AC Milan’s UEFA Champions League credentials will be given a serious test this Sunday as they travel to take on Sassuolo, a team with European ambitions of their own.
The Rossoneri will be hoping to extend their unbeaten run to 13 games in all competitions. However, they will not have it easy against a side who are just six points behind them and lie seventh in the Serie A table as things stand.
Sinisa Mihajlovic’s men have been in good form of late and find themselves looking up at a top-three spot, though to get there, they will have to overtake city rivals Inter as well as Roma and Fiorentina.
But, first and foremost, Milan will have to secure their place in the top six, something that will come under direct threat against Sassuolo, who can close the gap on their illustrious opposition to just three points with a win on Sunday.
Neroverdi striker Domenico Berardi highlighted the mindset he and his team-mates carry with them going into the match, telling Sky (h/t Football Italia):
They (Milan) are a very strong team, but we’re not far behind. … It’ll definitely be a good game to experience and I really hope we’ll be able to win at home. Our goal was safety and we’ve achieved that, now we’ll play without any pressure. We’ll … fight to the end for a place in Europe.
A top-six finish for Berardi and Co. would be an incredible achievement for a club who only reached the highest echelon of Italian football for the first time in 2013. Despite their relative inexperience, Eusebio Di Francesco’s side are unlikely to be fazed by the visit of the Rossoneri; since gaining promotion to Serie A, Sassuolo have faced them five times in league action, winning on three occasions.
The two teams last met last October at the San Siro, where Milan won 2-1. However, they were given a significant boost that day by the first-half sending off of Sassuolo goalkeeper Andrea Consigli.
Since then a lot has changed. Mihajlovic has implemented a 4-4-2 formation, and subsequently, Milan have become much more stable defensively. The Neroverdi have also enjoyed good recent form, winning each of their last two league games away to Lazio and at home to Empoli.
With both sides in the midst of strong spells and hungry for further progress, this Sunday afternoon’s clash promises to be an enthralling affair.
Date: Sunday, 6 March
Time: 2 p.m. GMT (9 a.m. ET)
Venue: Mapei Stadium, Reggio Emilia, Italy
TV Info: BT Sport Extra 2 (UK), beINSPORTS (USA)
Live Stream: Not available
Lazio 0-2 Sassuolo
Sassuolo 3-2 Empoli
Chievo 1-1 Sassuolo
Sassuolo 2-2 Palermo
Sassuolo 0-2 Roma
Milan 5-0 Alessandria (Coppa Italia)
Milan 1-0 Torino
Napoli 1-1 Milan
Milan 2-1 Genoa
Milan 1-1 Udinese
Di Francesco was delighted with his team’s display away to Lazio in their last outing. After that win, he told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia) that he thought his players had "put in the perfect performance, above all defensively, as the offside trap worked almost every time."
The Sassuolo coach will thus no doubt be happy with the fact he has a full-strength squad at his disposal for this weekend, with his only injury concern being that of left-sided midfielder Karim Laribi. As such, he will be hoping for his side to continue upon their impressive recent showings.
With almost all his players available, Di Francesco will line his players up in a 4-3-3 formation, though this will become a 4-5-1 in the defensive phase, with both wingers dropping back into midfield. In contrast, Milan are likely to opt for the 4-4-2 system that has served them so well in recent months.
Unfortunately, Mihajlovic has a number of individual absences to deal with. Captain Riccardo Montolivo is likely to miss out due to a muscular problem in his left leg, while striker Luiz Adriano will also be unavailable.
Ignazio Abate, who has been in exceptional form lately, is out due to suspension, while M’Baye Niang is set to miss the rest of the season due to injuries sustained after crashing his car prior to Tuesday night’s Coppa Italia clash with Alessandria.
The 21-year-old French forward was beginning to fulfill his potential. However, according to ESPN FC, he "could miss up to two months" due to his injuries.
Without Niang and Adriano, Mihajlovic will have to choose between Jeremy Menez and Mario Balotelli to partner Carlos Bacca up front. Despite Menez’s scoring twice in midweek, the latter is set to start this Sunday, per Football Italia, in a bid to "convince the club to buy him from Liverpool."
Sassuolo (4-3-3): Andrea Consigli; Sime Vrsaljko, Paolo Cannavaro, Francesco Acerbi, Federico Peluso; Simone Missiroli, Francesco Magnanelli, Alfred Duncan; Domenico Berardi, Gregoire Defrel, Nicola Sansone
Unavailable: Karim Laribi (injured)
Milan (4-4-2): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Mattia De Sciglio, Alex, Alessio Romagnoli, Luca Antonelli; Keisuke Honda, Juraj Kucka, Andrea Bertolacci, Giacomo Bonaventura; Mario Balotelli, Carlos Bacca
Unavailable: Ignazio Abate (suspended), Philippe Mexes, Rodrigo Ely, Diego Lopez, M’Baye Niang (injured)
Players to Watch
While they play aesthetically pleasing football, Sassuolo have lacked firepower for much of this term. This was perhaps inevitable given the sale of Simone Zaza to Juventus last summer, though Berardi and Nicola Sansone have also struggled to reproduce the form of previous years.
That is beginning to change, however, and Gregoire Defrel is playing an important role in the Neroverdi’s recent attacking rejuvenation.
The French striker joined from Cesena at the beginning of the campaign, and after a settling-in period, he has begun to find his stride, hitting four goals in his last three starts. His movement, pace and sharp finishing will need to be watched closely by Milan’s defence.
During the week, Rossoneri owner Silvio Berlusconi questioned the ability of Bacca and Balotelli to play together. Speaking to reporters (h/t Football Italia), he said: "I think it’d be … difficult to make Bacca and Balotelli play together, given that they are two centre-forwards with similar characteristics."
The assessment was slightly unfair given the pair have started just one match together this season, in the 3-2 away win over Udinese last September. With Balotelli set to partner Bacca this Sunday in Niang’s absence, the duo will have another opportunity to show they can work well alongside one another.
Milan left-back Luca Antonelli has been incredibly consistent throughout his first full campaign with the club. The 29-year-old has continuously offered an attacking outlet with his forward forays but has not neglected his defensive duties in the process. It’s just as well, because this Sunday he will be up against one of Serie A’s finest attackers in Berardi.
The left-footed live wire is finally starting to find his best form again, having scored twice in his last two appearances as well as picking up WhoScored.com’s man-of-the-match award for his showing against Empoli. Furthermore, in each of Sassuolo’s home league fixtures against Milan in the past two seasons, he has scored a hat-trick. Indeed, in 2014 he scored four times as the Neroverdi won 4-3.
Given Berardi’s current vein of form, confidence and history of scoring against the Rossoneri, Antonelli will have to be on top defensive form to snuff out his opponent.
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