Ten-man Milan were made to sweat in their 3-1 win against Parma at Stadio Ennio Tardini after having Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent off for dissent as they tightened their grip on second place in Serie A.

Last week's 1-1 home draw with Sampdoria all but ended the Rossoneri's Scudetto hopes, but they responded with all three points on Saturday to boost their top-four prospects.

Ibrahimovic claimed an impressive assist for Ante Rebic's early opener and played a big part in Franck Kessie's goal that had Milan in control at the midway point.

However, the veteran striker was dismissed on the hour mark for something he said to the referee and Riccardo Gagliolo pulled back a goal soon after, but substitute Rafael Leao settled Milan's nerves with a third goal in added time.

David de Gea's future at Manchester United has been the topic of conversation for months.

The situation has become muddied in recent weeks during the Spaniard's period of paternity leave but De Gea is back in England and playing second fiddle to Dean Henderson.

De Gea has been at Old Trafford since 2011 but United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has started Henderson for seven games in a row.

 

TOP STORY – DE GEA TO EXIT UNITED

De Gea's representatives are already sounding out potential buyers and he is set to leave Manchester United this off-season, according to the Daily Mail.

The 30-year-old is contracted with the Red Devils although no transfer fee has been mentioned yet.

The report claims Real MadridParis Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid are potentially interested clubs.

ROUND-UP

- ESPN reports Barcelona will continue to pursue Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland but a source has said a deal will be "very difficult".

- Tottenham defender Juan Foyth is on loan at Villarreal this season and the Spanish club want to sign him permanently for less than the €15.3million (£13m) option fee, according to Football Insider.

Jerome Boateng will leave Bayern Munich as a free agent at the end of this season with the club opting not to offer him a new contract, reports Kicker.

- Sky Sports are claiming that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is ready to ink a one-year extension with Milan.

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."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke down in tears at a media conference on Monday after revealing his return to the Sweden squad has not been easy for his family.

The Milan striker was recalled by Janne Andersson for this month's World Cup qualifiers against Kosovo and Georgia, plus the friendly with Estonia, paving the way for him to potentially play at Euro 2020.

He celebrated his first call-up in nearly five years by posting a picture on Twitter of himself in a Sweden shirt with the caption: "The return of the God."

Ibrahimovic, who turns 40 in October, is Sweden's all-time leading scorer with 62 international goals, the last of those coming against Denmark in November 2015. 

Speaking at a media conference on Monday, an emotional Ibrahimovic revealed the difficulty of leaving his family to join up with the national team. 

"I had Vincent [his son] here, who was actually crying when I left him. But it's okay...," he said, before breaking off in tears.

"This takes time away from my family and it's not an easy thing. If you have two kids crying every time you leave them, it's a bit hard. I'm human, even though I'm Superman.

"They are very proud."

Ibrahimovic has impressed in Serie A this term with 15 goals in as many matches, and the ex-Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain striker believes he can still make an impact on the international stage.

"I'm just a piece of the puzzle, among many pieces. I'm here to do better, if Janne thinks I can,” he added.

"If you ask me, I'm the best in the world, but that doesn't help me much here. I've promised to decide matches, so now it's up to me!

"I'm just glad I'm here. I'm proud, I'm not demanding anything and I want nothing. I just want to contribute what I can. If Janne felt I cannot contribute or do what I have to do, then we wouldn't be here.

"As of today, I want to keep going as long as I can. I don't want to regret anything when I stop. That thought came into my head after the injury [in 2017].

"You should continue as long as you can with what you love. Football is what I want to do; that's what I love.

"I am who I am. But I'm not here to have my own show."

Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic insisted there is no rush over a new deal at San Siro after inspiring the Scudetto hopefuls in Serie A on Sunday.

Ibrahimovic was on target as Milan kept their title hopes alive with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory at Fiorentina.

The 39-year-old – who has rejuvenated Milan since returning in January 2020 – is out of contract at the end of the season and the evergreen forward is yet to extend his deal.

Asked about his future post-game in Florence, Ibrahimovic told Sky Sport Italia: "I want to see what I do on the pitch and prove that I deserve a renewal!

"It's all under control, we have a good rapport and we'll see what happens. There's no rush."

Ibrahimovic opened the scoring in the ninth minute before two unanswered goals from Erick Pulgar and Frank Ribery put Fiorentina 2-1 ahead six minutes into the second half.

Milan hit back through Brahim Diaz and Hakan Calhanoglu to move within six points of leaders and city rivals Inter, who have a game in hand.

Aged 39 years and 169 days, Ibrahimovic became the oldest player in Serie A history to score 15 goals in a single season.

