Milan technical director Paolo Maldini has revealed Zlatan Ibrahimovic is "very close" to signing a contract extension, while Gianluigi Donnarumma has also been urged to stay at the club by head coach Stefano Pioli.

Ibrahimovic has helped to rejuvenate Milan since returning to San Siro in January 2020 on an initial six-month deal that was extended by a year ahead of the 2020-21 campaign.

The 39-year-old is due to become a free agent when his latest deal expires at the end of June.

Reports in Italy suggest the evergreen striker is happy to remain with Milan for another year, however, and Maldini has provided a positive update on the contract talks.

"There are only small details missing and therefore we are very close to the renewal," he told Sky Sport Italia.

Ibrahimovic has 25 goals in 35 Serie A appearances since the start of 2020 - only Cristiano Ronaldo (46), Ciro Immobile (33), Romelu Lukaku (32) and Luis Muriel (26) have found the net more often across this period.

Meanwhile, his scoring rate of 108.2 minutes per goal is bettered only by Muriel (58.2) and Ronaldo (84.5) among players to have scored at least five times.

The former Manchester United striker registered his seventh league assist since rejoining in Saturday's 3-1 win over Parma, although he was later sent off for dissent - the sixth red card he has received in his Serie A career.

It somewhat marred what should have been a special occasion for Ibrahimovic, who brought up his 300th career victory in Europe's 'top five' leagues - 170 of those in Serie A - thanks to his team-mates seeing the job through at Estadio Ennio Tardini.

Gianluigi Donnarumma made four saves against Parma, including an impressive quickfire double stop early in the second half to deny Andrea Conti and Graziano Pelle, highlighting his importance to the side.

The Italy international is another who could leave San Siro as a free agent in a few months, but Pioli is hopeful the club's undisputed first-choice goalkeeper will commit to fresh terms.

"I would advise Gigio to stay at Milan because it is a top club and we are building something here," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"I call my players fighters who haven't won yet, but are training to win trophies."

Hakan Calhanoglu completes the trio of Milan players with uncertain futures as he reaches the end of his contract, with the attacking midfielder reportedly holding out for a longer deal than the club are prepared to offer.

Asked for an update on the contract situations, Maldini added: "These are choices everyone has to make. I am not here to judge, I am here to do what is best for the club.

"I also know that you need two parties to be happy in order to strike a deal."

Milan, who strengthened their grip on second place with a club-record 13th away Serie A win of the season, also have the option of turning Fikayo Tomori's loan move from Chelsea into a permanent deal.

Tomori has impressed since joining in January and leads Milan defenders in blocks per 90 minutes (1.1) in Serie A this term, while the centre-back completed 93 per cent of his passes against Parma.

"He has made a wonderful impact and settled in so quickly," Pioli said. "He has other characteristics of pace and of playing out from the back that can certainly improve us as a team. 

"He is a player who is certainly giving us a lot and the intention is to keep him."

Milan boss Stefano Pioli praised the determination of his players to see out the win against Parma following the dismissal of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has denied insulting referee Fabio Maresca.

The Rossoneri were cruising in Saturday's Serie A clash thanks to first-half goals from Ante Rebic and Franck Kessie, only for Ibrahimovic - who played a part in both goals - to be sent off for dissent with an hour played.

Riccardo Gagliolo pulled a goal back for Parma six minutes later, but Milan survived a few nervy moments and added a late third at Estadio Ennio Tardini through substitute Rafael Leao.

Referee Maresca, who sent off Inter boss Antonio Conte in January, reached straight for his red card after Ibrahimovic had said something following the awarding of a free-kick to Parma.

It is the sixth time the striker has been dismissed in Serie A since his debut in the competition in 2004-05 - the joint-most for a forward alongside Francesco Totti, Goran Pandev, Domenico Berardi and Mauricio Pinilla - and Pioli has shed light on what was said.

"I was focused on the match," he told Sky Sport Italia. "Zlatan told me that he argued with the referee and that the discussion went on, but he told me that he had not offended the referee.

"The discussion took place and the referee soon reached this decision."

When asked by Sky Sport Italia if he had any idea what Ibrahimovic said, Pioli added: "He told me he said to the referee, 'You really don't care what I tell you?'"

Parma attempted 308 passes in the second half to 10-man Milan's 119 and had double the number of attempts on target to their opponents' two after the interval.

