Inter have completed the signing of Kristjan Asllani on loan from Empoli with an obligation to buy.

The 20-year-old has signed a contract until June 2027 and will cost Inter €14million, with €4m of that identified as the fee for the initial loan.

A central midfielder, Asllani came through Empoli's youth system and enjoyed a breakout season in 2021-22, featuring 23 times in Serie A as the Tuscans comfortably avoided relegation.

He scored his only goal of the season in a 4-2 defeat to Inter on May 6.

While the youngster is unlikely to be a regular starter initially – rather a back-up to Marcelo Brozovic – he will bolster Inter's midfield following the departure of Matias Vecino and expected exit of Stefano Sensi.

Asllani was present at the club on Wednesday, when Romelu Lukaku completed his loan return from Chelsea, and the Belgium striker was central to a slightly bizarre announcement video.

Speaking to club owner Steven Zhang in the clip, Lukaku said: "I spoke to this guy, the new guy, Asllani... I like his mentality. You'll be surprised. He's only 20, but he speaks like a 27-year-old."

As part of the deal, promising Uruguayan striker Martin Satriano is expected to join Empoli on loan for the upcoming season.

Inter head coach Simone Inzaghi says there is no "special recipe for winning finals" ahead of the Coppa Italia decider against Juventus on Wednesday.

The 46-year-old boss guided Lazio to the Coppa Italia title in 2018-19, along with winning the Supercoppa in 2017 and 2019.

Inzaghi also led the Nerazzurri to the Supercoppa crown earlier this season, prompting hopes his excellent record in cup finals bodes well for Inter.

"We're already very proud to be here for such an important game," Inzaghi told reporters.

"I don't think there are any special recipes for winning finals. You need to run hard, be determined and focused.

"We'll have to give 120 per cent to lift our second trophy of the season."

The Coppa Italia final comes amid Inter's title chase, sitting second two points behind Milan with two games to play.

Inzaghi admitted re-focusing their energy away from the league to the cup would bring a unique challenge.

"That’s something we’ve spoken about," he said. "It probably would've been better to play the final at the end of the Serie A campaign, but the structure was set out at the start of the year.

"I’ve been involved in finals as a player and as a coach, and I don’t think it’s a problem to play just before the end of the league season."

Inzaghi has collected a record points tally in his first season in charge in the league, with the side firmly in contention for the Scudetto, having won the Supercoppa.

But the common view on the success of Inzaghi's first campaign may be determined by their final few games, as they chase both the Serie A and Coppa titles.

"I owe everything to the team, as the players have always backed me," Inzaghi said.

"It's been a brilliant season. It's match number 50 now. We played wonderful football for seven or eight months, but then suffered a dip and dropped some points, but if I think back to how we played against Liverpool and the way we’ve reached the final, I have no bad words to say about the team."

Simone Inzaghi never doubted his Inter side had what it took to fight back from two goals down to beat Empoli 4-2 in Friday's thrilling Serie A contest.

Inter were two goals down at San Siro after Andrea Pinamonti, who is registered to the reigning Italian champions, and Kristjan Asllani found the net inside the first 28 minutes.

That had Empoli well on course for a first away win in 10 away league matches, only for Milan youth product Simone Romagnoli to put into his own net and give Inter a lifeline.

Lautaro Martinez then blasted home a couple of first-time finishes either side of half-time, before substitute Alexis Sanchez made certain of the victory in added time.

The win for Inter – their ninth in a row against Empoli in Serie A – moves them one point above Milan, who can reclaim top spot when they travel to Hellas Verona on Sunday.

And despite his side uncharacteristically gifting the visitors two early goals, Inzaghi was ultimately pleased with the response. 

"We've said in the past few days that we must pay attention to Empoli and defend well. But I always knew that the team would have the right reaction," he told DAZN.

"We created chances and took many shots. [Guglielmo] Vicario was very good in goal."

 

Inter registered 37 shots in total – 10 of those on target – which is the most of any side in a single game in Europe's top five leagues this season.

