AC Milan gets another look at what could have been as they try to keep their momentum going on Saturday against Empoli.
Date: Saturday, January 23
Time: 8:45 local time, 7:45 GMT, 2:45 EST
Venue: Stadio Carlo Castellani, Empoli
TV Info: BT Sport Europe (UK), beIN Sports (US)
Live Stream: beIN Sports Connect (US)
After starting 2016 with a shock loss to Bologna, Milan have rebounded with a couple of good results. After a horrible start to their match against Roma, they dug in and ended up dominating the game but couldn't put away a winning goal.
Three days later, in the quarterfinal of the Coppa Italia against Carpi, coach Sinisa Mihajlovic relieved some of the pressure on him as he guided the team to a 2-1 win and into their first semifinal since 2012. Then he welcomed Fiorentina to the San Siro.
La Viola had given the Serbian a rude welcome to the Milan bench in the season's opening week. The Rossoneri were never given a chance. Rodrigo Ely was sent off, the midfield was completely overrun and Fiorentina ran out 2-0 winners.
The return saw the exact opposite. Carlos Bacca buried a goal in the fourth minute, and Milan held that lead with little difficulty for the rest of the night before sealing the 2-0 victory two minutes from time.
It was an impressive win over a top-five team. It's the kind of victory that Milan has proved capable of even in their weakened state over the last few years. Their problem has always been against smaller teams that—on paper at least—they should have little trouble with. Instead of a guaranteed three points, these matches tend to be stressful at best and downright awful at worst.
In years past, Empoli fell into that category. Now you have to wonder whether they do.
Almost everyone tipped Empoli for the bottom half of the table this season. With coach Maurizio Sarri gone to Napoli and star center back Daniele Rugani back to his mother club Juventus, most observers figured they'd have to stave off the drop.
Marco Giampaolo took over and has proved himself to be a worthy successor to Sarri. After a rough start—Empoli lost four of their first six games—the Azzurri have been a different team since October began. In their last 14 games, their record (W-D-L) is 8-3-3, and the only loss in their last eight was a 1-0 reverse against Inter.
That run, which included a four-game winning streak going into the international break, has catapulted Empoli into unforeseen territory. They now sit eighth, a single point behind both Milan and Sassuolo, who are deadlocked at 32.
Central defender Lorenzo Tonelli has continued to play at a high level in the absence of his former partner, Rugani, and old-timer Massimo Maccarone has played one of his best seasons in years at the front line.
Their proximity in the standings gives this game a significance that was hard to envision when these two teams first met in August.
That game saw Bacca score his first goal in a Milan shirt, but it was cancelled out by a specter from Milan's past. Riccardo Saponara burst through the defense to score four minutes later, and Empoli started getting into the game. Eventually they out-shot Milan by a three-to-one margin (18-6), but a Luiz Adriano header saw Milan leave with a 2-1 victory.
|Last 5 matches, all competitions, most recent first|
|D 1-1 @ Chievo||W 2-0 vs. Fiorentina|
|W 1-0 @ Torino||W 2-1 vs. Carpi*|
|L 1-0 vs. Inter||D 1-1 @ Roma|
|W 3-2 @ Bologna||L 1-0 vs. Bologna|
|W 3-0 vs. Carpi||W 4-2 @ Frosinone|
|Empoli (4-3-1-2)||AC Milan (4-4-2)|
|Laurini Tonelli Barba Rui||Abate Romagnoli Alex Antonelli|
|Zielinski Diousse Buchel||Bonaventura Bertolacci Kucka Honda|
Empoli: CB Andrea Costa (muscle injury), CM Leandro Paredes (yellow card suspension)
AC Milan: FW Jeremy Menez (back injury), CB Rodrigo Ely (foot injury), GK Diego Lopez (knee injury)
Players to Watch
Saponara was bought from Empoli by Milan in the winter of 2013. Expected to be their trequartista of the future on his arrival, club vice-president Adriano Galliani promptly buried his young starlet, signing both Keisuke Honda and Kaka to compete for space with him.
The 24-year-old only played in eight competitive games for Milan—starting only three—before he was loaned back to Empoli last winter with an ill-advised purchase option attached to the deal.
Since then, he's scored 12 times and notched nine assists in 33 games. With Milan desperate for a creative outlet other than Giacomo Bonaventura in a midfield that lacks quality in general, fans continually seek explanations as to why three coaches (Massimiliano Allegri, Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi) completely ignored the youngster to the degree they did.
It could have been a general distrust in younger players—a fault that is systemic in Italian football. For Inzaghi, who didn't use an attacking midfielder in his 4-3-3 scheme, it was likely that he didn't fit into his system.
Whatever the reason, Milanisti now look longingly at what might have been as teams rumors swirl that teams from Liverpool (h/t the Mirror) to Serie A rivals Juventus and Napoli (h/t Football Italia) have begun to circle over the summer and fall.
One of the players that blocked Saponara at Milan is the much-maligned Honda. Since arriving from CSKA Moscow in 2014, Honda has sprinkled a few good stretches among long fallow periods, drawing the ire of the team's fans.
But the Japan international has improved since being installed on the right of the 4-4-2 Mihajlovic has used in recent weeks. He's put in some good balls and provided a consistent threat down the right side. It was his assist that Juraj Kucka headed in to equalize against Roma two weeks ago, and the general elevation in his game has been a boon to Mihajlovic's efforts since the winter break ended.
If that run continues, Empoli will have more to worry about than just Bonaventura.
Journeyman striker Maccarone seems to have finally found a home at Empoli.
Returning to the club in 2012 after a long trail that included time at Middlesbrough, Siena, Palermo and Sampdoria, Maccarone has since scored 58 times in 159 games between Serie A and Serie B.
At 36, he's turned into one of those evergreen strikers like Antonio Di Natale or Luca Toni who won't dazzle you with their moves but are always deadly in front of goal when it counts.
He's on pace for one of his best seasons in an Empoli shirt. He's already scored eight times, including back-to-back braces against Carpi and Bologna going into the winter break that put a cap on the team's four-game winning streak. He came out of the break hot as well, deciding their 1-0 win over Torino two weeks ago.
To counter Maccarone's efforts, Milan will rely on a player at the opposite end of the age spectrum. Alessio Romagnoli is learning what it's like to play for a big-name club, but he's begun to settle in and showing himself worthy of his €25 million fee.
The 21-year-old isn't a volume tackler, but he has a great positional sense and uses it to both intercept passes—he averages 2.3 per game, according to WhoScored.com—and to shepherd players into harmless areas.
Romagnoli will need all that savvy in order to keep veteran Maccarone, who relies on getting to the right spots in order to be dangerous, in check. Whoever wins this battle can determine the outcome of the match.
Odds (via Odds Shark)
Empoli win: 2-1
Milan win: 13-10