After an indirectly UEFA enforced absence from European competition Milan are back in Europe’s secondary competition. A changed Milan made it to Europa League after drama in the excessively long qualifying playoffs. The tournament is of relative little value but does provide some financial gain and a path back to the Champions League.
The 48 team bloated Europa League has paired Milan with Celtic, Sparta Prague and Lille in one of its 12 groups. A travel to Scotland is first on the agenda. In pandemic times any travel is courting danger and with the number of cases on a rapid rise football is not exempt. As with the general population many players across Europe and the world are in isolation and Milan currently counts Gabbia on that list. Calhanoglu sprained an ankle earlier this week. With Rebic still missing Milan will need to reach for its summer acquired offensive depth to start the 2020-2021 competition. The same can not be said for the defensive side. Gabbia’s absence along with the only recent return of the unconvincing Duarte from injury and COVID-19 isolation serve to highlight the lack of depth on the defensive side. Kjaer and Romagnoli will carry a heavy burden for the next little while while the likes of Diaz and Hauge can fill in for the up front absences. In the Milan derby Pioli brought on Krunic in place of Leao to provide some defensive blance on the left and that may remain an option when the coach decides to play it a bit safer when facing a team threatening on Milan’s left. Kessie, Bennacer and Tonali will share the load in the middle of the pitch with the first becoming more of a valuable part of the team every week. Leao can be a sometimes reliable left winger with Saelemaekers a surprising player in place of the off form Castillejo on the right. Ibra declared himself the god of the pitch and his form is a testament to his value and endurance. The fullbacks situation remains somewhat confusing with no natural back up to Theo on the left. Recently acquired Dalot has said he can play there but prefers the right side. Milan of course have all of Calabria, Conti and Kalulu for the right so it seems likely that Dalot might need to contribute on the left side and as early as this match.
Celtic have renewed their domestic rivalry with Rangers and sit in second place in the Scotland’s premiership having just lost the old firm derby this past weekend. They of course now feature Laxalt on loan from Milan.
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Ibra with another brace, one from a penalty he won himself and another courtesy a great assist and cross by Leao, is on fire. Having just returned from a COVID-19 diagnosis and isolation it is remarkable.
Romagnoli, back from a long layoff, struggled in marking and tracking Romelu Lukaku in particular.
Theo was pinned back and beaten by Inter’s Achraf Hakimi. This will provide a reference for Milan’s future opponents. Not all teams have a player of Hakimi’s quality but Pioli must be ready with a plan, whether that means using Krunic again, as in this derby, remains questionable.
Kessie and Kjaer continue to star for the team.
An ill-advised international break has resulted in more COVID-19 cases as travels across Europe and the world for international friendlies and matches has not helped stem the spread of the virus. Everyday news of positive cases are in the news and Milan is not spared. Gabbia is in isolation having traveled with the Azzurri under 21 team and Inter are harder hit with Alessandro Bastoni, Ashley Young, Radja Nainggolan, Roberto Gagliardini, Milan Skriniar and Ionut Radu totaling six in quarantine ahead of the derby. Ibra is back after testing negative having missed Serie A and Europa league games. Duarte has been isolating for the same but for reasons not known for a longer period than seen elsewhere. However, the game is going ahead because regulations say that a team can play with as little as 13 players available. The footballing world is certainly caught in the feared so called second wave of the pandemic. It is still not out of the question that competitions will be disrupted again and fans will have to navigate the world of football virtually using igaming search.
Romagnoli returns from injury but Rebic is still missing with his elbow not fully recovered. The team facing Inter will feature little surprises and the only real question mark is who will play as a nominal left winger when Rebic is absent. Saelemaekers, who made his national debut and shined for Belgium during the break, could be the beneficiary though Leao is a better fit for the left wing and did score twice in the week 3 3-0 defeat of Spezia. Donnarumma, in the midst of a never ending contract negotiation, is of course the starter as are Calabria, Kjaer, Romagnoli and Theo. Bennacer and Kessie have been impressive and will be a duo that will attract looks from richer teams in the coming transfer windows. Calahanoglu, soon to be asking for a big pay raise, may start with Castillejo and the aforementioned Belgian behind Ibra. Castillejo’s poor form has made him a much talked of player this season and it is not out of the question that Pioli will change his mind and not start him. Diaz is also an option for the left wing pushing Saelemaekers to his natural position.
This Milan has won its first three games to start a season for the first time in 14 years and hasn’t conceded in the first three for the first time in 49 years! It now faces a bigger challenge in Conte’s Inter. It is time to win a derby after suffering a Serie A derby drought. The last time Milan won a Derby della Madonnina match was in January 2016.
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Expectations were higher, at least by fans, but financial realities – some new like the ongoing pandemic and some not so new – limited this transfer window to what may be called a limited rebuild.