In front of a packed home crowd, Inzaghi felt his side tried too hard to make a fast start and were made to pay by their opponents.

"An experienced team like ours shouldn't concede goals like that, but the feeling is that we wanted to score immediately in front of this crowd," he said.

"I think we set the record today for the number of shots. In the first 25 minutes or so we were too frenzied to take the lead and Empoli put us under pressure.

"But we showed a great reaction and that has to be congratulated."

Inter will have one eye on Milan's trip to Verona on Sunday, but their immediate focus now switches to Wednesday's Coppa Italia final showdown with Juventus.

And with six wins from their past seven games in all competitions, Inzaghi's side will enter that match at Stadio Olimpico with the wind in their sails.

"We'll take a great injection of confidence for what lies ahead," the Inter head coach added. "This team has been going strong since August, moving forward in all competitions.

"This victory against a very organised opponent will only give us confidence."

Lautaro Martinez struck twice as Inter recovered from two goals down to beat Empoli 4-2 in a thrilling contest and climb above fierce rivals Milan at the top of Serie A.

Empoli had failed to win any of their previous nine away league games yet took the lead inside five minutes at San Siro through Andrea Pinamonti, who is on loan from Inter.

Inter were two goals behind when Kristjan Asllani fired in, but Martinez struck after ex-Milan man Simone Romagnoli had put into his own net to level up before half-time.

Martinez completed the comeback in the 64th minute and Alexis Sanchez added a late fourth as Inter moved one point above Milan, who travel to Hellas Verona on Sunday.

Pinamonti slid in to meet Szymon Zurkowski's cross and give Empoli an early lead, the striker proving true to his word by not celebrating the goal.

Asllani had a goal ruled out for an offside infringement but, after Inter had a penalty awarded and then ruled out by VAR, the youngster brilliantly controlled a pass and fired home.

But Romagnoli's own goal when trying to cut out Federico Dimarco's cross gave Inter hope and Martinez guided in a first-time shot five minutes later to wipe out Empoli's lead.

Martinez's second arrived following a sustained spell of Inter pressure, the Argentina striker volleying past Guglielmo Vicario after Riccardo Fiamozzi only half-cleared the ball.

Sanchez then added some gloss to the scoreline in added time when converting a pass from fellow substitute Edin Dzeko.

Luciano Spalletti insisted he must swallow the blame for Napoli's collapse against Empoli that all but ended their Scudetto hopes.

The evergreen Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne fired Spalletti's visitors into a 2-0 lead at Stadio Carlo Castellani before Napoli succumbed to a spectacular comeback.

Liam Henderson pulled one back in the 80th minute before a double from Inter loanee Andrea Pinamonti capped a remarkable turnaround to leave Napoli, who have played a game more, five points behind Serie A leaders Inter.

That made Empoli just the third team in Serie A history to win after trailing by two goals after 79 minutes, after Inter versus Sampdoria in January 2005, and Sampdoria against Sassuolo in November 2016.

It also marked the first time Napoli have lost an Italian top-flight match after leading by two goals since March 1942, a 5-3 reverse against Torino.

Spalletti's side entered the game sitting four points behind second-placed Milan, who were due in action at Lazio later on Sunday, and the head coach believes he should take much of the criticism for Napoli's frail mentality.

He told DAZN after the game: "I can only take note of what happens. Clearly, imagining an end to the game like that was difficult, but when you don't have the right intensity and concentration...

"We made a few too many mistakes, lost the ball too cheaply. Inevitably, the coach has to shoulder much of the blame for the attitude and consistency. The responsibility lies with the coach."

Goalkeeper Alex Meret was largely at fault for Pinamonti's leveller, his lapse in concentration allowing the striker to pounce and equalise, and Spalletti appreciates the error allowed Empoli a way back into the game.

"It depends on what you build day by day, the attitude that is consolidated, being focused, attentive. Something evidently went wrong," the coach added.

"When we talk about an error like that, some fear sets in and the opponents can take advantage. Even if Empoli hadn't won for a while, they played good football. These things can happen in football and it happened.

