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."

Veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss Milan's Serie A game with Empoli on Wednesday due to a knee injury.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli confirmed the 40-year-old Swedish forward's absence along with Rafael Leao leaving him short of attacking options.

Ibrahimovic has netted seven league goals this term for Milan, who have only managed one point from their past two games, slipping four points behind leaders Inter in the league

"[Leao] won’t be there tomorrow, he’ll be back against Roma. Ibrahimovic won’t be there tomorrow because of an overload on his knee," Pioli told reporters.

Pioli was more positive about captain Alessio Romagnoli's prospects of playing, along with Theo Hernandez after illness amid an injury crisis at the club, without Simon Kjaer, Davide Calabria, Ante Rebic and Pietro Pellegri also out.

"Theo has become more complete, now he does the defensive phase better too," Pioli said.

"He gives us a lot on the attacking side. He’s better, I hope he’ll be in top condition tomorrow."

Pioli added that he paid little attention to the criticism levelled at his side lately, following Sunday's 1-0 home loss to Napoli who leapfrogged them into second spot.

"I read little, but some things are useful to improve," he said. "Against Napoli, Milan played a good match.

"We make mistakes that are not allowing us to get results, clearly we need to do something more. We need more quality."

Pioli added: "When results don’t come it’s right to be less calm, but also more determined.

"We have to think about tomorrow’s game, we want to get back on track after a home defeat. We wanted to score more points in the first half of the season than we did last year. It won’t be possible, but we want the three points tomorrow."

Milan have 39 points after 18 games, but have only collected eight points from their past seven league games.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli claimed his side did not deserve to lose against Napoli, dismissing any suggestion the Rossoneri's fitness levels have dropped.

Napoli headed to San Siro having lost consecutive league games but were ahead inside five minutes when Eljif Elmas managed his first league goal since early November – Napoli scoring their quickest top-flight goal against Milan since November 2012.

Visiting goalkeeper David Ospina was rarely called upon in a somewhat sedate affair, though Franck Kessie saw a stoppage-time finish ruled out by VAR for offside against Olivier Giroud, who was on the floor in the build-up to the midfielder's opportunity.

Napoli held on for back-to-back league clean sheets against Milan for the first time since 2015, as Luciano Spalletti's team leapfrogged Milan to move into second on goal difference, the pair four points back from leaders Inter.

However, Pioli – without a win against Spalletti in nine league meetings – believes his side's performance did not warrant a loss as he refuted suggestions Milan might be flagging in terms of fitness.

"We are not tired, we proved it tonight [Sunday]," Pioli told DAZN. "Yes we can play with more quality, certainly, but we played a game from the point of view of intensity and energy among the best in the league.

"From a physical and willpower point of view, the team were pleasing in every way. We missed the last step.

"But there are the regrets, such as the goal conceded and the balls lost. We played almost always in the Napoli half, we played a real, serious and energetic game. We are lacking a bit of quality at the moment, but the team didn't deserve to lose. The data is very close in victories and defeats, the team had a balanced performance.

"The important numbers that we take into consideration are the acceleration and deceleration; the numbers are more or less those from the start of the season. The coach's eyes are also important, and the team didn't do badly tonight."

 

Pioli's team would have been heading into the final Serie A matchday of 2021, when they visit Empoli on Wednesday, in second place if Kessie's late strike had not been ruled out.

The Milan head coach, who was pictured by television cameras among the celebrations near Napoli's goal for the apparent equaliser, accepted the decision – but still expressed confusion as to how Giroud was adjudged to be involved in the play.

"I know that in the end they will say that the ruling is right, but I ask how does a player on the ground, who does nothing to intervene, how does he cause damage to the defender? Giroud does nothing to intervene," Pioli said.

"Now let's lick our wounds and try to do better for Wednesday."

Eljif Elmas' first-half strike was the difference as Napoli leapfrogged Milan into second in Serie A with a 1-0 victory on Sunday. 

Luciano Spalletti's side lost consecutive league games against Atalanta and Empoli but struck first after just four minutes at San Siro through Elmas' header – his first top-flight goal since August.

Stefano Pioli's team pressed on in the second half but were unable to mount a comeback as their winless home league run against Napoli – which dates back to December 2014 – continued, although only a VAR intervention denied Franck Kessie a late equaliser.
 
Napoli overtake Milan to move into second, with the pair four points back from reigning champions Inter heading into the final matchday of 2021 on Wednesday.

