AC Milan show maturity with Champions League progress

Having fallen short last season, AC Milan have approached this season's Champions League with clear signs of having matured as champions of Italy.

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AC Milan’s comprehensive 4-0 win over RB Salzburg at the Stadio San Siro on Wednesday night secured Champions League knockout football in 2023, a year after their return to Europe’s premier club competition last season had ended in underwhelming disappointment.

This time. Although in not such a competitive group, with 2021 winners Chelsea the obvious standout alongside Austrian powerhouse RB Salzburg and Dinamo Zagreb from Croatia, the Milanese club navigated their way through Champions League Group E almost perfectly.

Naivety last year

The 2021/22 campaign had started positively, if in defeat. The Rossoneri taking a 2-1 lead against 2019 winners Liverpool, before falling to 3-2 defeat against the Premier League club. However, the group stage got continually worse for Stefano Pioli’s side.

After three games, Milan were pointless – having lost to fellow Group B rivals Porto and Atletico Madrid – and collected their first point at San Siro against Porto on Matchday 4 after an extremely fortunate own goal by Chancel Mbemba.

AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli watches on as his team warm up (@ACMilan)

Despite salvaging some pride during that encounter, though, few expected Milan to be victorious when heading to Madrid for the next fixture, but a Junior Messias goal three minutes from full-time gave them brief hope of an unlikely progression.

On the final matchday, though, an under-strength Liverpool team brushed aside the Milanese side 2-1 to leave them bottom of the group without even Europa League football to satisfy their continental desires.

Milan’s maturation

Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leao celebrate an AC Milan goal against RB Salzburg. [@acmilan]

This season, the Rossoneri were no doubt aided by entering the competition as Pot 1 seeds, because of their Serie A title success, compared to fourth seeds the previous year, but had clearly learned lessons from that rough return to Europe’s top table last term.

On Matchday 1, Milan fell behind to an early Salzburg goal from striker Noah Okafor and Alexis Saelemaekers equalised just before half-time for the visitors, but rather than get overexcited at the prospect of a crucial three points away from home, as they had at Anfield, they understood the benefit of one with their hosts in the ascendancy.

At San Siro against Zagreb, the Rossoneri recorded a comprehensive 3-1 victory to top Group E ahead of their clash with Chelsea in London and, while performing poorly in the English capital and missing the opportunity to extend their advantage, realised that their encounters with them would ultimately not decide their fate.

The controversial sending off Fikayo Tomori inside 20 minutes would have a huge impact on the match against the English club, who ran out 2-0 winners, but a 4-0 Matchday 5 thrashing of Dinamo in Croatia set up the final day play-off against Salzburg most expected when the groups drawn.

Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring for AC Milan in the Champions League. (REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo)

When Olivier Giroud rose to head home a corner kick on Wednesday night within 13 minutes, Milan never looked back. Scoring a further three times – Giroud again, Rade Krunic and Junior Messias with the other goals – and confidently step into the Last 16.

Reverse the fixtures against the Austrians and it might have been a slightly more nervous evening for AC Milan, but few can argue that they handled their objective this season with great maturity.

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