A 5-0 thrashing by Atalanta and a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Inter were amongst the most recent and painful memories that lingered in the minds of AC Milan fans before football resumed after the shutdown.
Back then, coach Stefano Pioli was five months into his stint, but the improvements he had brought were just partially visible and undermined by character issues that led the team to melt down in the face of difficulty.
Both sides of the coin were evident in Milan’s defeat against their city rivals back in February, when the Rossoneri put on a brave first half performance and took a two goal lead, before a total collapse followed after the interval, allowing Inter to turn the match around far too easily.
It’s hard to say when Pioli had time to fix all this during the enforced break, but his side’s change of attitude has been clear since the game that marked the restart of Italian football, the second leg of a Coppa Italia semi-final in which the Rossoneri held Juventus to a 0-0 draw in Turin despite being a man down after 18 minutes.
The final result meant Milan were out of the competition, but their show of resistance was no coincidence. Even in the following matches, Pioli’s side looked to have developed a new awareness, one that led them to easily dispatch struggling sides like Lecce and Roma as a result of solid and clinical displays.
The Rossoneri had never before shown this kind of consistency and mental strength, which became even clearer when Milan managed to come back from two goals behind to earn a late draw at SPAL, and notably in their stunning 3-0 win over Lazio, when the Rossoneri showcased a confidence that reminded fans of the good old days.
It is worth noting that such improvements came at a particularly difficult time for Stefano Pioli, as the coach has been dealing with endless transfer rumours hinting that his job was on the line. Just like his team has now learnt to do, the former Fiorentina boss was able to stay focused on his task despite such speculation, something which once again highlighted his professionalism and human qualities.
Further confirmation of the fact that Ralf Rangnick will be the new Rossoneri coach came a few days before Tuesday’s clash against Juventus. That alone would have been a justification for a possible poor performance, as the rumours could have affected the motivation of a group of players who will see yet another change at the helm regardless of how their campaign ends.
Instead, the meeting with the Serie A champions and current leaders became the perfect stage to show how Pioli has won his players’ confidence, despite going through much troubled times. This is the only explanation for a side that were capable of pulling off an extraordinary feat at a time when it was particularly hard to find circumstance or ambition which could give Milan such an energy boost.
The willingness to prove Pioli’s detractors wrong pushed the Rossoneri beyond the greatest of hurdles. Whilst it is probably to late for the club to reverse their decision, both the hierarchy and future coach Rangnick must feel grateful for the foundation the current boss has managed to build despite a situation that would have led many others to just give up.
European qualification could arguably be the only tangible legacy of Pioli’s stint, but if could ask the players, they’ll probably confirm that his work has gone much deeper than that.