But Leao's strike at the end of a swift counter led by Diogo Dalot ensured Milan came away with a 13th away league win of the season - a club record in a single top-flight campaign.

Milan's 16 away wins this season in all competitions is the joint-most they have managed in a single campaign, meanwhile, alongside 1992-93 and 2004-05.

Pioli is pleased with the way his side reacted to Ibrahimovic's red card but cannot explain why his team have performed better on their travels this campaign.

"The positive is that my team managed to get the victory with great determination today," he said.

"Parma are tough to play, we messed things up ourselves at one stage, but the important thing was to win.

"The statistics show we do better away from home. It's strange and we are evaluating the reasons, but the games are quite similar when playing behind closed doors.".

Milan are back to within eight points of leaders Inter, but of more significance to Pioli is the seven-point gap to fifth-placed Napoli, who like each of the teams around the Rossoneri have a game in hand.

"We want to take Milan back into the Champions League. We've got strong competition from Juventus, Atalanta, Napoli, Lazio and Roma, so we have to take it one game at a time and keep going," Pioli said.

"These are all teams capable of winning eight or nine in a row, so we can take absolutely nothing for granted. Maybe we wasted too much time and energy thinking about the future or other situations. 

"If you think too much about the game in a month’s time, you won't focus enough on the one that is coming up.

"We need to get back to the points average we had at the start of the season, but we can only do that if we take it one game at a time."

Milan coach Stefano Pioli said there was little to be happy about after watching his side draw 1-1 with 10-man Sampdoria.

Jens Hauge came off the bench to score an 87th-minute equaliser and rescue a point for the Rossoneri on Saturday.

Fabio Quagliarella had put Samp ahead with a brilliant first-time finish following a loose pass from Theo Hernandez, barely two minutes before Adrien Silva was sent off for a second bookable offence.

It was not until Hauge's composed finish - Milan's first meaningful shot on target - that Pioli's men seemed to find any spark in attack, but they nearly snatched a scarcely deserved victory, Hakan Calhanoglu having a shot saved by Emil Audero and Franck Kessie striking the post in injury time.

"We didn't deserve to win this game, even though we could have when Kessie hit the woodwork," Pioli told Milan TV.

"We weren't precise enough in our play or our choices. We had the chance to make better choices and be more precise, but we needed to play with more precision and tempo.

"Our approach to the game wasn't right. If you don't come into a match with determination and concentration, they tend to become more complicated and difficult. This was a complicated match for us.

"Sampdoria played exactly as they had in the reverse fixture. They stopped us moving the ball and taking up positions. In Florence, we managed to attack with more depth and players; today we couldn't because we lacked the tempo and movement off the ball. That favoured a well-positioned defence.

"There is very little I'm happy with, to be honest. The performance should have been different because the conditions were right to play with more intensity, generosity and quality. Having failed to do so must make us disappointed and angry."

The result means Milan are five points behind city rivals Inter at the top of the table, having played twice more than the Nerazzurri and Juventus in third.

Milan's home form has been largely responsible for their failure to keep pace with the leaders. They have now gone six games without a win at San Siro for the first time since December 2013, and they started the match with the biggest negative difference between points picked up at home (22) and away (37) across all of Europe's top-five leagues.

"We must focus immediately on the next match," Pioli said. "There are nine left and we're yet to reach our objective. We knew it wouldn't be easy to reach it, so now we need to show we can bounce back well."

Stefano Pioli feels qualifying for the Champions League could "change everything" for Milan – particularly when it comes to retaining three key members of his first-team squad.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all out of contract at the end of the season, while the Serie A club also face a decision over whether to sign on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori on a permanent deal.

However, ahead of the resumption of domestic duties after the international games in March, Pioli made clear the focus for everyone is on finishing the campaign strongly.

Milan sit second in the table and despite their form tailing off in 2021 – they have lost five times in the league since the turn of the year, having gone unbeaten in the competition in the first half of the season – they have a glorious opportunity to finish in the top four.

"In the eyes of Ibra, Calhanoglu and Donnarumma I see serenity," Pioli told the media about the trio on Friday.

"Their future is now for us - it would change everything for us to go to the Champions League. I see a lot of concentration and attention."

