AC Milan stand on the cusp of doing something quite extraordinary when they face Sassuolo at the Mapei Stadium this season.
Milan have been on an upward trajectory since the arrival of Stefano Pioli a few games into the 2019-20 season after the brief failed Marco Giampaolo experiment, but few thought that the Rossoneri could so quickly achieve such heights.
Make no mistake about it, Milan were not the favourites to win the Serie A title coming into this season.
Inter were convincing champions last year and although they lost Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, they replaced them well and hired a coach in Simone Inzaghi that enabled an almost seamless tactical transition.
Juventus lost Cristiano Ronaldo but large sections of their support felt free from the shackles, especially after bringing back a proven winner in Max Allegri to replace Andrea Pirlo who also took a lot of the blame for last season’s failings, during which the Bianconeri scraped into the top four.
Even Napoli could be perceived as having greater squad depth that the Rossoneri and a head coach in Luciano Spalletti who has won more than Pioli has, with their run at the start of the season a sign of their dangerous capabilities.
And yet here we stand, with Milan just one point away from winning the Scudetto for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign. It has been a rollercoaster of a season, with four real moments that stand out.
The Diavolo kept pace with Napoli in the first 11 games of the season by winning 10 of them; the only time they dropped points being a 1-1 draw against Juventus when Ante Rebic secured a point. Some blips then came before and after the Christmas period with losses against Fiorentina and Sassuolo that thrust the defence into ‘crisis’, while home defeats against Napoli and Spezia seemed to put the title out of reach.
Then, it all clicked in the first game of February. Having drawn 0-0 against Juventus in the league game prior, Milan faced city rivals Inter knowing they essentially needed to win to keep the title fight wide open. Trailing 1-0 at the break it was Olivier Giroud who manufactured the comeback almost on his own, and he would go on to become known as the man for the big occasion as the Rossoneri triumphed 2-1.
Then, Milan travelled to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona to face Napoli again knowing that nothing but a win would do if they were to make up ground in their Scudetto hunt. The goal came from that man Giroud again as he finished with composure early into the second half, and a resolute defensive performance ensured a clean sheet.
That night in the capital springs to mind as being a real magical moment. Behind at the interval, a second half rescue act from Giroud and Tonali – the latter netting a last-minute winner – in front of over 10,000 travelling fans really put the pressure on Inter, who then lost their game in hand against Bologna the following midweek to shift the momentum back to the red half of the city.
The victories against Fiorentina at home and Hellas Verona away which followed were crucial, especially given they are tricky opponents for anyone, but the feeling is that Sunday’s 2-0 win over Atalanta helped to close a cycle.
Rewinding back to December, the 5-0 loss in Bergamo against the same team felt like a real low point for a club that hadn’t had much to celebrate in the last few seasons. All of a sudden, Pioli was provided the opportunity to get one over on Gasperini (as he had done in the last two away fixtures since) and move within a point of the title.
There was an outpouring of emotion at San Siro over the weekend when the ball hit the back of the net twice in that second half, especially after Theo’s lung-busting 80-metre run that essentially killed the game.
It was a feeling like something had been bottled up inside for years and finally there was a cause worth believing in. People were shouting to someone above but they didn’t know who, and their prayers were being answered in front of their eyes.
While the four games mentioned above might well be the defining moments of an immense journey, and there are a lot of protagonists of this season who will receive their praise in due course, Milan stand on the edge of glory and are not quite there yet.
There has been some debate about how to approach the game against Sassuolo with only a draw needed; whether to play pragmatically and protect the one point you have when the first ball is kicked, or whether to be aggressive and imposing in order to take the lead and win the game.
It will not be a straightforward task. Sassuolo have beaten both Milan and Inter already this season, they have a very talented forward and midfield group that are likely the thrive playing with freedom rather than be hampered by it.
All of the focus, determination, concentration, energy and fighting spirit that has been seen in the last few weeks – the qualities that have resulted in 8 clean sheets and just 2 goals conceded in the last 10 games – must be on display from Pioli’s men in Reggio-Emilia.
Pioli revealed that Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent his own message to the squad before the win over Verona, telling the team: “Everyone remembers who from Milan he won the Scudetti and the Champions League, so if we want to be remembered we have three games.”
The Swede took the microphone and spoke to the team on the bus before the win over Atalanta, saying: “Guys, there are a lot of matches to play. And then there are matches which are made for Milan, and this is one of those matches. Those who are afraid stay on the bus: we need people who are not afraid to play in these nights.”
Both of those statements from Ibrahimovic apply ahead of Sunday. This is a chance to be remembered and to go down in the history books, so leave everything out there and seize the day.