"It's important for us to keep possession because our characteristics are not suited to a physical contest. Even then, it didn't seem to be a battle to that level to become unsustainable for these players."

Individual mistakes aside, Spalletti reiterated he must take much of the blame for the second-half performance as he brought his own future into question.

"I am responsible for this team, for their attitude, their approach, so I take the consequences for what happens on the field," Spalletti said.

"Much of it has to be my fault. We've been working together for almost a year, there ought to be a mentality and reaction coming from my work with these players.

"We were challenging for the Scudetto, as everyone said, we had the qualities to challenge for the Scudetto, but if the level is this, I cannot avoid being called into question."

Milan coach Stefano Pioli downplayed the importance of his side's 1-0 win over Empoli, insisting there are many twists remaining in the Serie A title race. 

Pierre Kalulu's superb 19th-minute goal was enough to win a tight affair for Milan at San Siro, stretching their unbeaten run to seven league matches.

Kalulu's long-range strike made him Milan's 16th different scorer in this Serie A campaign, with only Fiorentina and Atalanta (both 17) possessing more, as the hosts went five points clear of rivals Inter, although the Nerazzurri have two games in hand.

Pioli was pleased with how his side managed a tense encounter, but he acknowledged there was room for improvement after Milan registered just three shots in a dour second half.

Milan created chances worth just 0.88 expected goals, with Kalulu's winning goal the Rossoneri's 10th from outside the area this season – a tally unbeaten in the top five European leagues.

"Our opponents [in the title race, Inter and Napoli] have to play tomorrow, there are still games to catch up," Pioli told Sky Sport.

"I think it would be much more regular if everyone had played the [same number of] games, then it is clear.

"But today it was a complicated game and we managed it well. We found an opponent who put us in difficulty, but in the defensive phase we conceded very little.

"At the beginning of the second half we lost a few balls, because in my opinion there was too little movement. 

"It is clear that we are always thinking about improving things, but it is equally true that having failed to dominate the game, we didn't risk anything [defensively]. 

"I'm sure that the more we go on, the better we will improve. Now the goals for everyone are maximum, so the effort must certainly be high."

"[Juventus are] inside [the title race]," the 56-year-old said. "Nine games [remaining] are a lot, 27 points are a lot. 

"All the top five are definitely inside [the race]."

Milan moved five points clear at the Serie A summit with a 1-0 win over Empoli, as Pierre Kalulu's stunner settled a cagey match at San Siro.

French defender Kalulu netted a superb first-half opener for the Rossoneri, who restricted Empoli to just one shot in the first 45 minutes during a dominant showing.

Although the visitors improved after the break, they struggled to create clear-cut chances against the title challengers, as Milan took an important three points from a tight affair.

The result gave Stefano Pioli's men breathing space at the top of Serie A, while Empoli remain without a win in 2022.

Milan were denied an early lead when Guglielmo Vicario saved well from Alessandro Florenzi's curling effort, and they again went close when the ball ricocheted off Sandro Tonali and rolled wide.

But the hosts did hit the front on 19 minutes when Kalulu finished brilliantly from the edge of the area, firing home with his left instep after the ball deflected to him.

However, Mike Maignan was forced into two stops within five minutes of the restart, turning Sebastiano Luperto's header around the post before punching Nedim Bajrami's goal-bound corner away.

Two tame Junior Messias shots, both drawing routine saves from Vicario, were the sum of Milan's efforts for much of a dull second half in which chances were at a premium.

However, Milan's solid defensive display was enough to hand them the victory and strengthen their position in one of Europe's closest title races.

 

What does it mean? Rossoneri claim vital win in Scudetto hunt

With rivals Inter travelling to Torino on Sunday, Milan have, at least for the time being, established a five-point lead at the top of Serie A.

The Rossoneri are now unbeaten in seven league games, earning four wins and three draws, as they hit form at the ideal time in the hunt for a first league title since 2011.

They must now hope Inter drop points in their two games in hand.

Landmark goal for coach Pioli

Kalulu's fantastic opener was his first goal of the season and was also a landmark moment for Milan boss Pioli.

