STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan): When the AC Milan-Cremonese team sheet was handed out in the press box ahead of kick-off, Stefano Pioli‘s decision to rest his best players came as little surprise, reminding most of the heavily-rotated side that he fielded at Bologna just a few weeks ago when the Rossoneri were soon to take on Napoli in the second-leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.
Back then, Milan went behind seconds into the game, but despite the final 1-1 draw they produced an overall solid performance at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, which is probably why their manager was convinced that a home fixture against relegation-threatened Cremonese was the ideal occasion to give the likes of Rafael Leao, Sandro Tonali and Theo Hernandez a chance to recharge their batteries ahead of more demanding games, notably a two-legged Champions League semi-final against Inter.
Pioli’s rotations are holding AC Milan back in Serie A
However, as much as the reigning champions should be expected to possess the means to get past the 19th-placed side in Serie A even without their regular starters, the gap between the starters and their replacements had already been made evident by the previous outings. Brahim Diaz, Alexis Saelemaekers and Ismael Bennacer were the only players on the pitch who had got their names on the scoresheet at least once in the last two months of action, considering all competitions.
Rather than an act of trust, starting both Divock Origi and Charles De Ketelaere in a game that Milan needed to win to not lose further ground from the top four seemed a desperate attempt to prove they could still revive their season, but it is hard to believe Pioli was not aware of the risk he was taking.
Heavy rotations before Champions League fixtures have already cost Milan valuable points against Empoli, Bologna and now Cremonese. On all of these occasions, the coach was eventually forced to bring on Rafael Leao, as well as Olivier Giroud in two of them for the final 20 minutes, therefore making his attempt to save their physical and mental energies futile.
Have AC Milan decided to prioritise the Champions League?
Yet, this wasn’t enough to stop Pioli from replicating the same approach once again, and the reason could be simpler than many may think – after all, it paid off in the Champions League, helping the Rossoneri secure an unexpected qualification for the semifinals.
Therefore, the suspicion comes that both the coach and the club may have decided that kicking their city rivals Inter out of the major European competition and getting their own chance in the subsequent final would be the best way to end an otherwise bitter season on a positive note.
And if it is, such a plan would surely entail a series of risks – Milan take on Lazio four days before their first-leg derby, and a tricky fixture at Spezia will follow, forcing Pioli to once again decide whether to rest his best players against a side that will be desperate to earn points to avoid relegation.
Dropping further points in fixtures like this, and with a game at Juventus scheduled on Matchday 37, would be a serious blow to Milan’s hopes to make the Serie A top four.
It somehow looks like both the coach and club are ready to face such a risk in order to maximise their chances to reach the Champions League final, probably knowing that, as much as it could seem unlikely, the prospect of a win against either Manchester City or Real Madrid would be the only cure for the disappointment left by an unexpectedly weak Serie A title defence.