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.

Franck Kessie had touched the ball only five times before Milan fell behind to Inter at San Siro.

The midfielder proclaimed beforehand that the Rossoneri had no reason to be fearful going into the 174th Milan derby in Serie A history. Far from it. "We'll win the derby and return to the top of the table," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "We're a group that has grown through difficulty. We believe in the Scudetto."

That pre-match optimism vanished after those first five minutes on Sunday. So, too, did the sense that this Milan really do believe they can end a 10-year wait to win Serie A. With one swing of Romelu Lukaku's left foot – his crossing remains a hugely underappreciated skill – Lautaro Martinez had an easy header and Inter had it all in their hands: the momentum, the match, and the title race.

Inter now lead the standings by four points, with 14 matches to go, after this 3-0 rout. While that hardly seems an unbridgeable gap, the Nerazzurri have for some time looked the strongest contenders: since exiting European competition in December, they have failed to win just five of 17 games in all competitions, while they have only lost once in the league since Milan won the reverse fixture last October.

Sporting director Piero Ausilio has assembled an experienced squad at great expense, with each arrival tailored to Antonio Conte's exacting standards. It took time, and no little public squabbling, but the Inter boss has finally crafted the sort of team that was expected of him: a powerful, purring results machine.

They were in charge from the moment Martinez planted his header past Gianluigi Donnarumma. They tightened up, harried Hakan Calhanoglu, and broke at speed, and it could easily have been 2-0 or 3-0 before half-time. With a little under half an hour left, it was, as Martinez's poacher's finish and Lukaku's awesome run and strike killed the game stone dead.

In many respects, this result should not have come as a shock. Inter are further down the road towards a restoration of past glories, while Milan have been overachieving for the past year. That they came into this contest just a point off the lead was mostly down to a spectacular run that had long surpassed sustainability. They lost twice in Serie A in the whole of 2020, saw a 27-game unbeaten run only ended by champions Juventus last month and reached the halfway stage of the season with 43 points, their best tally in 60 years.

If it's a surprise that Milan have lost four league games already in 2021, it's only because Stefano Pioli has spent much of the past year defying expectations, imbuing players with the sort of confidence that led to Kessie's unfortunate prediction.

Things could have been different here had it not been for a five-minute masterclass from Samir Handanovic, who twice saved implausibly from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then tipped a Sandro Tonali strike over just after the interval. But for the 36-year-old's heroics, Milan's early second-half pressure may have given Inter a game to chase, instead of giving them the freedom of the final third to pick through on the counter.

So it was that Lukaku's nerve-settling goal was cheered by the Inter bench almost as loudly as a trophy win. The smiles and high-fives followed; Christian Eriksen was positively beaming as he went off after 78 minutes, his transformation from invisible to undroppable now complete. It showed what Inter know to be true: Serie A is their sole remaining commitment this season and it's firmly under their control.

Milan midfielder Franck Kessie has declared the Rossoneri will win Sunday's derby against Serie A leaders Inter.

The 174th Milan derby in Serie A history will be the first since April 2011 that sees the two teams occupying the top two spots in the table.

That game ended in a 3-0 win for Milan that helped to propel them to their most recent Scudetto triumph, but Inter have the form heading into the latest contest: they have won four of the previous five encounters and are a point clear at the top of the table after winning 12 of their previous 15 league games.

Stefano Pioli's side have lost three times in seven Serie A matches, as many as in their previous 41, and this year have already surpassed the two league losses they suffered in the whole of 2020.

Still, Kessie is in no doubt about their chances of moving back to the top with a victory at San Siro.

"There are still a lot of games left. And even if it seems there are lots of difficulties, we'll win the derby and return to the top of the table," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"We're a group that has grown through difficulty. We believe in the Scudetto. Everyone knows that, in Italy, you can beat the leaders and lose against the side bottom of the table. You don't have to be worried."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 10 times in Milan derbies, with eight of those goals coming for Milan, including three in their two meetings this season.

The veteran striker netted twice in the 2-1 win in October in the reverse league fixture and opened the scoring in the Coppa Italia quarter-final last month, but he was then sent off in a game Milan went on to lose 2-1.