Ibrahimovic is also the first Milan player to score 15-plus goals in his first 15 appearances in a single Serie A season in the three points per win era (since 1994-95), while he is the fifth foreigner to do so since 1994-95.

"No, let's not talk about my age! I feel like Benjamin Button, the more time goes on, the more I feel young," said Ibrahimovic, who has 17 goals across all competitions this season.

Milan returned to winning ways following their Europa League last-16 exit at the hands of Manchester United on Thursday, and Ibrahimovic – who is back in the Sweden national team after retiring in 2016 – added: "After a defeat and going out of the Europa League, now we have the Scudetto to fight for. A comeback like this was very important.

"We had spirit, mentality, we were 2-1 down, but we wanted to win at all costs. We showed the character of this team and we must continue like this.

"I am taking on my responsibility to help this team any way I can, on and off the field. The team reacted well, this is an intense period of the season and now some have a break. Some don't."

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.

Milan kept alive their faint hopes of Serie A title glory as Hakan Calhanoglu's fine strike sealed a pulsating 3-2 win over Fiorentina on Sunday. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put them ahead after nine minutes to become the oldest player to reach 15 goals in a single Serie A season, aged 39 years and 169 days, but Erick Pulgar restored parity soon after.

Fiorentina took the lead shortly after the break thanks to a cool finish from Franck Ribery, yet Milan powered back thanks to Brahim Diaz and Calhanoglu's winner 19 minutes from full-time. 

The result means Milan move to within six points of leaders Inter, whose game against Sassuolo this weekend was called off after a COVID-19 outbreak at the club.

Fikayo Tomori cleared Martin Caceres' header off the line after five minutes as the hosts started brightly, but it was Milan who struck first. 

Simon Kjaer's clipped ball over the top found Ibrahimovic and the Sweden international struck past an exposed Bartlomiej Dragowski. 

That lead was cancelled out after 17 minutes, though, when Pulgar whipped a free-kick into Gianluigi Donnarumma's top-right corner from 20 yards. 

Both sides struck the crossbar before half-time, German Pezzella denied after an inventive flick from Valentin Eysseric's corner, while Ibrahimovic clipped against the frame of the goal after being played in by Calhanoglu.

La Viola went ahead six minutes after the restart, Ribery stroking home his second top-flight goal of the season from 15 yards after he had been teed up by Dusan Vlahovic.

The Rossoneri drew level in the 57th minute, however, when Diaz reacted quickest to poke home Kjaer's knockdown from a corner. 

Ibrahimovic struck the post with a cross before Calhanoglu slotted into substitute goalkeeper Pietro Terracciano's bottom-left corner from just inside the penalty area to ensure neighbours Inter cannot relax just yet.

 

 

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."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic declined to discuss his Milan future following the club's Europa League exit to Manchester United on Thursday.

Ibrahimovic came off the bench in the 65th minute but could not inspire Milan to victory – the Rossoneri losing 1-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate against United.

The 39-year-old has been a key figure for Milan this term, netting 16 goals, including 14 in the Serie A to help the Italian giants sit second in the standings and nine points adrift of city rivals Inter.

Ibrahimovic, who turns 40 in October, is out of contract at the end of the season and has previously declined to offer any insight into his plans beyond the 2020-21 campaign.

"If we get into the Champions League, that is great too, but the objective is to win a trophy," Ibrahimovic told Sky Sport Italia post-game.

"I can't say anything about next season, all I know is that I'm here at the moment."

Ibrahimovic, who has returned to the Sweden squad ahead of the rescheduled 2020 having retired in 2016, felt Milan did not deserve to be knocked out by former club United.

"There is great disappointment, because we did very well over the two legs, we made one mistake and conceded a goal," said Ibrahimovic, who spent two years at Old Trafford before joining LA Galaxy in 2018.

"We should've made more of our chances. We didn't deserve to go out today, but this is football. You learn from the negative moments and use them to grow. We go forward and the season is not over.

"We have to come back stronger in Serie A, learn from our errors and keep improving. I want to play to win something, we are second and must continue like this to try and win the Scudetto."

Milan return to Serie A action on Sunday, travelling to Fiorentina.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic insists he is deserving of his place in the Sweden squad, even if he is no longer the same player he was when last representing his national side in 2016.

The Milan striker was recalled by Janne Andersson for this month's World Cup qualifiers against Kosovo and Georgia, plus the friendly with Estonia, paving the way for him to potentially play at Euro 2020.

He celebrated his first call-up in nearly five years by posting a picture on Twitter of himself in a Sweden shirt with the caption: "The return of the God."

