AC Milan began 2023 in the right way with a win against Salernitana at the Stadio Arechi, but they were made to fight right until the last minute.
The game could hardly have started any better for Milan as they brushed off any dust from the long break by scoring twice in the opening 15 minutes. The first came when Rafael Leao rounded Ochoa and tucked home from a tight angle, and the second came from Sandro Tonali as he fired in at the second attempt to add to his previous assists.
The Rossoneri had countless chances to put the game to bed and yet Federico Bonazzoli made it a nervous finale as he ghosted in at the far post to half the deficit, but in the end the scoreline would remain that way.
The win temporarily cuts the deficit to Napoli down to five points ahead of their game against Inter at San Siro tonight, with Roma the next opponents at home on Sunday.
Despite coming into the game with nine players absent due to injury, Stefano Pioli was still able to name a strong starting line-up with Davide Calabria and Alexis Saelemaekers reunited on the right, Pierre Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori as the centre-backs, Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao on the left and Olivier Giroud up front, as well as Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer in midfield.
Salernitana made the more positive start, and Tomori had to dive in to block a shot from former Milan man Piatek after a stray pass from Bennacer had been seized by the Polish forward.
At the other end, Milan had the first big chance of the game as a quick counter-attack saw Giroud lay the ball into Brahim Diaz who threaded Leao through, and the Portuguese winger did well to stay on his feet before firing a low shot that was well saved by the boot of Ochoa.
Moments later, Giroud thought he had spurned a big chance to put his side 1-0 up when a cross from the right side met his jump perfectly, yet the offside flag spared his blushes somewhat as his header flew wide of the far corner.
In the 10th minute, the Rossoneri did get the breakthrough that their pressure was suggesting they might. A gorgeous through ball from Tonali found Leao one on one against Ochoa who had come rushing off his line, and the Portuguese winger rounded the keeper before slotting in excellently from a narrow angle.
Five minutes after the first goal, Milan doubled their lead to really seize a grip on the game. Leao cut the ball into the box and it eventually fell to Tonali just outside who saw his first attempt well saved by Ochoa, but Brahim seized the rebound and gave the Italian a second bite at the cherry, which he this time took by thumping low into the far corner.
Milan continued knocking on the door looking to put the game to bed, but there was some concern when Giroud went down in a heap as a corner was swung in. He was ok to continue, and at the opposite end Tomori dived in to make an excellent block on Dia inside the box.
The Diavolo threatened again just before the half-hour mark as Ochoa was called into action again, stopping Brahim Diaz’s first shot and then watching his second attempt roll narrowly wide of the far post.
There was another big chance when Leao was again put in behind by a ball over the top and he chose to rather unselfishly cut it back to Giroud with a smart flick, yet Ochoa made a good reaction save to thwart the Frenchman inside the area.
If there were any suspicions that Milan might take their foot off the gas, two big chances were created inside the first few minutes of the second half. Both fell to Giroud, the first being a shot just about diverted into the side netting after a one-two with Saelemaekers, and the second he really should have scored after being found all alone by Leao, though Ochoa saved a shot that was straight at him.
Milan thought that they had made it 3-0 in the 58th minute as a free-kick from the left ricocheted through to Tomori who scrambled it over over the line from six yards out. Both he and Brahim Diaz claimed the goal, and after a VAR review it was determined that the Spaniard was stood in an offside position while trying to play the ball and it was ruled out.
Just after the hour mark, Brahim was withdrawn in place of De Ketelaere, with the Belgian coming on in the attacking midfielder role.
The game settled into somewhat of a lull with Milan seemingly happy to manage their lead and not leave too much intensity out there, with a change coming in the 72nd minute as Matteo Gabbia came on for Calabria and Kalulu shifted to right-back.
A red card was flashed by the referee Fourneau for what he adjudged to be a tackle with studs showing by Bradaric on Kalulu, however he again went to his monitor and the right decision was made as he overturned it to a yellow.
The hosts had a chance to get themselves back into the game just before the final ten minutes as Sambia shot from the right side of the box with a low sidefooted attempt, though it rolled wide of the far post.
Milan were denied a third goal their dominance probably deserved with two fantastic saves by Ochoa. A free-kick was drifted over the top by Tonali and was volleyed by Giroud which the Mexican goalkeeper saved, and then De Ketelaere looked as if he had put the rebound in but he produced another incredible reaction stop.
With seven minutes left on the clock, Salernitana set up a dramatic finish. A ball floated to the back post by Coulibaly found Bonazzoli who had got in between Kalulu and Saelemaekers, and he finished from close range with a volley at the back post.
The final subs followed from Pioli as he looked to inject some energy to see the game out, with Sergino Dest and Aster Vranckx coming on for Saelemaekers and Giroud.
The match could have finally been put to bed in the last minute of normal time as a cross from Vranckx found Dest in behind, who attacked the ball with a surprising back heel with his back to goal, but again Ochoa was there to thwart it.
A final opportunity fell to De Ketelaere but again Ochoa was virtually unbeatable, keeping out a whipped shot after Leao went down asking for a penalty, and Milan saw out the last of the eight added minutes to secure three vital points.