Tomori had made 12 appearances in all competitions since his arrival from Chelsea in the mid-season transfer window, with the temporary deal including a purchase option.

"We are very satisfied with how he has started, he is a smiling boy, he gives us important characteristics," Pioli said of the centre-back. "We must continue to do well without thinking about the future."

Milan are in early action on Saturday, taking on Sampdoria at San Siro.

The Rossoneri have failed to win in any of their last five home games in all competitions, a run that included a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United that ended their involvement in the Europa League.

Catching Serie A leaders Inter - who sit six points clear and have a game in hand - may be difficult but Pioli has set a points target for his players to work towards in the closing months.

"We have always taken responsibility with great conviction and confidence," he said.

"There comes a decisive moment - everything we have done so far is to be here right now. We want to get to the end of the season without regrets.

"Ten games are a lot and there are still many points to play for, 75 could be the right threshold to reach the Champions League but it is difficult to make calculations.

"The fight will be very tough, we have to think about the next game."

Stefano Pioli says Milan "scraped the bottom of the barrel" as they came from behind to seal a dramatic 3-2 Serie A win over Fiorentina on Sunday. 

Hakan Calhanoglu struck 18 minutes from full-time to move the Rossoneri to within six points of leaders Inter, who have a game in hand after their clash with Sassuolo this weekend was called off after a COVID-19 outbreak at the club.

The result meant Milan equalled their record of 12 away wins in a single top-flight season and ended a run of three games across all competitions without a win. 

That included a Europa League last-16 defeat to Manchester United, and Pioli acknowledged his side had to dig deep to bounce back from that setback.

"This was the most difficult game because we were coming off the disappointment of the Europa League," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"We had been playing every three days for many months and knew we had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for the remaining drops of energy to get it done."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had earlier put Milan ahead to become the oldest player to reach 15 goals in a single Serie A season, aged 39 years and 169 days, and the striker insisted afterwards they are still very much in the title race.

Pioli agreed with the veteran Swede and said Milan will do everything they can to reign in neighbours Inter. 

"Ibra is right to talk about the Scudetto because we were up there most of the season," he added.

"We're not that far away now and we have the quality to play every single game for a victory. Whether we achieve it is another matter, but we can certainly try.

"Naturally, we started the season with very different objectives, as we were aiming to be in the top four. 

"Now we are there, we want it to be a positive campaign right to the end. I've always said there will be four very happy teams at the end of the season and three who won't be."

Pioli also highlighted the contribution of Ismael Bennacer after he was introduced for Sandro Tonali shortly before the hour mark. 

The Algeria international completed 30 of his 31 attempted passes and enjoyed a pass completion rate in the opposition half of 95.2 per cent. 

"I would agree that although Tonali and [Soualiho] Meite are doing well, Isma has some specific characteristics that work really well with our system," Pioli said. 

"He'll go on international duty now and hopefully get some minutes in his legs so he'll make a big impact in the final push of the season."

Milan are next in action at home to Sampdoria on April 3.

Stefano Pioli is hopeful Zlatan Ibrahimovic can help get Milan's campaign back on track after confirming the striker will start Sunday's Serie A clash with Fiorentina. 

Ibrahimovic returned from a thigh injury with 25 minutes from the bench in Thursday's 1-0 loss to Manchester United in the Europa League. 

He was unable to mark his return to action with a goal against his former club but has 16 for the season overall, 14 of those coming in the same number of league appearances. 

Milan have struggled for goals in the 39-year-old's absence, scoring four times in their last five games in a run that includes back-to-back blanks in defeats to Napoli and United. 

Indeed, after scoring in 38 consecutive league games, Milan have failed to score in four of their last nine, losing each of the four matches in which they did not find the net. 

Pioli is therefore glad to have Ibrahimovic, who was this week recalled to the Sweden squad after a near-five-year absence, back available for Sunday's trip to Fiorentina.

"Zlatan took advantage of his minutes on Thursday to improve his condition and will start from the first minute tomorrow," Pioli said at a pre-match news conference on Saturday. 

"I still don't know if he has 90 minutes in his legs, but his presence is important for us and he will make a big difference." 

Milan went down 2-1 on aggregate to United - Paul Pogba's strike in the second leg at San Siro ultimately proving the difference - and are left battling in just one competition between now and the end of the season. 