Early favorable deals like the loan with option for Tonali had heightened expectations but after a whole host of names for center back, full back, central midfield, right back, practically every other position were mentioned the rebuild stopped far short of being revolutionary and was dominated by further loans for Diaz and Dalot. Lack of depth and the injuries had many expecting many necessary, if not desired, moves but it didn’t really materialize. Earlier in the summer salaries were saved when Reina, Biglia, and Bonaventura left the team so more leeway was hoped for and expected too. Everyone from Tiemoue Bakayoko, Boubakary Soumare, Wesley Fofana, Ozan Kabak, Nikola Milenkovic, Mohamed Simakan, Antonio Rudiger and even Federico Chiesa were mentioned to add quality and depth but the window was to be characterized as low budget and very much a work in progress.
On the outgoing front a relative big amount was raised by receiving over 20 million for Suso. Another 20 million was raised by letting Paqueta go to Lyon. Other minor deals saved a bit more. Rebic’s exchange with Andre Silva was done in a smart way in order to make it easier for both teams to save money. On deadline day Laxalt was the only player in the news as he left on loan to Celtic. Coincidentally Celtic will be Milan’s first Europa League opponent on October 22nd.
As of October 5th 2020 Milan is battered in central defense and has little back up for most positions, with the notable exception of right back where all of Calabria, Conti, Kalulu and the newly arrived Dalot call home.
Below is a brief profile of the incoming names:
Milan won the week two match with another 2-0 clean sheet. The game was not spectacular by any means and Ibra’s absence, due to Coronavirus isolation, was felt with Rebic struggling in the focal point role. Bennacer was excluded from the starting lineup due to the very busy fixture list. Castillejo for the same reason as well but also because he has been in poor form. A penalty won late in the first provided a small cushion for Milan. After the half Diaz scored his first for Milan in an opportunistic manner. Rebic escaped what looked like a nasty injury at the time and Milan got the three points. The real drama came midweek with the Europa League playoffs at Rio Ave. The team looked mediocre and bound to fail the test. Last second drama and a history making shootout led to a win and the chance to spend a few million more before the transfer window closes on October 5th.
A day before the aforementioned window closes Milan meet another newly promoted team. Spezia have not been the busiest strengthening for life in Serie A but do possess a solid team who beat Udinese in week two. Three points must be the aim of course and it would make three wins to start a new season, a rarity in recent memory. Due to the busy schedule more changes are in the works but injuries still limit the option available to Pioli. One likely change is that Tonali and Krunic could be starters. The latter has been on the transfer block but looks to be staying. Kessie does need a rest and it is almost a luxury to be able to give him a game off. Elsewhere on the pitch the defense is still battered and bruised but help is on the way with Diogo Dalot completing his dry loan from Manchester United. The right sided former Porto man may not play a position that is currently needed but if Conti leaves his arrival would make a bit more sense. A central defender has been sought after and the latest name is Ozan Kabak. The Turkish prospect was close to arriving last year but apparently rejected the idea. A change of heart may be in the works. A transfer will only happen if Schalke make the price affordable. Up front Calhanoglu may be getting a rest too with Saelemaekers, Diaz, Leao playing behind Colombo. Ibra has been posting on social media that he has no symptoms and he showed off a luxury car he purchased on the occasion of his 39th birthday on October 3rd. The veteran will miss at least another week and be available only after virus tests come back negative.
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Milan beat Rio Ave in a shootout and it took 12 rounds of it to win the game.
The game was 1-1 at 90 minutes and 2-2 at 120 minutes.
The first half was mediocre at best with Castillejo once again the focal point of the poor play. Other starters, which surprisingly included Maldini, were not much better.
The second half started with a quick goal when Saelemaekers found the ball just outside of the box and shot low to beat Pawel Kieszek in Rio Ave’s goal.
Diaz had come in in Castillejo’s place but any improvement in play was nonexistent.
Poor coverage and ball watching led to the hosts’ equalizer.
The game headed into the extra 30 minutes and within two minutes the hosts took the lead, with again questionable defending.
The other subs, Tonali and Colombo in extra time, made little difference but Milan spent a lot of time in Rio Ave’s third. A final minute shot into the box was handled by Rio Ave’s Toni Borevkovic. Calhanoglu converted the penalty to send the game into a shootout. Both goalies were unable to make a difference and when it fell to them to take a penalty both missed. In the 11th round of the shootout Bennacer missed but Francisco Geraldes did too. Kjaer scored with the 12th penalty but Aderlan Santos had his shot saved. Milan squeezed through to the Europa League groups stage in an almost surreal atmosphere in Portugal’s north. All the while the most distraught person was the aforementioned Borevkovic, standing on the sideline.