The visitors were soon ahead when Elmas nodded in Piotr Zielinski's corner at the near post, Napoli scoring their fastest Serie A goal against Milan since November 2012.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic responded by flicking a header wide, while Alessandro Florenzi blasted a speculative long-range half-volley just off target as Milan failed to test David Ospina before the interval.

Ospina, though, was required immediately after the break to palm over from Ibrahimovic, with the Colombia international denying Junior Messias moments later.

Napoli had conceded six of their past seven league goals in the final 30 minutes, while Milan had scored the joint-most in that period (15), and Messias almost furthered that record but curled just wide.

Kessie thought he had netted a late leveller as he swept into the bottom-left corner, only for VAR to judge the prone substitute Olivier Giroud to be offside as the visitors managed to hang on to an important victory.

Stefano Pioli declared that league titles "are not won in December" but challenged Milan to raise their game when they face Napoli on Sunday.

Inter moved four points clear of the Rossoneri at the top of Serie A by hammering Salernitana 5-0 on Friday.

The champions have soared to the summit with six consecutive victories, while Milan dropped to second after they were held to a 1-1 draw at Udinese, after crashing out of the Champions League with a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Liverpool.

Pioli says it is too early for talk of Inter running away with it, highlighting that Milan topped the table for much of last season before falling short.

The Milan head coach said in a press conference on Saturday: "I don't think we can talk about an escape, I think Inter are demonstrating the qualities they had already shown.

"Championships are not won in December. We were in the lead for a long time last year and we know how it ended. We have to improve ourselves.

"The first year we had 66 points starting from a difficult position. The second year 79 points.. This year's goal is to do better, especially in the second round [of fixtures]."

He added: "We are having a very good first round, there are still two games to go. I would like to surpass last year's 43 [before the break].

"Tomorrow's opponents have great qualities and an excellent coach, we certainly need to raise the level of performance.

"We are not racing against anyone, but only with ourselves. The last two performances weren't optimal, we must try again to bring our qualities into play with strength and conviction."

Milan have only won one of their last 13 Serie A games against Napoli, but at least it came recently – a 3-1 success in November 2020. Over that period they have had five draws and suffered seven defeats.

Neither team can point to particularly strong recent form, despite both sitting in the top four going into the San Siro game. After setting an electric pace in the early weeks, Milan and Napoli have been steadily reeled in.

Since the beginning of November, Milan have picked up eight points from six games and Napoli have managed only five, ranking them 10th and 16th respectively in Serie A across this period.

Milan's forwards may be interested in the fact Napoli have faced 28 shots on target in their last five league matches (5.6 on average per match), whereas they had faced 11 in total in their previous five (2.2 on average per game).

Pioli will check on Theo Hernandez for the clash with fourth-placed Napoli as the France left-back has been suffering with illness.

Stefano Pioli was pleased with Milan's character as they salvaged a 1-1 draw at Udinese but warned they must raise their game after slipping up in the Serie A title race.

Four days after they were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool, the Rossoneri were facing a shock defeat at the Dacia Arena before Zlatan Ibrahimovic volleyed a stoppage-time equaliser.

Ibrahimovic's goal was his 300th combined in Europe's top-five leagues, a landmark only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have also reached this century.

Beto had capitalised on Tiemoue Bakayoko's mistake to give Udinese a deserved lead 17 minutes into their first game under interim head coach Gabriele Cioffi following Luca Gotti's sacking this week.

Isaac Success was sent off for clashing with Mike Maignan following Ibrahimovic's late goal, but there was no time for Milan to force a winner and they could drop to third on Sunday if Inter and Napoli win.

Pioli responded to a poor first-half showing by hauling Bakayoko, Ismael Bennacer and Rade Krunic off at the break and the head coach was left with mixed emotions after watching his side drop points.

He told DAZN: "We start the matches to win and therefore we cannot be satisfied. Let's start with small goals, we can do even better and we will try."

Pioli says Milan must regroup following a difficult week in which they failed to match the sort of standards that lifted them to the summit.

"There was a lack of clarity, we had to force our opponents to move more. It was not a brilliant first half, the goal took confidence away from us," he added.

"I am satisfied with the reaction, it is a sign of character and it is clear that we need to find our rhythm."

 

Stefano Pioli hopes Milan have the quality to exploit the Liverpool defence in their crucial Champions League clash at San Siro on Tuesday.