The Rossoneri lost 1-0 to Napoli last time out in Serie A and have won just two of their last six league games, placing them nine points behind leaders Inter. 

Juventus are a point further back with a game in hand, meanwhile, but Pioli is not throwing in the title towel yet with 11 matches still to play. 

Asked if it bothers him that many have ruled Milan out of the Scudetto race, Pioli said: "Who has said that? Maybe I should hang up some newspaper headlines in the locker room? 

"Being eliminated by United is something we regret, but we come out of the game even more aware of our qualities and that little details can make all the difference." 

Sunday's opponents Fiorentina ended a three-game winless run with a 4-1 victory at Benevento last weekend to move up to 14th. 

Cesare Prandelli's side have drawn three of their last four home league games with Milan and Pioli is anticipating a tough test in Florence.

"We're aiming for the top and must try to win every match. But I think tomorrow might be the most complicated of them all," said Pioli, who both played for and previously managed La Viola. 

"Fiorentina are in good shape, and we are coming off a very tiring run of games. I am sure we'll step up a gear after the international break." 

He added: "I experienced a great deal in Florence as a player and then a coach, then of course the tragedy of what happened to Davide Astori leaves its mark.  

"It can never be a normal match. Florence and Fiorentina are more than opponents. Last year, the welcome I received when I returned there filled me with joy." 

Ibrahimovic's return is a big positive for Milan, but they remain without fellow attackers Mario Mandzukic and Rafael Leao, while Ante Rebic is serving a suspension. 

"We knew there could be difficulties with such a packed schedule and we've so far played more competitive games than anyone else," Pioli said of his side's recent injury woes. 

"I feel that the team has overcome the difficult moment, as recent performances have been strong and we only lost due to minor incidents.  

"There are some justifications for the number of injuries, whereas in some cases we missed something and that mustn't happen again."

Manchester United will go all guns blazing into a pivotal week in their season as they pursue silverware, says Nemanja Matic.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side head to Milan for the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie on Thursday, with an FA Cup quarter-final against Leicester City at the weekend.

With the Premier League title surely heading across Manchester to City's Etihad Stadium, United's hopes of success hinge on how they fare over these two crunch clashes.

A 1-1 draw at Old Trafford left their European fate hanging in the balance, but Matic insists they will look to get on the front foot at San Siro.

"We are coming to the end of the season so the quarter-finals and semi-finals are waiting for us," Matic told United's official website.

"We have to show our character, our quality, and we have to show that we are ready to win some titles.

"We will play our football because we are not a team that only defends. We always want to score more goals. I think we will play our football the same way we are always trying. 

"We train every day and we will see. We are ready to compete and we have 90 minutes to show our quality."

Speaking about the challenge facing them against Stefano Pioli's side, Matic underlined his respect for the Serie A high-flyers and revealed he was looking forward to playing at San Siro.

"Now we know more about them. We know the way they play. We have to be wary that they are a top team," he said.

"They play good football, they have a good coach and it's going to be an interesting game. It's going to be hard for us again, but we are confident and we will try to win the game.

"I never had the opportunity to play at the San Siro, this is my first time, so I am looking forward to that. 

"It's an iconic stadium as everyone knows and we are happy that we can go there and compete with them again."

Stefano Pioli says it is understandable Milan are struggling to cope with a crippling injury list after losing further ground in the Serie A title race.

Milan fell to a 1-0 loss at home to Napoli on Sunday through Matteo Politano's strike early in the second half, the Inter loanee's fourth goal in his past eight league games - as many as he managed in his first 17 appearances of the campaign.

The defeat leaves Pioli's men nine points behind leaders Inter, having themselves been at the summit just a month ago.

Milan were again without striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Napoli, as well as Mario Mandzukic, while Ante Rebic and Hakan Calhanoglu have also spent time on the sidelines.

That told as the Rossoneri failed to find a way past David Ospina from their five shots on target, though Pioli pointed out fellow heavyweights Inter and Juventus would also struggle if they were without their best players.

"When you are missing that many players, it does make a difference, especially when they are players who also bring experience and leadership," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"We had to play many games without a real centre-forward, so considering all of that, the team deserves praise for all they've been able to do in the circumstances.

"Try to imagine Inter without [Romelu] Lukaku, Lautaro [Martinez] or [Alexis] Sanchez; maybe Juventus without [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Alvaro] Morata or [Federico] Chiesa.

