MILAN (AP) — Ageing forwards mixed with young players and a coach who had never won anything. AC Milan wasn’t expected to win the scudetto.
Indeed, Stefano Pioli was almost fired and replaced by Ralf Rangnick two years ago, with Milan in advanced negotiations with the German coach before changing its mind.
That turned out to be a smart move as Pioli steered Milan to second spot in Serie A last year and then bettered it this season with a first title in 11 years.
“I also owe thanks to the club for the support that has always allowed us to work in the best way possible, with directors who talk to me always and put their trust in me,” Pioli said after Milan beat Sassuolo 3-0 on Sunday to clinch the title.
Crosstown rival Inter Milan had the best squad on paper but Pioli managed to instil a level of maturity and cohesiveness in his players, as well as fostering a strong team spirit. In the end, the scudetto was secured thanks to the collective effort of his squad rather than reliance on a standout star.
The 56-year-old Pioli managed to get the best out of his players, driving them to unexpected heights and was named Serie A coach of the year.
“I willingly accept the prize of coach of the year but the credit goes to the whole squad,” he said.
Here’s how Pioli steered Milan to its first title since the 2010-2011 season.
With an average age of just over 26 years old, Milan became the youngest squad to win the Serie A title.
That becomes more impressive considering that two of its players — strikers Zlatan Ibrahimović and Olivier Giroud — increase the average age considerably.
Rafael Leão was named Serie A player of the season at the age of 22. He set up set up all three goals for Milan against Sassuolo.
“I’m a different player now, with more maturity, with more confidence and with the responsibility of making the difference,” Leão said Sunday after being presented with his award. “That’s what I did today, what was important was to win the scudetto.”
Fellow 22-year-olds Sandro Tonali and Alexis Saelemaekers were also crucial to Milan’s title win, as were Theo Hernández and Fikayo Tomori, who are both 24.
The youngsters have showed an extraordinary level of maturity and ability to deal with pressure throughout the season.
“The players had a mentality, a strength and an identity that they never gave up,” Pioli said. “It’s a winning mix of youngsters and those who are less young.”
Two experienced forwards, who between them have won nearly everything in club and international soccer, helped that mix.
Milan was 11th in Serie A when it re-signed Ibrahimović at the end of 2019 and many laughed when he said he would help Milan win the title. The 40-year-old Swede has had the last laugh.
“The first day it was one Milan, today it’s another,” Ibrahimović said on Sunday. “Every day I do what I always do, as others have helped me to become the player I am, I tried to help the youngsters.
“I always tried to help on and off the field.”
With Ibrahimović missing large stretches of the season with injuries, it was Olivier Giroud who contributed more on the field.
The 35-year-old Giroud continued his habit of scoring in the crucial matches, with two at Sassuolo on Sunday as well as two against Inter Milan and the only goal in a win at Napoli.
That ended a lengthy wait for him as well as Milan. Giroud has won the World Cup with France and the Champions League with Chelsea, as well as other cup competitions. But his only other league title came with Montpellier in 2012.
However, Ibrahimović also had his part to play in Milan’s win at Sassuolo — despite only coming on for the final 18 minutes — with a rousing speech in the dressing room.
“I fired up the guys, I told them to stay focused, at moments like these you can lose your focus and your heads, because the atmosphere was fantastic,” he said.
“There was just 90 minutes remaining for us to make history, for many it’s revenge because many didn’t believe in them. I was like Braveheart.”
After Milan surprisingly finished second in 2021, it lost two key players on free transfers in Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Çalhanoğlu.
Donnarumma — named the best player of the European Championship — was replaced with goalkeeper Mike Maignan from French league champion Lille.
And while Donnarumma has struggled at times this season at Paris Saint-Germain, Maignan has flourished with crucial saves match after match. Now many fans are saying Milan actually made an improvement in the goalkeeping department.
The 26-year-old Maignan kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in Serie A this season, just as he had done for Lille when he helped the French club end its 10-year wait for the league title.
Milan also signed defender Alessandro Florenzi and bolstered its attack with Brahim Díaz and Giroud, who now appears even more of a bargain at around one million euros.
Milan signed Tomori and Tonali to permanent deals as well in a strong offseason transfer window where it added quality depth for the first time in a decade.
For four months, Inter had been pointing to its postponed match at Bologna as a chance to gain ground in the title race.
Yet, when it was eventually played in April, a goalkeeping blunder saw Bologna win 2-1 as Inter wasted a lead and the chance to move back to the top of the table.
The match was postponed from January due to a coronavirus outbreak within Bologna’s squad and had it been played then the result may well have been different with Bologna losing all three of its matches that month.
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Daniella Matar, The Associated Press