Kessie, though, is backing his team-mate to step up and take a penalty against his old club if the chance comes his way.

"If there's a penalty, Ibra will take it. And he'll be happy with the result," Kessie said.

"From a technical point of view, he is unsurpassed. As a team-mate, he always gives you something more. You don't often find champions with this personality."

Kessie has developed into a key part of Pioli's plans. The 24-year-old has played 31 times in all competitions in 2020-21 and won a combined 150 tackles and duels, the most of any midfielder at the club.

Kessie's leadership on the pitch has helped him to earn the nickname of 'the president' – although he revealed there is another side to that story.

He explained: "I once arrived at Milanello and parked in [former CEO Ivan] Gazidis' spot. They told me I couldn't park there, and I replied, 'What's the problem? I'm the new CEO of Milan'."

Manchester City are counting the cost of the current financial climate and have slashed the budget assigned to lure Lionel Messi away from Barcelona.

The 33-year-old Barca captain could depart his boyhood team in the 2021 off-season after publicly trying, and failing, to force an exit from the Catalan club last August.

A reunion with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City has been the subject of much speculation, but Messi may have to compromise to make the move happen as the Premier League leaders' bargaining power has taken a hit.

 

TOP STORY – CITY FORCED TO LOWER MESSI CONTRACT OFFER

City had already tabled a five-year contract designed to tempt Messi to switch LaLiga for the Premier League – but the numbers have now changed, reports The Sun.

A package worth £600million (€693m) had reportedly been prepared in order to tie the six-time Ballon d'Or winner down for the rest of his career, should he opt to leave Barca at the end of the season.

But The Sun says City will now not match the terms set in August, and the offer has dropped to £430million (€496m), potentially opening the door for Paris Saint-Germain to swoop.

ROUND-UP

Chelsea have already made contact with winger Jonas Hofmann, according to Bild, as the Borussia Monchengladbach exodus threatens to begin following the news that coach Marco Rose is leaving for Borussia Dortmund next season. Hofmann played for Thomas Tuchel at Dortmund.

Milan midfielder Franck Kessie is also in Tuchel's sights, and the Blues could offer Fikayo Tomori to the Serie A giants on a permanent deal as part of a player-plus-cash exchange, reports Il Milanista.

- Everton loanee Moise Kean has netted 14 goals in 25 games for PSG and his parent club will not part with the Italy international for any less than £60m, says Fabrizio Romano, while Juventus want to bring the striker back to Turin, according to Le 10 Sport.

 

Everton 'will demand £70m for Moise Kean transfer' after impressing at PSG https://t.co/3PvjhBQ1rf

— Sun Sport (@SunSport) February 18, 2021

- 'If there are opportunities, I will have a look at them,' is what Wilfried Zaha told the Financial Times Business of Football Summit, reports The Sun. The Crystal Palace winger has been previously linked with Arsenal and Tottenham.

- Gunners midfielder Lucas Torreira, currently on the fringes while on loan at Atletico Madrid, is close to securing a move to Fiorentina for next season, claims Gazzetta Dello Sport.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed out on reaching 500 goals in his club career as Milan returned to winning ways on Saturday, securing a hard-fought 2-1 triumph at Bologna.  

Having taken his tally to 499 before getting sent off in the midweek Coppa Italia exit to Inter, Ibrahimovic failed to convert a first-half penalty awarded for a foul on Rafael Leao.  

However, Ante Rebic scored from the rebound as the Rossoneri bounced back from successive losses - including last weekend’s 3-0 humbling at home to Atalanta - to remain the pacesetters in the Serie A title race.  

Franck Kessie succeeded where Ibrahimovic failed in the second half to double the lead, punishing Adama Soumaoro's handball as he scored from 12 yards.  

Yet Milan did not have it all their own way, Andrea Poli converting fellow substitute Andreas Skov Olsen's cut-back cross to finally beat Gianluigi Donnarumma, who had made fine one-on-one saves from Nicola Sansone and Nicolas Dominguez before the break.  

Lukasz Skorupski was equally impressive in goal for Bologna, including producing a stunning double save to deny Ibrahimovic twice in a hurry in the 23rd minute.  