"We had more than half the season without Zlatan, while Rebic and Calhanoglu were also injured for long periods.

"We showed all week that this is not just a strong team, but a special one. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough tonight.

"We should've either been more courageous or sat back more, but tonight we tended to be somewhere in-between and were caught in no man's land."

Milan have now won just two of their past six league matches and are only six points better off than fifth-placed Napoli, who also have a game in hand to play.

And with the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie with Manchester United to come on Thursday, three days before a trip to Fiorentina, Pioli accepts fatigue is now playing a big part.

"It was a very tough and tiring week. I saw a performance that was sufficient, but that's not enough," he said.

"We returned from Manchester at 3am on Friday morning. It's obvious the Europa League is more stressful and damaging than the Champions League, especially when we started in September.

"Having said that, we are Milan and would never want to be without that European presence. We weren't expecting to be in second place, but now that we are here, we want to keep hold of it.

"Inter have the momentum - they really started to step on the gas after their Champions League exclusion and it allowed them a full week to prepare for every game.

"We are not looking ahead or over our shoulders; we just stay focused on our path."

Napoli, previously without an away win in four league outings, are now unbeaten in their past six league encounters with Milan at San Siro since December 2014.

The home side's misery was compounded late on when, shortly after Theo Hernandez had a strong penalty shout rejected, substitute Ante Rebic was dismissed for dissent.

Despite now being closer to fifth place than first, however, midfielder Sandro Tonali insists Milan are still looking up the table rather than down.

"I don't think there is fear, otherwise we'd lose every game," he said. "We are here and must continue to aim high and not give up now."

"This is not the game we prepared - it was not what we intended to do. Napoli closed down all the spaces and we didn't create enough scoring opportunities.

"The ones we did create with Rafa Leao were not converted and then Napoli scored their first real chance."

Stefano Pioli hailed his "extraordinary" Milan players after they secured a last-gasp 1-1 draw at Manchester United in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie on Thursday.

United had looked like taking a slender advantage into next week's second leg at San Siro when teenage substitute Amad Diallo scored after 50 minutes in Manchester. 

Milan defender Simon Kjaer had other ideas, though, heading home his first goal in 18 European games deep into stoppage time.

It was no less than they deserved, with the Serie A side carving out 15 shots to the hosts' seven. 

The result might have stretched Milan's winless run against English sides in European competition to eight games, but head coach Pioli was delighted with the Rossoneri's ability to grind out a late equaliser and believes they deserved even more from the game. 

"The team played with personality," Pioli told Sky Sport Italia. "We suffered in the difficult moments. We know they have quality, but this performance must boost our self-confidence.

"When we were drawn with Manchester United I thought they were the right opponent for us.

"We are working to improve and try to win again. We want to take Milan where we belong and these are the games where you can improve.

"We want to go all the way through and to do so we have to beat these teams. Today's result is positive, but we have another tough game ahead. The job is not done. They are a great team.

"I am satisfied. I keep repeating to my players that I am not training a regular group. This is an extraordinary group, under any aspect.

"When I see the lads give their soul to get a good result, I can only be happy. It's probably a result we would have accepted before the game. After it, I can say we may deserve something more, but it's a good result.

"The team's spirit was great, we wanted to dominate the game and give our best. We must have a high level of application to play as we do.

"We've been playing one game every four days since September, but these guys never give up. We must continue, it's a crucial part of the season."

Rafael Leao saw a fifth-minute effort ruled out for offside before a wonderful Franck Kessie volley was chalked off six minutes later after a VAR check spotted the midfielder had handled the ball.

Pioli, though, said Kessie was adamant there was no such infringement. 

"That goal would have given us more strength, especially on a mental level," the Milan boss added. "Franck is convinced he didn't touch the ball with his hand, but the referee thought otherwise."

Milan – second in the league standings – host Napoli in Serie A on Sunday before the reverse fixture against United on Thursday.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Stefano Pioli have proved critics wrong to earn the right to be at Manchester United and Milan, Massimo Taibi says.

United host the Rossoneri on Thursday in the first leg of the Europa League last 16 in what will be their 11th competitive meeting but the first outside the European Cup or Champions League.