The Rossoneri ended a three-game winless run at home in all competitions with a routine 2-0 victory over Salernitana three days before their crunch meeting with the Reds.

After beating Atletico Madrid 1-0, Pioli's side enter the final round of games in third place in Group B, a point behind Porto in second.

Should they beat Liverpool – who are already through to the last 16 as group winners – and Porto draw with Atleti, Milan will progress to the last 16.

Although the odds are against them – Milan have not beaten English opposition in Europe since February 2012 – Liverpool could elect to field a weaker side, while their defence has not looked as impregnable as it sometimes has under Jurgen Klopp.

While their 12 clean sheets before December 4 was the joint-most in Europe's top five leagues this season, they have conceded 17 goals from an expected goals against total of 23.4, suggesting they should have let in at least six more given the quality of chances faced.

Pioli hopes to exploit any possible weakness in the Reds rearguard, telling DAZN: "Having faced them already gives us more information about them.

"Liverpool have a thousand strengths: they have fantastic strikers, and one of the strongest teams. We'll try to do our best in a great atmosphere that we'll try to make the most of.

"We wanted to be in this position and now we can only try to give our best. We know Liverpool will inevitably cause us some problems, but spaces can open up too because they are certainly not unbeatable or impenetrable in defence."

Milan dominated Salernitana on Saturday and should really have added to their two goals, firing in 22 shots and eight on target while facing just two from Serie A's bottom side.

They attempted 14 in the first half alone, the most they have managed in the opening 45 minutes of a game this season, as they eased to a win that moved them two points clear at the top ahead of Inter's trip to Roma.

"I leave with the satisfaction of a good performance and a good victory. Of course, scoring a few more goals would have been better," Pioli said.

"I'd predicted a balanced league. It looks like the top four are becoming separated. I expected Juventus, Roma and Lazio to be closer but, in a league, it's the details that will make the difference.

"To win the title, you need great consistency and that's what we're trying to achieve. We need to keep the level high all year round. We're satisfied with what we're doing but we don't need to look at the table while staying focused to have a great Christmas."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli is hoping to sign a new centre-back in the January transfer window following confirmation Simon Kjaer will miss the remainder of the season.

Kjaer injured his left knee during the early stages of Milan's 3-0 win against Genoa on Wednesday and was taken off on a stretcher.

Milan announced on their official website that the Denmark international underwent surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament on Friday and is expected to sit out the next six months. 

Speaking earlier in the day ahead of Saturday's clash with Salernitana, head coach Stefano Pioli confirmed Milan would look to bring in cover should Kjaer's injury be long term.

"It's clear that I believe an intervention will be needed if that's the case," Pioli said. "But we will only do it to try to improve the team.

"It's worth changing to improve the team. The club, if necessary, will be ready."

Kjaer has been a key player for Milan since joining from Sevilla in January 2020 on an initial loan deal and has started 13 of their 20 matches in all competitions this season.

The 32-year-old, who finished 18th in this week's Ballon d'Or voting, leads the way for interceptions (66) among Milan defenders in Serie A since making his debut.

Milan's first match without Kjaer will be at home to bottom side Salernitana this weekend in what is the first top-flight meeting between the sides since January 1999.

The Rossoneri have lost only one of their last 20 Serie A games against newly promoted sides, keeping 12 clean sheets across that period.

With Milan one point adrift of leaders Napoli, Pioli's side have a chance to build some momentum with victory over Salernitana.

"Tomorrow's match is important to give continuity," Pioli said. "We have another opportunity to demonstrate that we are a strong team.

"The opponents are tough, very annoying in the non-possession phase and come at you with aggression and conviction. It's a game that we want to do well in."

Milan star Zlatan Ibrahimovic wants to re-sign with the Scudetto-chasing Rossoneri after his latest goalscoring exploits for the Serie A high-flyers.

Ibrahimovic opened the scoring with a stunning first-half free-kick in Wednesday's 3-0 victory at Genoa, a result that moved Milan within a point of leaders Napoli, who squandered a 2-0 lead in a 2-2 draw against Sassuolo.

The victory was a welcome return to form for Milan, having gone from unbeaten domestically to licking their wounds following back-to-back league defeats.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli signed a contract extension last week and Ibrahimovic wants to be the next to put pen to paper as the evergreen 40-year-old eyes silverware with the club.

"I have fun, before the match, we had already decided how long I would have played," Ibrahimovic said to Sky Sport Italia after the match. "These guys make me have fun and feel young.

