While AC Milan did well to avoid falling out of Europe completely in a competitive Champions League group, instead falling into the Europa League, the same credit cannot be given to the Rossoneri for their attempts to stay in the 2023/24 Serie A title race.
With Serie A reaching its midway point, Juventus and Inter continue to move further away from the 2021/22 champions.
A recent 3-0 victory over Monza was the perfect response to a late 3-2 defeat to Atalanta the week before, but Milan then dropped two valuable points to bottom side Salernitana on Matchday 17.
It is precisely this kind of inconsistency that looks to have derailed their Scudetto challenge this term. But with arguably the second-best squad in Italy, can they still fight their way back into contention?
AC Milan must resolve defensive instability to challenge
Last season, when Milan lost goalkeeper Mike Maignan for a prolonged period, the rest of the defence stepped up and greatly reduced the impact of the Frenchman’s absence. However, this term, even more injuries to the backline have hampered Stefano Pioli; not to mention the ill-discipline that has seen them receive five red cards already in this campaign.
Mattia Caldara has missed most of the season after ankle surgery, a torn thigh muscle to Pierre Kalulu will keep him out until March 2024 and with Malick Thiaw still recovering from a hamstring injury, left-back Theo Hernandez has often moved inside. Significantly weakening both the defensive and attacking capabilities of the side.
One reason Juventus have kept pace with Serie A leaders Inter is a near water-tight defence, but Milan have conceded almost twice as many goals as the Old Lady and Nerazzurri.
And rather than turning draws into wins, the Rossoneri are often more likely to slip to defeat than to take a point.
How long can AC Milan count on Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leao?
On the surface, having a player who has won the World Cup, the Champions League, and is his country’s all-time top goalscorer, leading the line of attack would be reassuring, but Olivier Giroud is 37 years old not, and Milan need to have a back-up plan in place by now.
Inter aside, Milan have kept pace in the overall goalscoring charts with those around them in the Serie A table, but a third of their league goals have come from the ageing Frenchman this term.
With Luka Jovic finally showing signs of life in front of goal, there is hope yet.
But Milan‘s attacking talisman of the last two years, Rafael Leao, looks a shadow of his former self and many are questioning his body language as well.
Can AC Milan reignite their Serie A title challenge in January?
The return from a long-term injury of Ismael Bennacer is a major boost for the Rossoneri, but midfield is not where they need to strengthen.
With the absent Kalulu and Thiaw the future of the Rossoneri defence, alongside Fikayo Tomori, they might seek a replacement for veteran Simon Kjaer in January. If they can remove the need to use Theo Hernandez as a stopgap, his rampaging runs down the left-hand side can help propel the side up the standings.
To resolve their reliance on Giroud, the mid-season window might be the perfect time to try to prize striking target Jonathan David away from Lille, with the Canadian suffering something of a Leao-style dip in form and being out of favour at the Ligue 1 club.
After 65 goals in 158 appearances in all competitions, the 23-year-old is worth taking a punt on. Even if he does not help fire them to immediate glory, his integration into the side will have a head start for a Serie A title push in 2024/25.