The Swede was frustrated again by the keeper from the spot, though there was nothing Skorupski could do when Rebic reacted quickly to steer in the rebound for just his second goal of the season. 

Bologna's hopes of a comeback were dealt a blow when Soumaoro's jump to cut out a long pass saw the ball strike him on both arms, Kessie punishing the defender as he took over penalty duties.

Poli's finish – slammed high into the net from close range in the 81st minute - set up a tense finish, yet Milan - who set a new club record by scoring for a 20th successive away league game – held on to claim all three points.

Milan bounced back from their midweek defeat to Juventus by overcoming Torino 2-0 at San Siro to take a four-point lead at the top of Serie A. 

Stefano Pioli's team suffered their first loss of the season last time out but produced a response worthy of champions, turning in an accomplished display on Saturday. 

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic making a return off the bench following his recovery from injury, Rafael Leao opened the scoring before Franck Kessie's penalty made it 2-0. 

Torino had a penalty of their own overturned in the second half but Andrea Belotti's poor header to end a rare attack summed up a disappointing performance, meaning their long wait for a league win at Milan goes on.

The hosts managed four attempts by the 17th minute and their dominance told when Theo Hernandez found Brahim Diaz, whose slick first-time pass played in Leao to dispatch a finish which the watching Ibrahimovic would have been proud of.

Torino's frustration was compounded seven minutes later when Diaz drew a hefty, last-ditch tackle from Belotti.

Referee Fabio Maresca pointed to the spot and despite checking with VAR, found no reason to change his decision. Kessie calmly sent Salvatore Sirigu the wrong way.

The crossbar prevented Ricardo Rodriguez pulling one back against his former club with a superb free-kick – Torino's first shot – while Sirigu made a brilliant stop to deny Kessie on the stroke of half-time.

Torino thought they had a lifeline when Simone Verdi went down under pressure from Sandro Tonali but, after initially giving the penalty, referee Maresca overturned his decision following a check. Tonali came off worse from the collision too, the former Brescia midfielder having to be taken off on a stretcher.

Belotti wasted his first sight of goal by heading tamely at Gianluigi Donnarumma, who pulled off a fantastic 90th-minute stop to keep out Jacopo Segre's deflected attempt to stem any danger of a late Torino comeback.

Milan returned to the Serie A summit with a 2-0 win at Benevento as Stefano Pioli's side survived playing with 10 men for almost an hour.

With rivals Inter having gone top after a 6-2 thrashing of Crotone earlier on Sunday, the Rossoneri responded with a gritty victory at Stadio Ciro Vigorito.

Franck Kessie scored a first-half penalty but Sandro Tonali was dismissed before the interval to make it a potentially uncomfortable evening for the visitors.

However, Pioli's men dug deep and Rafael Leao produced a moment of magic four minutes into the second half, with Gianluca Caprari's missed spot-kick robbing Benevento of a golden chance to get back into the match.

With champions Juventus up next, Milan have a chance to send out a signal to the rest of the division that this really could be their year.

Brahim Diaz flashed an early long-range shot over the crossbar as the visitors, unbeaten in 14 on the road, signalled their intent.

Benevento were the architects of their own downfall as Milan took the lead after 15 minutes, a defensive mix-up ending with Alessandro Tuia felling Ante Rebic in the box, with Kessie coolly converting the subsequent spot-kick.

Roberto Insigne came within inches of pulling the hosts level but saw his fine strike crack the inside of Gianluigi Donnarumma's left-hand upright.

Filippo Inzaghi, who played at San Siro for over 10 years, saw his Benevento side handed a boost when Tonali was shown a red card for a careless lunge on Artur Ionita.

The home side tried to force the issue as Gianluca Caprari and Gaetano Letizia both fired off dangerous efforts, but Milan made it to the break with their lead intact. 

Pioli's charges earned the breathing space they so desperately craved courtesy of a fine goal from Leao, who beat Lorenzo Montipo to Rebic's throughball and turned smartly before lifting a pinpoint finish over the stranded goalkeeper.

Benevento's frustrations deepened when Caprari dragged a woeful penalty wide after Rade Krunic had clumsily fouled him in the area, with Milan almost adding a late third when Kessie's low shot hit the inside of the post and rolled across the line.

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