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.

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.

Barcelona are struggling financially but Xavi is desperate to reinforce his attack following Sergio Aguero's retirement.

Ferran Torres and Edinson Cavani are believed to top Barca's transfer list heading into the January window.

It could be a busy month ahead for the LaLiga outfit.

 

TOP STORY – TORRES, CAVANI TO BARCA?

Manchester City's Ferran Torres and Manchester United forward Edinson Cavani are priority objectives for Barcelona, according to Marca.

Barca continue to be linked with Spain international Torres as Xavi attempts to bolster the embattled LaLiga giants.

Cavani has also emerged as a top target after Sergio Aguero retired from football and the duo could reportedly arrive in January.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail claims Arsenal are open to selling Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang next month, but the Gunners are more likely to move on from the former skipper at the end of the season. Aubameyang has been stripped of the captaincy and linked with Barca and Juventus.

Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt are eyeing Yusuf Demir as Diario Sport reports Barca have decided to cut short the 18-year-old's loan spell from Rapid Vienna.

Rafael Leao is poised to sign a contract extension with Milan until 2026, per Nicolo Schira.

- Calciomercato says Arsenal have not given up on signing Juve attacker Dejan Kulusevski. The Sweden international has also been linked to London rivals Tottenham.

Barca are monitoring United sensation Mason Greenwood, reports El Nacional. England international Greenwood is highly rated at Old Trafford.

- Jeunes Footeux says Liverpool have joined the race to sign Lille star Jonathan David. The Canada international is reportedly wanted by Arsenal, Inter and Paris Saint-Germain.

Paul Pogba's club future continues to be a major topic of speculation.

The 28-year-old is into the final year of his Manchester United contract.

Pogba has flirted with the idea of an extension but has been stalling on a decision.

 

TOP STORY – REAL AND PSG HOME IN ON POGBA

Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are both ready to ramp up the race to sign Paul Pogba from Manchester United, claims Marca.

Pogba is running down his United contract, meaning he will be a free agent in mid-2022.

Real and PSG will rekindle their interest after new United interim manager Ralf Rangnick said Pogba should not need to be convinced to stay.

ROUND-UP

- Manchester United forward Edinson Cavani has offered his services to Juventus, according to Calciomercato. The Uruguayan veteran has also been linked with Barcelona.

- Barcelona are plotting moves for Chelsea's trio Cesar Azpilicueta, Christian Pulisic and Antonio Rudiger, reports Mundo Deportivo.

- Milan are circling to sign Liverpool's super-sub Divock Origi as they seek a long-term replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, claims Tuttomercato. Atalanta are also interested.

- Calciomercato reports that Roma are considering a move for Spezia midfielder Jiulio Maggiore. The 23-year-old is out of contract in 2023 and valued at €8m (£6.8m).

- Roma are also interested in a move for Norwich City's Max Aarons, according to Corriere dello Sport. Tottenham and Everton are also in the race.

- Lyon are interested in a move for Villarreal's Arnaut Danjuma, claims Todofichajes. Manchester United and Barcelona are also tracking the ex-Bournemouth winger.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic insisted he does not need to win the Ballon d'Or to prove the Milan star is the best.

Ibrahimovic has won league titles with Ajax, Inter, Barcelona, Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, though the Swedish forward has never claimed the Ballon d'Or.

The evergreen 40-year-old continues to produce for Milan in his second spell at San Siro, where the Rossoneri are dreaming of their first Scudetto since Ibrahimovic helped deliver silverware in 2010-11.

Ibrahimovic's outspoken agent Mino Raiola said he cannot take the Ballon d'Or seriously due to the fact the Sweden international has never received the prized individual honour.

But during a presentation for his new book "Adrenaline" in Milan on Sunday, Ibrahimovic was quoted as saying: "The Ballon d'Or is a nice thing. But I don't need it to prove that I am the best."