Since they last faced one another in the Champions League last 16 11 years ago, when United won 7-2 on aggregate, each club has fallen far from their previous positions at the top of English and Italian football.

Milan's last Scudetto triumph came in 2011, while United have not won the Premier League since Alex Ferguson's final season in charge in 2012-13.

There have been signs of recovery under Solskjaer and Pioli, however. United are second in the league this term, 11 points behind leaders Manchester City after their 2-0 derby win, while Milan are above champions Juventus in Serie A and only six points behind leaders Inter.

Taibi enjoyed only brief spells as a keeper at each club, with high-profile mistakes leading to rather perfunctory exits, but he went on to make more than 550 club appearances in Italy in a respectable career.

The 51-year-old therefore knows only too well the way the Red Devils and Rossoneri can be magnets for criticism, and he thinks Pioli and Solskjaer deserve immense credit for the work they have done in restoring respectability at two of the world's grandest clubs.

Taibi told Stats Perform News: "If these two managers have managed Milan and United for a while now, it is because they deserve it.

"In football, there are no presents, let alone at such big clubs who are always in the eye of the critics' storm. They very well deserve the clubs they are managing now. They started off in sceptical environments but they proved them wrong with results.

"I spent a few months with Solskjaer and I was impressed how easy it was for him to score, even coming from the bench. I remember they called him the 'angel-faced killer' because he looked like a decent kid but in front of goal was ruthless like a killer.

"I remember he was one of the many people in Manchester who tried to help me settle. Because he was a superb player, a champion who managed to carve out his shining space among Andy Cole, Dwight York and Teddy Sheringham and ended up scoring the winning goal in 1999 final versus Bayern Munich.

"A man who started humble and became great as a player and a manager."

Milan will be without a host of key names for the visit to Old Trafford, including former United striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Taibi thinks their true strength lies in their collective endeavour.

He believes Solskjaer has fostered a similar ethos at United, with star names such as Bruno Fernandes lifting a squad of Europa League quality to a higher standing.

"Milan's strength is the collective Pioli managed to create, just like United. In these two squads that are Europa League level, I dare say, there are some individuals who are added value and lift the quality to Champions League level.

"At Milan, you have Ibrahimovic despite being 39 years old, or [Gianluigi] Donnarumma, real world-class players who would play in any club aiming at winning the Champions League.

"The same goes for my ex-colleague, because I played with Solskjaer, who can boast Bruno Fernandes and the great striker [Marcus Rashford] or [David] De Gea, a keeper I like a lot.

"Solskjaer, just like Milan, managed to create a good group with some individual talent that brings that extra bit of quality you sometimes need.

"They are both having great seasons in their respective leagues. United have just won their derby, which is always a nerve-racking game, although I guess City are destined to win the title... just like Inter, I reckon.

"Both Milan and United have started the season to become more solid, to secure Champions League berths, and to me, they are working very well.

Despite some infamous errors against Southampton and Chelsea in his short-lived United career, Taibi still holds the club close to his heart – and even still fits into his old training shirt.

"Of course, watching this match is special for me. I spent two years at Milan and only some months at United but it is not down to length of time, it is about feelings and memories that settled in.

"I still feel a link to Milan and even to United, although I didn't stay long. As you know, you just called me while I was training. And I was training with this 1998 United training kit, the only one big size I have now for my fat belly. All the other shirts don't fit anymore!"

Stefano Pioli insists Milan are in confident mood ahead of their Europa League last-16 tie with Manchester United, despite having to contend with a growing injury list.

Milan are without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mario Mandzukic, Ismael Bennacer, Hakan Calhanoglu, Theo Hernandez and Ante Rebic for Thursday's first leg.

The Italian side travel to Old Trafford with just two strikers in their squad – Rafael Leao and academy product Riccardo Tonin, who has yet to feature at senior level.

However, Milan were also far from full strength for their 2-0 league win at Hellas Verona last weekend and Pioli is hoping to build confidence from that victory.

"We have a choice to make: either let ourselves be overwhelmed by the negative waves or ride the positive ones of confidence," he said. 

"We will choose to ride it and I'm sure the team will put in a good performance against a difficult opponent.

"Winning our last game gives us momentum. When we play at our best we do well and against United we will be prepared.

"We have to play this type of game to our fullest ability. A positive result would give us momentum in view of the return match."