The 56-year-old, who is looking for the first league title of his career, became just the seventh coach to see his teams score 600 Serie A goals in the three-points-for-a-win era.

Milan improve record against strugglers

Milan's title challenge has, at times, been held back by an inability to beat lowly opponents in Serie A. This win represented just their third victory in their past seven games against bottom-half teams.

Meanwhile, the result represented a third successive win for the Rossoneri against Empoli, after they only won two of the previous seven head-to-head meetings (four draws and one defeat).

What's next?

The Rossoneri's next Serie A fixture takes them to Cagliari in a week's time, while Empoli will host Verona in league action the following day.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli insisted that his side cannot be "obsessed with the past" as they battle to win Serie A, which no team has "managed to run away".

The Rossoneri climbed back to the summit with a 1-0 victory at fellow title contenders Napoli last time out, but could be leapfrogged by second-placed Inter, who have a game in hand.

Milan next host Empoli, who they have won their past two top-flight meetings against, and Pioli demanded his team take each game as it comes ahead of the clash on Saturday.

However, Pioli's men have won only two of their past six Serie A meetings with sides in the bottom half of the table, drawing their previous two against Salernitana and Udinese.

"We are satisfied, but it was not the final step," Pioli said of the win over Napoli at Friday's pre-match news conference. "The last step is the next game.

"We should not be obsessed with the past, every game is different. We must play with continuity, quality and rhythm to highlight our qualities.

"It's been a strange season. Nobody has managed to run away. I still think that the top five teams can win many games. Serie A is very difficult."

 

When asked if he was concerned about the run of Juventus, who are unbeaten in 14 Serie A games and sit just seven adrift of the leaders, Pioli responded: "I am concerned about Empoli, we saw what happened in the reverse fixture, they created problems for us, so we must play well.

"Players don't need my intervention to know how important tomorrow's game is. The experience of the past was useful, but we should not look back.

"Empoli are a dynamic squad. It's not easy to press them, we need to understand the right moment. Psychologically, we know which problems we'll face, but we are determined.

"Empoli are a team with many solutions up top. They have quality and are really close to reaching their target so compliments to them."

Olivier Giroud was the difference against Napoli, with his eighth league goal separating the two title challengers. The striker will now be aiming to become the third Frenchman in Serie A to score 10-plus goals in a single campaign for Milan, after Jean-Pierre Papin (13 goals in 1992/93) and Jeremy Menez (16 in 2014/15).

Pioli was also boosted by the return of the evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Luciano Spalletti's men and he spoke glowingly of his two veteran forwards.

"I like everything about Giroud, the way he helps the team, how he handles the pressure," he added. "He is a very serene and determined person and it's a pleasure to work with him.

"Zlatan gives a lot to the team in everything he does. He is a smart player. He knows when to attack the space or drop deep. He is feeling happy. Surely he will help us."

Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri hailed the quality that Dusan Vlahovic has brought to the Bianconeri squad after he netted two superb goals in a 3-2 win at Empoli.

Vlahovic netted twice after Moise Kean had opened the scoring for the Old Lady in a win which saw them consolidate fourth place in Serie A, although they had to survive a late onslaught from their lively hosts.

The Serbian striker now has 20 Serie A goals this season, while the victory has given Juventus a six-point cushion over fifth-placed Atalanta, ahead of Gian Piero Gasperini's team's clash with Sampdoria on Monday.

Vlahovic's neat finishes proved the difference in a hard-fought encounter in which Empoli managed 11 attempts to the visitors' 12.

Allegri was keen to praise the in-form striker for the qualities he displayed.

"Vlahovic is an important player, he has character as well as quality," Allegri said. "You could tell straight away this lad has character, wants to win and is eager to learn. 

"He has the kind of characteristics we didn't have in the squad.

"He moved a lot more in this game, didn't just stay central, and that was a big advantage for him and for us."

 

Allegri was also asked how his number seven compared to the man who wore that shirt during his last spell in charge in Turin, two-time Serie A player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.

