passed or not?
“No because we live by results. I know very well how these situations go. We are busy thinking about getting a result in tomorrow’s match.
“In a season there are ups and downs, very few teams in the world can afford drops in performance and condition. They are very pay attention and focus on tomorrow and on trying to win the game.”
Klopp will leave Liverpool after nine years. In your opinion, is there a period of time within which someone thinks they have to change to regain enthusiasm or is it something that doesn’t have a fixed time period?
“It’s difficult to say, I’d like to try this situation (laughs). Arriving at a club for 9, 10, 11 years and then saying ‘But maybe it’s time to change places’. Of course it’s very intense and demanding work.
“Nine years is a really long time, Guardiola is doing just as many. Ferguson has done even more… Each of us must live according to our own emotions and motivations and then decide based on what we feel.”
What has changed regarding Jovic?
“There are two important numbers in our season that we must insist on. I believe that we are the team that scores the most in the first half, which means an excellent approach to matches.
“And perhaps also the team that has had the most goals from substitutes, so it means availability and participation on the part of all the players. We absolutely must continue like this.
“Now with the five substitutions we can change the matches. This attitude of availability must be one of our strong points. Jovic has changed and is finally well physically.
“He is happy, calm, he’s fine. I’ve never had any doubts about his quality. He’s a player I rely on a lot even though he’ll probably start from the bench tomorrow too.”
Does it help not having cup competitions to think about now?
“We must think that we can be competitive in two competitions because that is our objective, reaching the end of the Europa League while maintaining a high level in the league.
“Even if there are many examples in Italy of teams that advanced in the Europa League and then struggled in the league… we want to try to be an exception to this too.”
With a victory tomorrow, Milan would be on par with the year of the Scudetto…
“It would be very significant to extend our positive streak and reach five victories in a row, we have never managed it. There are many stimuli to face with determination and concentration.”
Bologna one of the revelations of the season, what do you think of Zirkzee?
“He is a young player who I followed in the past at Bayern and then when he went to play at Parma. Now he is much more complete, more involved in the game, great technical quality.
“He will be taken into great consideration by our defensive phase. He is a player on whom Bologna relies a lot, he is a strong player.”
Are Milan missing a physical striker besides Giroud?
“Our attackers go well with Giroud. Both Jovic and Okafor can play with Giroud. If Oli is missing, certain characteristics are missing, I don’t think Jovic is very different from Giroud in terms of characteristics.
“He doesn’t have the same size but he is very good at keeping the ball ball and to open. It becomes difficult to match two players who are truly similar in terms of characteristics. We managed to be dangerous both with and without Olivier.”
More than the comparison with Sinner, don’t you think there is a Leao-Leclerc comparison? A generational talent, exceptional overtaking like dribbling, but also a lot of criticism because we always expect more. Does he convince you?
“Yes, but I don’t think Leclerc or Leao are taking the criticism badly. Rafa is a very important point of reference for us. It’s true that he isn’t scoring many goals in the league, but he’s doing very well, he always takes away two opponents, I see improvements.
“That’s how we expect more and more, maybe we expect too much… It’s not like he can leap past two opponents every time and go on to score a goal.”
How has Terracciano looked?
“He’s a very attentive boy who works very well in training. We’re only insisting on him on the flanks, he’s only working as a full-back so as not to confuse him. It’s right that he knows one position well.”
“He returned at a time where his serenity, because he wasn’t experiencing the same delicate moment as us, helped him to fit in with that lightness that can sometimes be useful to you. Spain has certainly increased his wealth of knowledge he looks very effective.”
It is said that Milan lacks a defensive barrier…
“I like the characteristics of Adli and Reijnders, who are not breakwaters but have other characteristics. They have excellent positions without the ball, they complement each other well. At the moment we don’t have a breakwater because we don’t we want it.”
Do players need to improve by training on something specific?
“The players go to my staff to ask for specific jobs, Rafa asks to do rounds because he wants to improve and he likes to shoot. Sometimes I stop the players because I fear that the training sessions are too much.”
Is Loftus-Cheek more of a mezzala or attacking midfielder?
“He’s working a lot, he’s had physical problems with groin pain that didn’t allow him to train continuously. There’s too much talk about roles: without the ball he’s always played as an attacking midfielder.”
How will you mark Zirkzee?
“The way we work in the defensive phase we would like our midfielders to work hard on their midfielders and our two central defenders on their strikers.”