 

 

The event took place after Ibrahimovic scored his 300th league goal across Europe's top five leagues in Saturday's last-gasp 1-1 Serie A draw at Udinese.

Ibrahimovic came to Milan's rescue in spectacular fashion, his stoppage-time equaliser salvaging a point for the Rossoneri in what was his 450th appearance in the top five leagues – the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have reached that mark previously in the 21st century.

"It's the mentality. I train in the same way that I play," Ibrahimovic said of his longevity.

"Every day is a final. It was difficult when I arrived at Milan [for his second spell], but we've created a group. We've created an atmosphere that is over the top.

"Then there was the pandemic, but the staff here is great. I've worked with other teams in my career, but this is really excellent. The group goes towards the same target. Unfortunately, we didn't win yesterday. I should have scored two goals.

"Now, I wake up with pain every day, but I have adrenaline and I go on. This year, the adrenaline is for the Scudetto. Yesterday I scored a goal, but we didn't win and it hurts."

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."

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's milestone stoppage-time strike salvaged a 1-1 draw for Serie A leaders Milan at Udinese on Saturday.

Milan's miserable week looked set to take another turn for the worse after Beto gave Udinese a first-half lead at Dacia Arena, four days after the Rossoneri were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool.

But Ibrahimovic rescued a point with an acrobatic volley in time added on, taking his goal tally to 300 in Europe's top five leagues.

Isaac Success was then shown a red card for violent conduct as Udinese had to settle for a point in their first game under interim head coach Gabriele Cioffi, who stepped in when Luca Gotti was sacked this week.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has hit another career milestone after netting his 300th goal across Europe's top five leagues.

The Milan veteran scored a spectacular stoppage-time equaliser against Udinese on Saturday in what was his 450th appearance in the top five leagues.

That took Ibrahimovic to 300 goals in those competitions – the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have reached that mark previously in the 21st century.

Ibrahimovic has featured in four of the top five leagues, with the Bundesliga the only competition missing off his list.

Having joined Juventus in 2004 from Ajax, the Sweden striker has gone on to play for Inter, Barcelona, Milan (over two spells), Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United.

Ibrahimovic has now scored seven Serie A goals this term. He netted 15 last season and 10 in 2019-20 after he returned to Milan following a stint in MLS with the LA Galaxy.

The 40-year-old scored 17 goals in his sole full season in the Premier League with United, averaging a strike every 143 minutes.

His best minutes-per-goal ratio across a full league campaign so far came in his final season at PSG in 2015-16 (67), in which he also set up a career-high 13 league goals for team-mates.

Ibrahimovic scored 38 times in Ligue 1 that season, with an impressive shot conversion rate of 24.52 per cent from 155 attempts.

He has scored 30 or more league goals on two occasions, in 2015-16 and in 2012-13, also with PSG.

Ibrahimovic's maiden season in one of the big five leagues produced 16 goals for Juve. He failed to settle at Barca under Pep Guardiola but still contributed 16 LaLiga goals in 2009-10.

Just over half of his goals have have been scored in Italy (154), while 113 came in Ligue 1.

Barcelona are in disarray – out of Champions League and out of money.

Funds are limited at Camp Nou and it is forcing the embattled LaLiga giants to make some tough decisions.

Frenkie de Jong and Marc-Andre ter Stegen could be sold.

 

TOP STORY – DE JONG AND TER STEGEN TO LEAVE CAMP NOU?

Barcelona are willing to sell Frenkie de Jong and Marc-Andre ter Stegen due to the club's finances, according to Diario AS.

Eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage, Barca are in the midst of a financial crisis, having been forced to part with superstar captain Lionel Messi at the start of the season.

Barca head coach Xavi faces a rebuilding job but needs to raise funds, and star midfielder De Jong and goalkeeper Ter Stegen could be sacrificed.

De Jong has been linked with Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, who have also eyed Ter Stegen.