"I don't think you can compare them," he said. "The previous seven won the Ballon d'Or five times, whereas Vlahovic is at the beginning of his career. 

"A good game isn't enough, [for comparisons with Ronaldo] you need immense mental strength, and he is at the start of his journey."

Vlahovic has now scored two or more goals on nine occasions in Serie A since the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign, equalling Ronaldo's tally of multiple-goal hauls in Italy during the same period.

Allegri also professed himself pleased with the forward options at his disposal, as both Kean and Alvaro Morata recorded goal involvements, but the Bianconeri boss maintained that Juventus are not contenders for the Serie A title.

He added: "Kean struggles with his back to goal and coming back to connect with the midfield, but he does well when wide and attacking the box. Alvaro Morata is the same, he gave a great pass to Vlahovic for the third goal.

"Football is very simple, you just have to put players in roles where they can work to their characteristics.

"We couldn't do that for four or five months, so we had to adapt, but we stayed in range of the top four and now we'll see what happens.

"I remain fully convinced it will take 84 to 85 points minimum to win the Scudetto. Our objective is to finish in the top four and we need to be consistent, because there's Atalanta, Fiorentina, Lazio are coming up too.

"The title will be a battle between those three up there [Milan, Inter, and Napoli]."

Juventus are now unbeaten in their last 13 Serie A games, their longest such run since a 14-match run under Maurizio Sarri between August and December 2019.

Dusan Vlahovic continued his fine form as Juventus boosted their Serie A top-four hopes with a hard-fought 3-2 win over Empoli.

Moise Kean's header and Vlahovic's neat finish came either side of Szymon Zurkowski's scrappy leveller, as Juve established a 2-1 half-time advantage on Saturday.

Vlahovic's sublime lob put Juve two ahead, though Andrea La Mantia's goal produced a nervous ending for the visitors.

Yet Massimiliano Allegri's team stood firm amid late pressure to move six points clear in fourth place.

Danilo and Denis Zakaria both passed up good opportunities in the early exchanges but the visitors broke the deadlock when Kean met Adrien Rabiot's cross, powering a header past Guglielmo Vicario.

Juve suffered an injury blow when the impressive Zakaria limped off, before Empoli levelled as Zurkowski evaded the visitors' statuesque defenders to prod home from a corner.

Juve were not to be denied their half-time lead, however, with the superb Vlahovic turning smartly on Juan Cuadrado's pass before drilling home.

Massimiliano Allegri insisted it is "actually impossible" for Juventus to recover to win the Scudetto as he previewed Saturday's clash with Empoli.

The Bianconeri have enjoyed an upturn in form since struggling at the start of the Serie A campaign, sitting in fourth as they fight with Atalanta for the final Champions League qualification spot.

Juve are also still in Europe's elite competition – their last-16 tie with Villarreal finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg – and the Coppa Italia, where they face Fiorentina in a two-legged semi-final clash across March and April.

Allegri was quick to quash suggestions Juve – who are unbeaten in 12 Serie A games – can still win the Scudetto this season, revealing he may rest either Dusan Vlahovic or Alvaro Morata on Saturday as he eyes success elsewhere.

"Tomorrow, Moise Kean could play. If he does, one of Vlahovic or Alvaro Morata will rest," Allegri said at Friday's pre-match news conference.

"Kean always has chances to score, so I am very calm. We are fighting on all fronts, even if the Scudetto is hard. Actually, impossible.

"We are out of the title race, I think that 85 points will be enough to win the title and we can't reach that. We have a Coppa Italia semi-final against Fiorentina and the Champions League against Villarreal.

"At the moment, it's a good season. Let's see which trophies we can lift, it's not easy to win every year. The important thing is to improve, but we have to do more in some situations."

 

Juve could be 12 points adrift of leaders Milan by the time they are next in action, given Stefano Pioli's men host Udinese on Friday.

Juve have won each of their last four top-flight visits to Empoli and Aurelio Andreazzoli's side are winless in nine Serie A matches, their longest such streak since November 2018, but Allegri is aware of the threat they could pose.