Milan are meeting United for the 11th time in a competitive match, though all 10 previous encounters have come in either the European Cup or Champions League.

The Rossoneri have not competed in Europe's flagship competition since 2013-14, while English heavyweights United exited the tournament at the group stage.

Both teams are second in their domestic leagues and United enter the match on the back of an impressive 2-0 win at Manchester City last time out.

But Pioli does not believe the winners of the two-legged affair should necessarily be considered the favourites to go all the way and lift the trophy.

"I don't think so. There are many other teams that have a chance to win it," he said. "But of course it is a prestigious match with a lot of history and past.

"We are working hard to get back to winning trophies. As [technical director Paolo] Maldini said, it takes a couple of years of continued presence in the Champions League.

"We need to tackle this path with enthusiasm and conviction."

Thursday's clash will mark a first return to Old Trafford for Diogo Dalot since joining Milan on loan last October.

The full-back struggled for appearances at United but has been used 20 times in all competitions by Pioli, including eight outings in the Europa League.

"We are happy with his performance and his growth," Pioli said. "As far as his future is concerned, we are too focused on the league and on the Europa League for that.

"Besides, it is not me who makes a decision about his future."

Milan have been eliminated on six of the last seven occasions in which they have reached the last 16 of a major European competition.

However, they have got the better of United in four of their previous five knockout ties in European competition, with no side eliminating the Red Devils more often.

Stefano Pioli felt Milan showed they have the belief in their ability to sustain a challenge for trophies in a 2-0 Serie A win at Hellas Verona on Sunday.

Rade Krunic and Diogo Dalot scored superb first Serie A goals to move second-placed Milan three points behind leaders Inter.

Krunic opened the scoring with a sublime first-half free-kick and Dalot doubled their lead with a classy strike early in the second half.

Rossoneri head coach Pioli was proud of the way his side extended their unbeaten run to four matches ahead of a Europa League round-of-16 first-leg tie at Manchester United on Thursday.

He told Sky Sport Italia. "We have shown that we have belief. It was a difficult match."

Pioli added: "We are not Martians, we are a young team of the which everyone was proud of and which everyone now asks for continuity.

"But we know how to overcome our defects, we know our strength and merits."

Theo Hernandez and Ante Rebic were added to Milan's injury list following the draw with Udinese, but Pioli says they will not complain about absentees, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic also sidelined.

He said: "We were good at not feeling sorry for ourselves, we must be balanced in evaluating our performance, even when we win."

Stefano Pioli did not see any shortage of commitment from his Milan side in the 1-1 Serie A draw with Udinese, but conceded the quality was lacking.

Franck Kessie scored a 97th-minute penalty with the last kick of Wednesday's encounter at San Siro, as Milan's title hopes took another hit – Inter now have the chance to move six points clear should they beat Parma on Thursday.

Milan's equaliser came courtesy of a remarkable error from Jens Stryger Larsen, who inexplicably handled in the area as Udinese looked to see out what would have been just a second away win in their last eight league matches on the road.

The Rossoneri were without their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is set to miss up to three weeks with a thigh injury, and Milan head coach Pioli acknowledged his team were missing the "characteristics" the 39-year-old brings, while also bemoaning Mario Mandzukic's absence.

"We wanted to win, it's a shame," Pioli told DAZN. "We knew that it would be difficult against a team with everyone behind the ball.

"I saw determination and a lack of clarity. There was a lack of quality and rhythm, not anger and determination.

"We start again as always with the next match. Each game has its own story. On Sunday we found an opponent who wanted to play, Udinese instead play this [defensive] type of game.

"Today we lacked the right characteristics to face this type of match, we lacked the two real strikers in the squad. [Rafael] Leao and [Ante] Rebic have other characteristics.

"Now we must try to resume our run. A half positive result, let's think about the next game."

Leao and Rebic both struggled to assert themselves against Udinese's three-man defence.

Rebic – the second-highest scorer in Serie A in the back half of the season (since January 29), behind Inter's Romelu Lukaku – failed to have an attempt on goal or create a chance, while Leao only tested Juan Musso with a tame flick late in the first half.

Pioli did not look to single out his attackers, however, though he acknowledged Leao in particular has a lot to add to his game.

"I always expect a lot from my players," Pioli said. "Rafa has characteristics more suited for attacking spaces.

