Alasdair Mackenzie Date:1st November 2021 at 2:09pm
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STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome) – AC Milan’s Serie A title credentials can’t be ignored anymore – if anyone out there was still doubting them.

After all, this was supposed to be a tricky period for them.

The injuries have piled up recently, with Theo Hernandez and Brahim Diaz contracting COVID-19 and the likes of Mike Maignan, Alessandro Florenzi, Pietro Pellegri, Junior Messias and Ante Rebic in the treatment room.

They’re also in the midst of a relentless run of seven games in three weeks leading up to the November international break. But it’s starting to feel like whatever challenge you throw at Stefano Pioli’s side, they will stand up to it.

The Stadio Olimpico was in raucous spirits on Sunday, with an electric atmosphere building hours before kick-off and continuing throughout an absorbing, incident-packed game.

Jose Mourinho was left furious by the officiating after Milan were awarded a debatable penalty before the Giallorossi were denied one of their own late on when Simon Kjaer caught Lorenzo Pellegrini in the box.

Milan did ride their luck towards the end, but they nevertheless stood firm for most of the final half-hour they spent with ten men after Theo Hernandez’s second yellow, conceding to Stephan El Shaarawy only in the final moments of the match.

It’s still too soon to call this a two-horse Scudetto race, with Inter breathing down joint-leaders Napoli and Milan’s necks. But the Rossoneri have already answered questions that their Neapolitan rivals are yet to.

For example, how they would cope in the absence of big players.

Very well it turns out, having lost the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Olivier Giroud, Maignan, Hernandez, Daiz and Rebic in stretches this season to injury, while picking up 31 points from a possible 33.

Napoli, meanwhile, have been able to count on their strongest side most weeks in Serie A and when they were without top scorer Victor Osimhen and captain Lorenzo Insigne against Salernitana on Sunday, they struggled despite getting the 1-0 win.

Questions have already been raised about how they will cope without Osimhen, Andre Zambo Anguissa and Kalidou Koulibaly – the spine of their team – when the Africa Cup of Nations comes around in January. Luciano Spalletti may well have a trick up his sleeve to cope admirably in their absence, but that remains an unknown.

Another question was how they would stand up in the big games.

Milan have already played four of their fellow top-seven sides, registering three wins and a draw against Roma, Atalanta, Juventus, and Lazio.

The Partenopei have so far faced only Juve and Roma, beating the Old Lady but drawing with the latter. In the space of less than a month between 21 November and 19 December, they will face Inter, Lazio, Atalanta, and Milan.

We have, of course, been here before. Milan led the Serie A standings until February last season before losing steam in the run-in.

But perhaps that experience could help them a year on, with the team looking closer-knit than ever before and being two years further into its development than Spalletti’s Napoli.

One of the key questions when it comes to their title aspirations is likely to be how they fare in the Champions League.

Pioli’s side lost their opening three group games and face elimination if they lost to Porto this week at San Siro.

Should that happen, though, they don’t have to look far to find a silver lining. Inter’s early elimination from Europe last season undoubtedly helped them maintain a laser-like focus on claiming the league title.

Nobody in red and black would want to admit it, given their glorious continental history, but the same thing happening to them this time around would likely work in their favour when it comes to the Scudetto race.

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