"We lost in the reverse fixture and it's never easy to play at Empoli," he added.

"We need to give continuity to our recent results. We need solid performance and recharge batteries, physically and mentally.

"Empoli have three offensive players, it's difficult to play against them. They have no problems in the table, we know that we must win tomorrow.

"We made many mistakes in Spain and didn't make the most of some opportunities.

"We must understand the right moment to 'kill' the opponents. We were doing well against Villarreal, but then we conceded a goal because we were too naive.

"When you play at a high level, you can't give your opponents the chance to get back in the game."

Allegri will have to do without several key figures as well, with Weston McKennie, Paulo Dybala, Alex Sandro, and Giorgio Chiellini heading a growing list of absentees.

Simone Inzaghi expressed his delight with Inter's reaction as his side came from behind to beat Empoli in the Coppa Italia last 16.

Empoli stunned the Serie A leaders in the second half as substitute Nedim Bajrami cancelled out Alexis Sanchez's opener before the visitors fortuitously took the lead at San Siro when Ionut Radu deflected into his own net.

Andrea Ranocchia levelled things up with a stunning, acrobatic stoppage-time equaliser to send Inter into extra-time in the last 16 of the competition for the fourth time in their last eight outings.

Substitute Stefano Sensi stepped up to deliver the decisive strike after 104 minutes, Inzaghi's side now boasting 20 different scorers this season – more than any other team in Europe's top-five leagues in all competitions.

Despite squandering an initial one-goal lead, Inzaghi was pleased with what he saw from his side as they made the quarter-finals for the 18th time in their last 19 seasons.

"I think we had an excellent first half, where we found the goalkeeper who should be congratulated for two, or three, difficult saves," Inzaghi told Inter TV post-match. 

"In my opinion, we deserved a few more goals, then in the second half we lost clarity, we stretched out. In the spaces, they showed the qualities they have. 

"We went down, we changed players, we changed formation, but the boys gave everything on the pitch, they didn't give up and we go to the quarters with a lot of confidence.

"We suffered, we went under, but I take the big reaction."

Inter return to Serie A action on Saturday when they host Venezia.

Stefano Sensi scored the winner as Inter required extra-time to edge past Empoli 3-2 in the Coppa Italia last 16 on Wednesday.

Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring after just 12 minutes at the San Siro, but Empoli turned things around as substitute Nedim Bajrami equalised before the visitors fortuitously took the lead when Ionut Radu deflected into his own net.

Andrea Ranocchia produced an acrobatic stoppage-time equaliser to send the tie to extra-time and substitute Sensi delivered the decisive strike after 104 minutes. 

Victory meant Simone Inzaghi's Serie A leaders squirmed through to the quarter-finals for the 18th time in 19 seasons.

Inter deservedly took the lead when Sanchez nodded Denzel Dumfries' cross into the bottom-left corner - the forward's second goal in the competition, 4,291 days after his first for Udinese in 2010.

The same pair combined eight minutes later, but Dumfries saw his effort kept out by Jacopo Furlan before a fantastic double save from the Empoli goalkeeper denied Lautaro Martinez.

Ranocchia should have doubled the lead immediately after the interval but wastefully headed over.

Bajrami punished Ranocchia's miss as he placed a left-footed effort into the bottom-right corner after Kristjan Asllani's offload before VAR overturned a penalty decision for a Dumfries handball. 

Empoli went ahead when Radu inadvertently turned into his own net after Patrick Cutrone nodded against the woodwork, though Ranocchia equalised with an audacious volley past Furlan.

Sanchez saw a tap-in ruled out for offside at the end of normal time, but Sensi blasted the winner into the top-left corner from the edge of the area in extra time.

 

What does it mean? Familiar story as Inter need extra-time

Inter enjoyed last-minute success against Juventus in the Supercoppa final last week and required more last-gasp heroics from Ranocchia to keep them in the tie.

The centre-back's equaliser meant four of the Nerazzurri's previous eight last-16 meetings in the competition have gone to extra-time.