 

ROUND-UP

- Football Insider says Real Madrid are weighing up a move for former superstar Cristiano Ronaldo if he does not fit into the system of United interim manager Ralf Rangnick.

- ESPN claims Borussia Dortmund's Jude Bellingham, RB Leipzig midfielder Amadou Haidara and Kalvin Phillips of Leeds United are key targets for Manchester United. Erling Haaland is also a long-term target of United.

Chelsea are eyeing Leicester City's Wesley Fofana as a replacement for soon-to-be free agent Antonio Rudiger, per Goal. Rudiger has been linked with Real Madrid and Bayern on a free transfer. Preparing for life after Rudiger, Chelsea have also been linked to Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde.

Paris Saint-Germain are looking to move on Mauro Icardi, Rafinha and Abdou Diallo, says L'Equipe. Icardi has been linked with Juventus, Milan, Newcastle United and Tottenham.

Is a Leeds United midfielder ready to reject a switch to Old Trafford?

Typically, Manchester United are too big to turn down but Kalvin Phillips is believed to be willing to withstand their interest due to the rivalry between the two clubs.

The beneficiaries of such a decision? Liverpool apparently.

 

TOP STORY – PHILLIPS TO TURN DOWN MAN UTD

Leeds United star Kalvin Phillips will snub a move to Manchester United in favour of Premier League rivals Liverpool, according to The Sun.

Phillips has emerged as a target for Leeds' bitter rivals United, while Liverpool are also admirers of the England international.

Wary of the backlash a move to Old Trafford would cause among Leeds fans, Phillips is ready to reject United and join Liverpool.

 

ROUND-UP

Arsenal are plotting a move for Everton star Richarlison, claims Fichajes. The Brazil international scored against Arsenal on Monday, while he has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain.

- Fabrizio Romano reports Borussia Dortmund have made direct contact with Salzburg star Karim Adeyemi. The Germany international is Dortmund's main target as clubs queue up to sign Erling Haaland, who is wanted by Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich.

- Tuttomercato says Franck Kessie could leave Milan on a free transfer. The soon-to-be free agent has been linked with Tottenham, Inter, PSG and United.

Fiorentina are poised to sign Lille star Jonathan Ikone, per Gianluca Di Marzio. The deal is reportedly not related to the future of wantaway forward Dusan Vlahovic – the Serbia international has been linked with City, United, Bayern, Inter, Juve, Tottenham and Arsenal.

Erling Haaland is the name on everyone's lips.

His exploits for Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund have sparked a frenzy among Europe's elite.

With Haaland attracting interest, Dortmund are making moves to replace the Norway international.

 

TOP STORY – ADEYEMI TO SUCCEED HAALAND?

Borussia Dortmund are working on a deal to sign Salzburg's Karim Adeyemi as a replacement for in-demand star Erling Haaland, according to Fabrizio Romano's Here We Go podcast.

Haaland is wanted all over Europe amid links with Manchester United, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Juventus.

As speculation mounts over Haaland, Dortmund are reportedly preparing for his departure with a move for Salzburg sensation and Germany international Adeyemi.

Barca, Bayern and Liverpool are reportedly interested in Adeyemi.

 

ROUND-UP

- Liverpool lead the chase to sign Dortmund star Jude Bellingham, says The Mirror. As Europe's elite eye Haaland, Liverpool are looking to pounce on Bellingham who has been linked with Chelsea and United.

- Todofichajes reports head coach Mauricio Pochettino has lost the faith of the Paris Saint-Germain dressing room. Pochettino has emerged as United's rumoured top target to lead the Red Devils long term, with Zinedine Zidane tipped to replace him in Paris.

Bayern have joined the race to sign Borussia Monchengladbach's Denis Zakaria, per Romano. Zakaria has been linked with Roma, Liverpool, City, Juve and Barca.

Milan and Barca are eyeing Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen, per Romano. The Denmark international has been in contract talks at Stamford Bridge.

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