"We had made errors that cost us the previous two games. It was all our fault, not our opponents' merit, but we won today and we remain up there.

"Now I have to renew. I am happy for [Pioli] because he deserves [his contract extension], if he renews, I renew. Pioli has done a great job.

"I am happy for the fans. For so many years, they have not enjoyed as they are enjoying now. I want to make them happy, but if we don't win a trophy we haven't done anything."

Ibrahimovic's goal was his 153rd goal in Serie A, drawing level with Stefano Nyers and Hernan Crespo in 26th place among the top scorers in the Italian competition.

His 73 league goals for Milan also took Swedish forward Ibrahimovic to 10th in Milan's standings, alongside Filippo Inzaghi.

Once Pioli had penned his own terms, the 56-year-old revealed that Ibrahimovic wasted no time in contacting him to ask for a new contract. 

The Milan boss praised his team's performance against Genoa, particularly the connection between Ibrahimovic and his team-mates.

"Zlatan is the only player who sent me a message as soon as I signed my contract," Pioli said to Sky Sport Italia. "It said congratulations, Mister, now sort mine out!

"That's Zlatan for you! This is a season that can give us satisfaction, I don't know how far we can go.

"We played with intensity and determination for the whole game this evening and unfortunately we are not a team that can do the bare minimum. We've got to give it our all, or we are not superior to the opposition.

"The arrival of Zlatan improved everything, certainly, but his team-mates also did well to accept his way of motivating them.

"At the same time, Zlatan has to thank his team-ates, because he has come back to being the great player he was a few years ago. It's give and take for them both."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli admits he is seeing diminishing returns from his team after they crumbled to a 3-1 defeat against Sassuolo at San Siro.

A dismal day for the Rossoneri was bookended by moments of mixed fortune for Alessio Romagnoli, who scored the opening goal to put Milan ahead before being sent off late in the game, by which time Sassuolo had their winning lead.

Gianluca Scamacca and Domenico Berardi scored with excellent strikes for Sassuolo, either side of a Simon Kjaer own goal, as Milan struggled to keep pace with lively visitors.

Pioli's team finished second last season, after being overtaken by an Inter side who were relentless after chasing their city rivals off top spot. Milan went unbeaten for their first 15 games of the 2020-21 Serie A campaign and similar looked on the cards this time when they avoided defeat in their opening 12 fixtures.

Successive defeats to Fiorentina and now Sassuolo have checked that progress though, and Inter are on their heels, with Napoli right in the mix too.

Speaking about his side's performance against Sunday's mid-table visitors, Pioli said: "We lacked clarity, we made too many mistakes, especially in the opposition area.

"In the first half we got into their area many times and we missed the last pass. Clearly we had to manage the lead better. The first few minutes after scoring the goal were very important and instead we made a mistake for which we paid dearly."

Milan stood off Scamacca, who from 25 yards sent a scorching drive into the top right corner, finding the net off the underside of the crossbar.

 

A 4-3 defeat to Fiorentina last week was a jolt to Milan, and this was every bit as concerning. Pioli signed a new contract just days ago, committing until 2023, and he will expect more from his players in future. Mike Maignan made three saves, as Milan could have lost by a wider margin.

"If we conceded seven goals in two games, it is clear that something went wrong," Pioli said. "Mentally we weren't so lucid in our choices and so it becomes easier to make mistakes.

"We are aware of our qualities and our defects and we must continue to work to improve. We started very strongly, but in the last few games we have all done a little less, both from a technical and tactical point of view."

Pioli said there were "no justifications" for Milan delivering such a display, which came four days after they won away at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.

"We have been built to face these double commitments and we hope to carry them forward," Pioli said, quoted by Sky Sport Italia. "Today five players who did not play in Madrid played in order to have the right mental and physical energy."

While Milan toiled and came away disappointed, Sassuolo savoured the moment.

This was Milan's second successive home league defeat to Sassuolo, after a 2-1 loss in April. Until this turnaround, that April game had been the last time that Milan dropped points from a winning position.

Sassuolo head coach Alessio Dionisi enthused about the performance of Italy international Berardi, who scored for a third successive Serie A game and now has seven goals for the season.

Dionisi even said the 27-year-old, who helped Italy win Euro 2020 in July, should be a target for elite clubs.

This was Berardi's 250th Serie A game for Sassuolo, becoming the second player to reach that milestone, after Andrea Consigli.

"His qualities are indisputable, he deserves the attention of the biggest clubs," Dionisi said.