Sensi's late strike ensured Inter remain unbeaten against Empoli in 11 games in this competition, the club's longest run against an opponent in the cup without losing, and Inzaghi's side will be among the early favourites to lift the trophy in May.

Brilliant Bajrami

Bajrami almost single-handedly changed Empoli's fortunes after his half-time introduction, scoring the equaliser in a classy attacking display, but his efforts ultimately proved to be in vain.

The substitute created a game-leading four chances despite only playing the second half and extra-time.

Poor Pinamonti

Loanee Andrea Pinamonti was offered the unusual opportunity of starting up top against his parent club Inter but did little to impress.

The striker managed just 13 touches and won none of his five duels before his half-time removal in a timid performance.

What's next?

Inter return to league action on Saturday at home to Venezia, while Empoli host Jose Mourinho's Roma the following day.

Milan coach Stefano Pioli believes the race for the Scudetto is wide open despite Inter finishing 2021 as Serie A's 'Winter champions'.

Inter are four points clear at the top of the table as they bid to retain the title having wrested it from Juventus' grip last season.

Pioli's men took advantage of Napoli's loss at home to Spezia on Wednesday to move into second with a 4-2 win at Empoli.

And, as Serie A heads into its two-week break over the festive period, Pioli sees no reason why Inter cannot be overhauled.

"We won the Winter Champions title last season, but we didn't end up getting the Scudetto, so it's all wide open," Pioli told Sky Sport Italia.

"The objective is to keep improving. We had 66 points the first season, 79 the second, the target is to do better. We reached the midway stage now with one less point than last season, but I continue to believe we can finish with more.

"I keep saying it's a privilege to have high expectations on us, because it means we earned that pressure. I want to thank our fans and wish them a Merry Christmas, because they are supporting us with extraordinary passion. We hope to do even better in 2022."

Milan's victory, which saw Franck Kessie score twice while Alessandro Florenzi and Theo Hernandez were on target, marked a strong response to their 1-0 defeat to Napoli last time out.

"We played against a very difficult opponent, but reacted with character and determination," Pioli said.

"I always want to play better than the opposition, but today the points were the most important thing. We weren't coming off some good results, even if I remain convinced we didn't deserve to lose against Napoli, and needed this boost.

"Now we can rest a little easier and prepare for a tough January."

Milan moved into second in Serie A, taking advantage of a slip-up by Napoli with a 4-2 win at Empoli.

The Rossoneri entered the game having only lost one of their last nine Serie A meetings with Empoli and Franck Kessie's double, sandwiched by Nedim Bajrami's equaliser, put them on course to continue that run.

Despite a spirited effort from the hosts, Milan pulled away in the second half as Alessandro Florenzi's 62nd-minute free-kick and a fine Theo Hernandez strike made sure of the points despite Andrea Pinamonti converting a late penalty after VAR ruled Tiemoue Bakayoko had handled in the area.

With Napoli beaten at home by Spezia, Milan head into a two-week break in second and four points behind arch rivals and defending champions Inter.

Kessie broke the deadlock in the 12th minute, meeting Olivier Giroud's lay-off from Alexis Saelemaekers' cross with a composed finish into the bottom-left corner.

But it was Kessie's failure to clear from a corner that allowed Empoli to level matters six minutes later as Bajrami's effort proved too hot for Mike Maignan to handle.

Maignan got a crucial fingertip to Pinamonti's effort from a tight angle to turn it around the post.

And his intervention was rewarded further when Kessie restored Milan's advantage by firing his near-post strike through the legs of Guglielmo Vicario three minutes before half-time.

Bajrami went agonisingly close to restoring parity three minutes after the restart as he cut onto his right foot only to see his curling effort rattle the crossbar with Maignan beaten.

Milan made the most of that reprieve, taking complete command through Florenzi, who bent a sublime free-kick into the bottom-left corner shortly after the hour mark.

Hernandez added a further flourish when he crashed home on the half-volley seven minutes later, Pinamonti's penalty serving as little more than a consolation as Milan boosted their title hopes in the final game of the year.

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