Ibrahimovic, who turns 40 in October, is Sweden's all-time leading scorer with 62 international goals, the last of those coming against Denmark in November 2015. 

And having also impressed in Serie A this term with 14 goals in as many matches, the ex-Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain striker believes he can still make an impact.

"I don't want to be considered and called up for what I did before, but for what I can give now," he told the Swedish Football Association's official YouTube channel.

"I can't be the player I was five, 10, 15 or 20 yeas ago. Now, I have a completely different physique and a completely different game.

"But I keep a very high level. You don't have to worry. I'm not on the squad list because my name is Zlatan and I'm Ibrahimovic.

"It's because of what I add to the squad and what I have achieved. I think I deserve it."

Andersson previously ruled out a recall for Ibrahimovic, but his stance changed following a "great conversation" with the 116-cap ace in November.

Asked about those discussions with Andersson, Ibrahimovic said: "It was very positive. We examined everything and drew a line on everything that is the past. 

"We spoke with respect among ourselves. We were able to talk to each other.

"I recognise that mentality in myself. When you're a footballer at a certain level and you've the chance to represent your country it's the greatest joy there is to be able to do so. 

"It is with pride and honour that I will wear the national team jersey."

Ibrahimovic returned to Italian football in December 2019 after a two-season spell in MLS with LA Galaxy and has scored 27 goals in 41 games in all competitions.

Twenty-four of those goals have come in 32 Serie A appearances since returning to San Siro, a tally bettered only by Romelu Lukaku (30 goals in 45 games), Ciro Immobile (31 goals in 44 games) and Cristiano Ronaldo (44 goals in 42 games).

Sweden's players are due to gather on Monday ahead of their home qualifier against Georgia on March 25.

There was not the gulf some might have anticipated at Old Trafford last week as Manchester United welcomed an injury-hit Milan side.

Four days on from a superb win at rivals Manchester City, United came within two minutes of another big result and a 1-0 lead to take to San Siro, but it was an advantage they scarcely deserved.

A moment of ingenuity from Amad Diallo, heading his first United goal from an excellent Bruno Fernandes pass, had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men in front.

At the other end, without Theo Hernandez, Hakan Calhanoglu and, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milan repeatedly threatened but lacked the same quality. They had 15 attempts - worth just 1.0 expected non-penalty goals (xG) - and only scored with the last of them, when Simon Kjaer's close-range header evaded the clutches of Dean Henderson.

That away goal sets up an intriguing second leg in which United must now score, although they might have put this Europa League last-16 tie beyond Milan prior to Kjaer's equaliser.

As the Rossoneri fashioned only one 'big chance', from which Opta would expect them to score, United had two from just seven shots. Harry Maguire somehow hit the post and Daniel James stabbed wide, chances that contributed heavily to a superior xG total of 1.4.

Those misses may well prove costly when the tie continues at San Siro on Thursday.

Hernandez and Calhanoglu returned to the Milan XI against Napoli on Sunday and are set to be joined against United by the team's talisman.

In the week his return to the international stage for Sweden at Euro 2020 was confirmed, Ibrahimovic will enjoy another reunion, fit to play some part against his former club.

"His return is important," head coach Stefano Pioli said of Ibrahimovic, who has been out since February with a thigh injury. "He will not be able to have 90 minutes in his legs and tomorrow we will see what to do."

United were hanging on against short-handed opponents, restricted to just 41.2 per cent of the possession in the final 15 minutes, 36.4 per cent of which played out in the home side's own third. It was an encounter that should give Milan huge confidence now Hernandez, Calhanoglu and Ibrahimovic are available.

For all their exciting build-up play, the final pass was missing in Manchester. That cutting edge is returning in Milan.

Among Serie A defenders this season, Hernandez ranks joint-third for goals (five), joint-fourth for assists (six) and fourth for chances created (45) in all competitions. He is seventh across all players in the division for expected assists from open play (xG - 3.9) in league action.

Hakan Calhanoglu's numbers are even more impressive. He has created 99 chances in all competitions this term, second only to opposite number Fernandes (107) across Europe's 'top five' leagues.

Having failed to handle Kjaer and Co. from set-pieces last week, United have reason to fear Calhanoglu's delivery. No player can top the 51 opportunities he has forged from set plays. Five of his 10 assists have come from such scenarios.

Crucially, too, of course, Calhanoglu will have a 39-year-old Swede to look for, a focal point also absent last time out.

Rafael Leao played up front for 90 minutes and attempted only a single shot, having four touches in the United box. Ibrahimovic this season averages 4.8 shots and 8.5 touches in the opposition area per 90 minutes.

