AC Milan will make the hop across to Sardinia to face Cagliari on Wednesday night as they look to make it five wins out of six to begin the Serie A season.
After losing 5-1 in the derby against Inter, Milan have slowly begun their recovery. A 0-0 draw in the Champions League against Newcastle United was a game they dominated and should have won, while they did beat Hellas Verona 1-0 at San Siro on Saturday to take outright possession of second.
Stefano Pioli has some selection dilemmas to deal with especially in midfield and attack where injuries have hit and rotation is key at such a hectic point in the season.
Game date: Wednesday, September 27
Kick-off time: 18:30 (CEST)
Venue: Sardegna Arena
Referee: Federico La Penna (VAR: Irrati)
The win over Verona certainly wasn’t without talking points, starting with the fact that there were are a handful of very important players missing from the squad which forced Pioli to use a 3-4-3 system.
Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria have both been permanent fixtures this season but they were struggling with fatigue and didn’t even get on the bench.
Mike Maignan was ruled out the game after he picked up an injury in the match against Newcastle on Tuesday, so Marco Sportiello got his first competitive start.
Pierre Kalulu is not yet back from his muscle issue so he was out, while Mattia Caldara and Ismael Bennacer were absent with the long-term injuries they are both recovering from.
Rade Krunic then picked up an injury during the victory over the Gialloblu and he could miss as long as a month, meaning Pioli will be forced to devise some solutions for the midfield.
According to Sky, Mike Maignan is still out and did not leave with the team for Sardinia which means Marco Sportiello will be in goal, and Pioli will revert to a four-man defence with Theo Hernandez and Alessandro Florenzi the full-backs and Fikayo Tomori partnering Malick Thiaw in the middle.
Krunic’s replacement needs to be found given he will be absent for a while due to a muscular problem, and Yacine Adli is currently the favourite to start at the base of the three with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders flanking him.
In attack, Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leao should rest, thus meaning a trio of Christian Pulisic, Noah Okafor and Samuel Chukwueze from left to right.
Probable Milan XI (4-3-3): Sportiello; Florenzi, Thiaw, Tomori, Theo; Loftus-Cheek, Adli, Reijnders; Pulisic, Okafor, Chukwueze.
It was on New Year’s Day that Claudio Ranieri was named as Cagliari’s new head coach, taking over from Fabio Liverani, and it proved to be a decision that paid dividends.
The Sardinian side were promoted back to the top flight after just one season in Serie B, finishing fifth in the league after 38 games but winning play-offs against Parma (3-2 on aggregate) and Bari (2-1 on aggregate) to earn promotion.
They were fired back into Serie A by ex-Milan striker Gianluca Lapadula, who netted 25 goals in the league making him comfortably the top scorer.
Cagliari knew they needed to invest to stand a better chance of staying up, and they signed Mateusz Wieteska from Clermont Foot and Matteo Prati from SPAL for €5m each. They also spent €4m on Ibrahim Sulemana of Hellas Verona.
The Rossoblu purchased Pantelis Chatzidiakos from AZ Alkmaar, Tommaso Augello from Sampdoria and Simone Scuffet from CFR Cluj each for €2m. Alessandro Di Pardo (from Juventus, €1.1m) was the other paid-for signing.
Jakub Jankto arrived from Getafe and Andrea Petagna joined on loan from Monza as two experienced players who know Serie A well, while Eldor Shomurodov came from Roma on loan.
Despite reinforcing the attack, Ranieri’s side are really struggling for goals already this season, with just one scored in their first five games.
Their results have been as follows: 0-0 vs. Torino, 0-2 vs. Inter, 1-2 vs. Bologna, 0-0 vs. Udinese and 0-2 vs. Atalanta, placing them in the relegation zone early on.
Ranieri is thinking of a 3-5-2 system where Wieteska will be back in defence after returning from suspension, and he should play alongside Dossena and Obert in front of Radunovic.
Prati should be the deeper-lying midfield player with Nandez on the right favoured over Zappa, and Augello sure of a place on the opposite flank. Makoumbou and Sulemana complete the five across the middle.
Up front the man certain to start is seemingly Luvumbo and Petagna should partner him hoping to net against his former club. Pavoletti is back from injury and should be on the bench.
Probable Cagliari XI (3-5-2) Radunovic; Wieteska, Dossena, Obert; Nandez, Makoumbou, Prati, Sulemana, Augello; Petagna, Luvumbo.