"When he finds a closed defence, he still doesn't have the shrewdness to anticipate the defender."

Ibrahimovic was watching on from close to the bench and was seen looking disgruntled at Milan's display.

"We didn't come out of this game satisfied, he's like everyone else," Pioli explained.

The good news for Milan is that, in Kessie, they have a midfielder on 10 goals in all competitions this season, though nine of them have come from the penalty spot.

Kessie's cool finish, timed at 96:20 was the latest Milan have scored in Serie A since 2017, while the Ivory Coast international has now netted 25 league goals in total for the Rossoneri – matching Robinho's tally.

Ante Rebic has been passed fit to partner Rafael Leao up front but it remains to be seen if Alessio Romagnoli will start when injury-hit Milan face Udinese in Serie A on Wednesday.

Rebic scored the winner in the Rossoneri's 2-1 victory over Roma on Sunday before being withdrawn due to injury.

Milan head coach Pioli says the Croatia international will be ready to start against Udinese and Leao will take his place in the team after coming off the bench at the weekend to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Asked about Rebic's fitness, Pioli said: "He's fine, he can start against Udinese. On Sunday he played a great match, his characteristics are important for us. There is no doubt about his qualities."

Pioli said following the much-needed win over Roma that he suspected Ibrahimovic, who is appearing at the Sanremo music festival, was weary rather than wounded and the talismanic striker will not face Luca Gotti's men.

Milan are taking no risks over Ibrahimovic's fitness, with a Europa League showdown against his former club Manchester United to come next week.

Hakan Calhanoglu will also miss the encounter with Udinese, which second-placed Milan will start knowing a victory would leave them just a point behind leaders Inter, while Ismael Bennacer and Mario Mandzukic are expected to return next week.

Leao has not scored since January 9, but Pioli has full faith in the 21-year-old.

"Up until a few days ago we talked about an improved Leao and inside the game," he said. "I'm satisfied with Leao, tomorrow he will start from the beginning.

"From a mental point of view he is ready, he has grown a lot."

Captain Romagnoli was left out of the starting line-up at Stadio Olimpico and Pioli refused to be drawn on whether the defender will be restored to the side.

"The matches are all important but also different, for me to be able to choose is great luck," Pioli said. "Only tomorrow morning we will try the starting eleven, we will choose the most suitable team and the best players."

Milan technical director Paolo Maldini said the club are weighing up whether to sign Fikayo Tomori permanently from Premier League giants Chelsea.

Tomori has impressed since arriving on loan in January, the 23-year-old's impact highlighted by his starting berth at the expense of captain Alessio Romagnoli in Milan's 2-1 win over Roma on Sunday.

Milan have an option to buy Tomori at the end of the season – the fee reportedly in the region of £25million (€28m).

Asked about Tomori's future prior to Milan's Serie A victory away to Roma, Maldini told Sky Sport Italia: "Tomori is a good talent and we have a buy-option clause.

"The price is very high. AC Milan will decide at the end of this season and we will discuss it with Chelsea's board."

"Fortunately, I work for a club that has an effect on players. When AC Milan call, the players always listen," Maldini added.

"Fikayo is a player with particular characteristics, pace and intensity, so we thought he could be a good reinforcement for this second half of the season.

"Naturally, Romagnoli isn't happy, no player is when he doesn't play. However, Milan are 17 points better off than last season, we're second despite having more commitments and many injuries, so squad rotation is necessary and Alessio has played pretty much every game."

Tomori partnered Simon Kjaer in Milan's defence as second-placed Milan stayed within four points of leaders Inter after 24 matches.

Franck Kessie and Ante Rebic scored for Milan, while Tomori had an early goal ruled out for offside.

Tomori had a team-high six clearances and two blocks, while he attempted the most passes (60) with an accuracy of 88.3 per cent at the heart of Milan's defence.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli hailed Englishman Tomori post-match: "I expected this performance, because Tomori played a derby a couple of days after joining us, so he's been at this level from the start.

"I still believe it's the collective that allows the individual to perform and all together we won a very important match.

"Roma have players with a lot of pace and quality in attack, so we knew that we were taking a risk, but we also recovered more balls in the opposition half – finally – and were therefore more dangerous in attack.

"It's about weighing up the costs and benefits of an approach, and this approach is giving us more benefits."

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