His xG rate is the highest in Serie A among those to play 500 minutes or more, at 0.8 per 90, and he usually takes those chances, too. With 16 goals from 80 attempts in all competitions, he scores one in five.

Maguire and James were wasteful in the first leg; it seems unlikely Ibrahimovic, always one for the big stage, will be similarly so.

If Milan can dictate the play again this week, they have the attacking talent to settle this tie.

Marcus Rashford believes there is a common winning mentality shared by Bruno Fernandes and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – something Manchester United must channel if they are to get back to winning silverware. 

Ibrahimovic is in line to return from an abductor injury when Milan host his former club in the Europa League on Thursday, with the round-of-16 tie all square at 1-1. 

The veteran forward, whose surprise return to international football with Sweden was confirmed this week, joined United on a free transfer in 2016 and was a talismanic figure during his first season in England. 

Across all competitions, Ibrahimovic scored 28 goals - including a brace in United's 3-2 EFL Cup final win over Southampton. 

The Red Devils also lifted the Europa League in that season under Jose Mourinho although by the time of their final triumph over Ajax, Ibrahimovic was sidelined by a serious knee injury. 

He returned to action ahead of schedule but departed to LA Galaxy midway through the following campaign. 

United now frequently look to Portugal midfielder Fernandes for inspiration. 

The former Sporting CP star has scored 35 goals – the most of any Premier League player in all competitions since his United debut on February 1 last year – and provided 21 assists in 65 appearances for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side. 

"Yeah, you could say so," Rashford told reporters when asked whether Ibrahimovic and Fernandes were similar.

"Mentally they're both just winners. They want to win games, win trophies. 

"That's the atmosphere and the culture at this club. We need to start doing it now, winning trophies and taking steps in that direction. 

"The game against Milan is another opportunity for us to get one step closer. 

"Ever since we unfortunately got knocked out of the Champions League the focus has been to win the Europa League. We're not going to be happy with anything less than that." 

Longevity in the sport comparable to Ibrahimovic is something a long way away for the 23-year-old Rashford. 

The home leg against Milan was the first of United's games this season that the England international sat out after a minor injury he sustained during the derby victory over Manchester City, while he is also managing a shoulder complaint. 

Nevertheless, Rashford dismissed any concerns over burnout. 

"I know my body and I know what I can do physically," he said, with his availability an ongoing boost to Solskjaer after Edinson Cavani suffered a reaction in the final training session before the trip to Italy, forcing him to pull out of the travelling party. 

"I take one game at a time. It's the life of a footballer – we can rest when we retire. 

"I recover from games and injuries quite well, so I have no doubts or fears on that. 

"To be honest, I just focus on the next game at hand. That's how I deal with it. My focus is just on being available for games." 

Another player from the United production line that yielded Rashford, Teden Mengi, has signed a contract extension until June 2024. 

Mengi is currently on loan at Wayne Rooney's Derby County. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in Milan's squad to face Manchester United but Stefano Pioli is yet to determine his involvement and admitted "he does not have 90 minutes in his legs".

Sweden great Ibrahimovic, who on Tuesday confirmed he is to come out of international retirement, suffered a thigh injury in the 2-1 Serie A win at Roma on February 28 and has not featured since.

It meant Ibrahimovic missed the Rossoneri's Europa League last-16 first-leg tie against his former club at Old Trafford last week, in which Milan secured a useful away goal in a 1-1 draw.

However, Ibrahimovic has trained for an injury-hit Milan this week and is in line to play a part in a crucial second leg at San Siro.

Ismael Bennacer is also back involved but head coach Pioli still has several other issues to contend with.

"Ibra and Bennacer are recovered, they are important for us and they are among the squad," Pioli said.

"For the others, [Davide] Calabria, [Rafael] Leao, [Alessio] Romagnoli and [Ante] Rebic, we have to wait for tomorrow morning. We'll take a few more hours to decide.

"His [Ibrahimovic's] return is important, he will not be able to have 90 minutes in his legs and tomorrow we will see what to do."

Ibrahimovic has 16 goals across all competitions this season and in United faces a team with who he enjoyed EFL Cup and Europa League success under Jose Mourinho – although the latter final he missed out on due to a serious knee injury.

United now have Ibrahimovic's former Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Edinson Cavani among their ranks, a player who claimed the Swede's status as the club's all-time leading scorer.

Asked which striker is better, Pioli diplomatically replied: "Ibra is a champion. I have never coached Cavani, he is a great player, but I hold on to Ibra."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been called up by Sweden for the World Cup qualifiers against Kosovo and Georgia, paving the way for him to play at Euro 2020 this year.

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."

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