Head to head
Cagliari are the team that Milan have played the 13-most times in their history, with 88 games against the islanders across all competitions. Of those 88, 51 have been Rossoneri wins with 28 draws and just nine losses.
The teams last met in what would end up being the Scudetto-winning campaign for Milan, with Ismael Bennacer’s second-half winner at the Sardegna Arena a massive moment in the title race as Pioli’s men triumphed 1-0 in the rain.
In the reverse fixture a few months prior, goals from Sandro Tonali, Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud (x2) had Milan 4-1 up at the break, a lead that would end up lasting.
It was back in May 2017 that Milan last lost against Cagliari. Joao Pedro gave them the lead before Lapadula answered back with a penalty, but Fabio Pisacane’s last-gasp winner snatched all three points.
➤ Milan are the team against which Cagliari have lost the most matches in Serie A: 45 out of 80, with eight wins for Cagliari and 27 draws.
➤ Cagliari have won only one of their last 37 matches against Milan in Serie A (D8 L28): a 2-1 victory at the Sant’Elia on May 28, 2017. More specifically, Milan have secured six wins in the last seven games against Cagliari in the top-flight, conceding only one goal during that period.
➤ Milan have won the last three away matches against Cagliari in Serie A without conceding a goal.
➤ Milan have never achieved four consecutive away victories against Cagliari, nor have they ever recorded four consecutive clean sheets away against the Rossoblù in the tournament.
➤ Cagliari have scored only one goal this season, and in their Serie A history, only in the 2008/09 season (under Allegri’s management) did they score one or fewer goals in their first five matches of the season. In that case, they drew 0-0 against Milan in the sixth match.
➤ Cagliari have won only one of their last 10 home matches in Serie A (D3 L6): a 1-0 victory against Sassuolo on April 16, 2022. Additionally, Cagliari did not score in their first two matches at the
Unipol Domus this season and could go without scoring in all their first three home matches in a Serie A season for the first time.
➤ Milan have achieved two consecutive clean sheets in all competitions (against Newcastle and Verona) and have not gone three games without conceding a goal since April (two league matches against Napoli and Empoli, and again against Napoli in the Champions League).
➤ Milan have lost six out of 15 away matches in 2023 in the league (W6 D3). If we consider the previous three calendar years (2022, 2021, and 2020), Milan had suffered only five defeats in 55 away matches in Serie A (W38 D11).
➤ Andrea Petagna made his Serie A debut with Milan on August 24, 2013, against Verona (with three appearances for the Rossoneri in the league). The player born in 1995 scored one goal in 12 matches played against Milan in Serie A, on December 29, 2018, while playing for SPAL.
➤ Rafael Leao, who has scored in three consecutive Serie A appearances for the first time in his career, is one of the two players to have reached double-figures for goals (10 goals for him) in the Italian top league since April. The other player is Lautaro Martinez with 12 goals.
➤ Olivier Giroud’s first goals for Milan in all competitions came against Cagliari: a brace at the San Siro on August 29, 2021, in Serie A, the Frenchman is the only player this season who has been involved in at least one goal in all five opening matchdays (four goals and three assists).
Ones to watch
If the reports are true and Pioli plans to rotate, then all eyes will be on the players who come into the side, above all Jovic as the centre-forward who needs to show positive signs after the club took a gamble with him.
Then, Adli is expected to step up in Krunic’s absence and it will be a first competitive test of whether he can really play a deeper-lying midfield role, after doing well there in preseason.
Milan wouldn’t want to be the team who give Cagliari their first win back in Serie A nor their first multi-goal game, so the defence must build off their two clean sheets against Newcastle and Verona.
The only goal that Cagliari have scored all season in the league came from Zito Luvumbo, and he should start as part of a front two and his pace in behind is something to watch out for.
Di Pardo and Alberto Dossena each netted during their Coppa Italia win over Palermo (2-1 after extra time) but only the latter is expected to start, and is a centre-back that will be more worried about stopping Milan than scoring winners.
Nahitan Nandez has been playing right wing-back in a 3-5-2 under Ranieri and he is a player than knows Serie A well and has shown himself at times to be a level above his current team-mates.
If Milan are serious about continuing a challenge for the Scudetto, this simply has to be three points against a side that will likely be fighting relegation. However, fight they will – especially under Ranieri – and so we don’t think this will be the walkover others do.
Cagliari 1-2 AC Milan