An embarrassing team display by AC Milan at the Stadio Friuli on Saturday night overshadowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to the Rossoneri starting lineup and raised fears they could suffer further humiliation when facing Napoli in the Champions League quarter-finals in April.
The ageing frontman had equalised after a sluggish Milan side allowed Roberto Pereyra to give Udinese the lead within 10 minutes, but more poor defending saw them concede five minutes into first half stoppage time, as Beto scuffed a low cross into the net.
Having started Matchday 27 with the chance to go into second in the Serie A standings behind the Partenopei, the recently steadfast Rossoneri defence continued to collapse as Kingsley Ehizibue secured a 3-1 victory, and exposed a Milan attack that has looked blunt too often during the 2022/23 campaign.
Milan defence cannot mask attacking deficiencies
Since suffering heavy defeats to Lazio and Sassuolo in January, Milan had turned around their fortunes by switching to a 3-5-2-1 formation that provided a defensive solidity, and have conceded an average of 0.5 goals per game in all competitions since, but other issues have materialised.
If the Rossoneri concede, as happened on 10 minutes when Lazar Samardzic was allowed to burst forward and Pereyra eventually slipped the ball past Mike Maignan, they struggle in front of goal to the extent that they always look vulnerable. Averaging a goal a game since that 5-2 loss to Sassuolo at San Siro highlights those problems, with Rafael Leao not the threat he has been before and few looking capable of picking up the challenge.
When Beto scored immediately after Ibrahimovic had levelled the scores, it looked as though the Milan players trudged off the pitch lacking the self-belief that they could turn things around, and even with 20 minutes left after Ehizibue had made it three that same lack of confidence seemed to consume the Rossoneri.
No heroic return for Ibrahimovic
After 14 months without a Serie A start – the last being against Juventus in January 2022 – Ibrahimovic captained the Rossoneri in Udine partly due to the absence of Olivier Giroud, who was missing through suspension, and the Swede looked keen to display that he could have an impact.
However, the 41-year-old struggled during open play and was limited to flashing a long-range free-kick over the crossbar, until a moment of good fortune gave the striker the moment in the spotlight he craves. With the referee deciding, after VAR intervention, that Jaka Bijol deliberately handled a ball deflected off his own thigh, Milan were awarded a penalty.
The initial strike was saved by goalkeeper Marco Silvestri, but a Zebrette player had encroached. The resulting outrage at the retaken spot kick saw Udinese coach Andrea Sottil being sent-off and Ibrahimovic expectedly redeemed himself at the second attempt. The problem for Milan, though, is that they need a greater contribution when first-choice Giroud is unavailable, and Ibrahimovic can no longer provide what he once could.
International headache for Pioli
With a visit to Naples on Matchday 28 after the international break, coach Stefano Pioli will wait anxiously to see if those representing their countries return unscathed and ready for three encounters with Napoli that could define the rest of their season.
Having drawn each other in the Champions League quarter-finals, the Serie A fixture at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona could be the perfect opportunity to show the Partenopei that they mean business when they meet in continental competition and cement their top-four credentials going into the final weeks of the campaign.
However, Milan must defend better and approach those games with more concentration and determination, or they will find themselves given a similar run around by Napoli as Udinese did, but with devastating effect considering the current form of Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.