After slogging their way through the lengthy Europa League qualification process, with some less than vintage performances against Shamrock Rovers, Bodo/Glimt and Rio Ave, an opening group night trip to face Scottish champions Celtic on Thursday evening posed a tricky challenge for AC Milan.
However, in the weeks that have passed since the Rossoneri scraped into the group stages with a 9-8 penalty shootout win over the Rioavistas they have evolved in an almost monumental fashion. The nervous look of a team who always seem to expect the worst has largely disappeared and has been replaced with a new self assured ease.
That new confidence was on full display at Celtic Park as Stefano Pioli’s men controlled the contest from start to finish with a mixture of attacking flair and defensive solidity. Despite taking a two goal lead into the halftime break it was by no means an easy nights work for the Rossoneri as they were bombarded by the Hoops in the second stanza as they chased the game.
That pressure would almost certainly have been to much for the Milan of last season to handle, but the new and improved version took it in their stride. The back line, led by captain Alessio Romagnoli and the much improved Theo Hernandez, were impenetrable as they physically dominated their opponents, whilst Franck Kessie and Sandro Tonali marshalled the midfield with ruthless efficiency.
Tonali was also instrumental in attack as he controlled proceedings and brought a calming influence into the middle of the park when the game began to get hectic, a trait that has largely been missing in Milan since they last lifted the Scudetto in 2011.
The Rossoneri couldn’t have asked for a better start in what is arguably the toughest group in the competition as they face difficult trips to play Lille and Sparta Prague in the coming months. If Pioli’s team can continue to provide the resilience that was on show at Celtic Park they will almost certainly be favourites to top the group and go on to challenge for the title.
Brick Wall Back Line
There has been a marked improvement in the Rossoneri’s back line since the beginning of the 2020/21 season as they have kept a clean sheet in four of their first eight games in all competitions. They found themselves under constant pressure from Celtic in the second half, but never looked like crumbling in open play as they launched themselves into tackles and bullied the Hoops physically in all the key areas.
However, there are still question marks surrounding their concentration levels as they allowed the hosts back into the contest with some lax marking from a corner, although that was the only time over the course of the 90 minutes that they failed to attain perfection.
A Much Improved Hernandez
Despite always possessing the attributes of a world class left back Hernandez has never really provided the consistency of performance that is required at the top level. His work rate has never been in doubt, but his final product and somewhat soft defending on occasion has blighted his performances.
Neither of those problems were evident at Celtic Park as he provided a monumental performance both in attack and defence. It was his lung bursting run and cross that set up Brahim Diaz for the Rossoneri’s second goal and he made a series of bone crunching tackles to repel Celtic attacks at critical stages of the game.
Little General Tonali
All great teams have a general in the middle of the park who dictates the pace of the game, Atalanta have Papu Gomez, Real Madrid have Luka Modric and Milan have Tonali. There were concerns as to how the 20-year-old would cope with making the move to the Rossoneri from Brescia, but he appears to have taken it all in his stride.
He was a constant presence in everything Milan did in attack as he controlled the pace of the game, but more impressive was how he handled his defensive duties alongside Kessie. As the Hoops pushed for an equaliser late in the contest he made several key interceptions and showed that he could physically match bigger opposition in the tackle.
Despite the flair players taking all the plaudits after a game it is usually the hard nosed defensive midfielder who has proved to be his team’s most invaluable asset and Kessie is no different.
Much like Hernandez, Kessie has not always been the most consistent of performers for the Rossoneri, but his recent performances have left no doubt as to how important he is to the team. He marshalled the area between the back line and the midfield with ruthless efficiency on Thursday evening as he broke up almost all of Celtic’s meaningful attacks before they could get going.
The calming influence of Tonali alongside him has also brought out a new side to the 23-year-old who now seems a lot more at ease on the ball knowing that he has support.