The Norwegian arrives on a relative cheap transfer fee of between €4 and €5 million and signs for five years. The winger, sometimes attacking midfielder, impressed in the Europa League third qualifying round which Milan won 3-2 against Bodo/Glimt in Norway.
He is a relative unknown but had been doing very well for the runaway Eliteserien leaders. Several teams, including Milan, had been scouting the player in the past year.
The scouting report on Hauge reads that he is a good dribbler and good on the ball with a good amount of speed to run at defences.
The 2020-2021 is very young and no conclusions can be reached at yet but the landscape is different and seems unpredictable. Early indications across Europe are that surprises are possible. Both Bayern Munich and Manchester City suffered heavy losses and goals per game are up across the continent. Milan have won the first two matches of a new season without conceding for the first time in 18 years. Can this be a season where Milan not only continue the hot streak but actually benefit from the less familiar surroundings?
New comers like Crotone will still struggle in order to beat the drop but life at the top of the table could be less conventional. All this comes with a cautious note of not forgetting that the pandemic is still on and has entered a possibly more dangerous phase. News of multiple Genoa players and staff testing positive for the Coronavirus adds to the fears and numbers that are rising across much of the world. Ibra and Duarte are just two Milan players currently in isolation and Leao just returned to the squad from the same. Gaining as many points as possible now will serve all teams well later even more in case the season is an interrupted one again.
On the injury front the news about Rebic’s injury is positive as he did not fracture a bone or tear any nerves or muscles The Croat, who looks to be more effective on the left wing than the front, could be back in as little as two weeks.
The team is chasing as many transfer targets as it can afford to add depth and quality. The Norwegian Jens Petter Hauge is set to be one such addition despite some earlier denials. The young player can move the between the lines and provide an alternative for Pioli much in the same way that Tonali and Diaz do. There is however little to note of departures. Any departure will add funds to the budget and with less than one week to the window closing Paqueta’s certain departure is the only one in the news. His exit will add some much needed funds for a center back or perhaps the right wing. The fixture list is full with yet another round to go before a possible place in Europa League’s group stage. This weakened team travels to Portugal’s north to visit Rio Ave before facing Spezia in another hopefully winnable game. The consequent weeks will feature the derby and bigger teams. It is is hoped that by that time most absentees, including Romagnoli, would have returned to the pitch. It should be noted that Kessie and Calhanoglu seem to be their improved selves and have played very well in this very young season.
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Ibra scored both goals in the opening fixture of the 2020-2021 season. The soon to be 39 year old showed that his importance as a veteran of a very young squad will remain as crucial as ever. The youg squad is hoping to continue where it left off in the summer and the first indication was positive if not 100% reassuring. The moves being made to add depth and strength to the team will continue until the transfer window closes on October 5th.
In the meanwhile there is cause for immediate concern. Ibra is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. He will miss this week 2 match and will be out for another week at least. Rebic and young Colombo are the only alternatives available at center forward. The latter did a good job starting midweek in the Europa League qualifying tie vs Bodo/Glimt but the former is the likely starter up front. This leaves open Rebic’s more usual spot as a pseudo left winger. Leao has just returned from COVID-19 isolation himself and is not fully ready so newcomer Brahim Diaz will start there. Calhanoglu has been in great form as the central player behind the striker and will start with Saelemaekers as the disappointing Castillejo is going to be on the bench. The two in the 4-2-3-1 are of course normally Kessie and Bennacer but indications are the latter could get rest to give bigger minutes to the newcomer Tonali.
The defense is decimated with Duarte out after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier. Romagnoli and Musacchio are battling injury. This leaves only Gabbia and Kjaer (and possibly Kalulu) as center back options. Calabria has been doing very well recently and will be the right back and Theo the left back. Donnarumma will get the nod in goal.
Early indications are that Crotone could be one of the weaker teams in the Serie A and that the promoted team could struggle on most match days. It remains to be seen whether the Calabrese can surprise.
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Ibra brace from a good jump and header from a pinpoint Theo cross and an emphatic penalty awarded after VAR review. The referee had initially given a free kick just outside the box.
The starting line up as predicted remains stable but owing to many games, Europa League qualifying in midweek among them, coming up subs came fast. All of Saelemaekers, Tonali, Diaz, Duarte and Krunic got game time as the five subs per match game is still in effect in the Serie A.
The first of the subs was at half time as Saelemaekers replaced a disappointing Castillejo. The Belgian showed hunger and was a good fit for the team.
Calhanoglu did not have his best game. Calabria, Kessie did very well as did Donnarumma when called up on. Tonali came on as a sub and showed that he needs time to adapt to his new team. Diaz is a more skilled technical player and has the potential to win a starting spot.
Bologna playing a physical game and were reduced to 10 men in the second half.