"Because he has not yet gone to a big one, maybe he is proud to play for Sassuolo."

Mike Maignan has returned from injury ahead of schedule and will start Milan's Serie A clash with Sassuolo on Sunday, head coach Stefano Pioli has confirmed.

The France international began the campaign in fine form, starting every game as Milan collected 19 points to match their best start to a league campaign after seven games.

But Maignan, signed from Lille for €15million to replace Gianluigi Donnarumma, underwent surgery on his left wrist in mid-October and was expected to miss around 10 weeks. 

However, having recently returned to training, the 26-year-old is now considered fit enough to make his comeback against Sassuolo in place of Ciprian Tatarusanu, who made a calamitous error in Milan's 4-3 defeat to Fiorentina last time out in Serie A.

"Maignan is fine. He has been working with the team for a week and is ready," Pioli said at Saturday's pre-match news conference. 

"He is back sooner because he has a great mentality. He is fine and will play tomorrow. Tatarusanu has done his duties well, but [Maignan] will return."

Maignan kept a league-high 21 clean sheets in 38 games for Ligue 1 champions Lille last season – seven more than next-best Keylor Navas and Benoit Costil.

The Frenchman's save percentage of 78.26 in seven Serie A games this season, meanwhile, is behind only Sergio Romero (80.56) and David Ospina (80.65) among those to have played more than twice.

Tatarusanu, for comparison, has saved 60 per cent of the shots he has faced in the six league games he has filled in for Maignan this term, keeping only one clean sheet.

Pioli also confirmed that centre-back Fikayo Tomori is closing in on a return from injury and is likely to be available for Wednesday's trip to Genoa.

Before that, Milan welcome Sassuolo to San Siro with the aim of keeping their hopes of a first Scudetto success in 11 years on track.

Milan last lost successive games in Serie A in April, which includes a 2-1 home loss at the hands of Sassuolo, but Pioli is fully focused on bouncing back.

"We have a chance tomorrow to get back on track in the league," said Pioli, who signed a new contract with the club on Friday.

"Winning games makes a difference and we all know we need to raise our game. We showed in Madrid that we have good quality in the squad, both technically and mentally."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli has signed a new contract with the Serie A club until 2023.

Pioli put pen to paper on a two-year deal to replace the sacked Marco Giampaolo at San Siro in October 2019.

The former Fiorentina boss led Milan to second in Serie A behind city rivals Inter last season, sealing Champions League qualification for the first time in seven years.

Pioli on Friday signed a contract to keep him at the club until the end of the 2022-23 campaign.

The 56-year-old told Milan TV: "I hope to be able to experience many emotions on this bench, we are ambitious and we want to continue like this."

Milan are second in Serie A, level on points with leaders Napoli, after amassing 32 points from their opening 12 games for their first time in the three points for a win era.

They were beaten 4-3 by Fiorentina in the thriller last weekend, but responded by keeping their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League round of 16 alive with a 1-0 win at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

Milan director and club legend Paolo Maldini said of Pioli's new contract: "There is a thrill of continuing a path that is bringing us great results.

"We don't want a team to win for just one year, but for a long time. We want to bring Milan back to being competitive."

He added: "We do not renew only with the coach Pioli, but also with the person. There is great harmony between us, there may be problems, but we will know how to overcome them."

It has been a turbulent period for Manchester United, but they appear on the cusp of solving one issue.

With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gone, struggling United need a new manager and while Mauricio Pochettino seems to be the dream appointment, the Red Devils are reportedly closing in on a short-term solution.

Ralf Rangnick.

 

TOP STORY – UNITED TURN TO RANGNICK ON SHORT-TERM BASIS

Manchester United are set to appoint former RB Leipzig boss Ralf Rangnick as interim manager, according to The Athletic, ESPN and widespread reports.

After sacking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United outlined their plan to install an interim boss until the end of the season amid reported long-term interest in Paris Saint-Germain's Mauricio Pochettino and Ajax head coach Erik ten Hag.

There had been reports United could turn to Pochettino immediately but a deal to prise the former Tottenham boss from Paris proved difficult.

Instead, United have offered Rangnick a six-month contract at Old Trafford, where the 63-year-old German is set to take up a consultancy role once his interim tenure ends.

Rangnick is currently head of sports and development at Russian outfit Lokomotiv Moscow.

 

ROUND-UP

- Calciomercato claims Chelsea are plotting a move for Italy star Federico Chiesa, who is still on loan from Fiorentina. Juventus are set to sign Chiesa permanently at the end of the season, though he is wanted by a host of clubs, including Bayern Munich and Liverpool.

- United have emerged as a possible destination for in-demand Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic, reports the Daily Mail. Vlahovic is wanted by Manchester CityAtletico Madrid, JuveInterArsenalTottenham and Bayern but the Red Devils are believed to have joined the race.

Barcelona could sell Memphis Depay to help in their efforts to prise Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund, per El Nacional. Depay only joined Barca on a free transfer at the start of the season, but the financially stricken LaLiga giants are among the long list of Haaland admirers. Haaland has been linked with CityUnitedReal MadridBayernLiverpoolChelseaJuve and PSG.

- Fabrizio Romano claims Stefano Pioli will sign a new contract with Milan on Friday. The Rossoneri head coach is set to extend his deal until June 2023, with the option of a further season.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli hailed the "wonderful" story of Junior Messias, who scored the Rossoneri's winning goal in a crucial 1-0 Champions League victory over Atletico Madrid just three years after making his professional debut.

Messias, 30, moved to Italy to work as a delivery driver before ascending the ranks of Italian football in his late twenties.

He headed Franck Kessie's cross into the bottom corner of Jan Oblak's net in the 87th minute at Wanda Metropolitano to earn Milan victory and rescue their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages, which were hanging by a thread.

Messias is on loan at Milan from Crotone, and Pioli indicated he may have a bright future at San Siro.

"His story is wonderful," Pioli told Amazon Prime Video Italia.

"But I think this is just the beginning for him, because he has real quality.

"He had some difficulties when he first arrived, but now will really help the team."

Milan face Group B winners Liverpool in their next Champions League game with any one of Milan, Porto and Atletico still in the hunt to qualify alongside the Reds.

Pioli made no apologies for the touchline celebrations that followed Messias' goal, saying: "It's only right to celebrate with my players, because they put in a wonderful performance.

"They played with quality and courage, they always believed in themselves and it's right now that I celebrate with them.

"This is the right path and tonight we saw an important show of this team's maturity."

Pioli's opposite number Diego Simeone brushed off the disappointment of the result and turned his focus to Atletico's final Group B game against Porto.

Victory over Porto would secure Atletico's place in the knockout stage if Milan fail to beat Liverpool, and Simeone told reporters: "I am optimistic, I always was and I will not change.

"The team will compete well. I have no doubt that the Champions League does not forgive you, and who deserves it makes it.

"Milan can win at home, Porto at home and we away. Whoever deserves it will win."

Stefano Pioli sees Milan's clash with Atletico Madrid as "a great opportunity" as they fight to stay in European competition this season.

The Rossoneri sit bottom of Group B with just one point from four matches against Atleti, Liverpool and Porto.

They must beat the LaLiga champions on Wednesday to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the last 16 or claiming the Europa League place, although they will be unable to finish in the top two regardless if Porto defeat Liverpool.

A controversial last-minute penalty from Luis Suarez saw Atleti beat 10-man Milan in the reverse fixture in September, a third-straight defeat for the Italian side against these opponents.

Indeed, Milan have only managed one victory in their past 16 Champions League meetings with Spanish sides and have lost all of the most recent four.

Despite history and the odds being against them, Pioli is looking at the game at the Wanda Metropolitano as a chance to prove themselves.

"It's a great opportunity, perhaps our last to stay in this competition against strong opponents whose style of play we have studied carefully, and that we know well having played them a few weeks ago," he said on Tuesday.

"We didn't need the ending [against Atleti] to know the qualities of our opponents, especially their great quality of staying in the game until the end. I think they're among the best in Europe to recover at the death.

"We must always play to believe until the 95th minute."

Milan are level at the top of Serie A with Napoli, having won 10 and lost just one of their opening 13 games of the season, but their Champions League campaign has been marked by narrow defeats.

They let a 2-1 lead slip to lose 3-2 at Anfield prior to their home defeat to Atletico before a 1-0 loss in Porto on matchday three.

Pioli insists his inexperienced side are not far from matching their more experienced opponents in Europe.

"We're built for this, to be competitive in both competitions," he said. "For many, it's their first time in the Champions League, we've faced opponents of the highest level, but we have shown we're not too far away from them.

"We're aware we've always lacked a certain something. In terms of intensity, quality and concentration, we'll have to perform at 100 per cent tomorrow."

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