AC Milan celebrated their 3,000th Serie A fixture by returning to winning ways with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Torino at the Stadio San Siro in Matchday 22, which will provide some much-needed confidence ahead of their return to Champions League action against Tottenham, but their problems were again plain to see for anybody watching.
The Rossoneri had not won since defeating Salernitana in early January, and had also exited the Coppa Italia at the hands of the Granata recently, but a powerful second-half header from Olivier Giroud gave the Milanese giants a narrow victory over a side they had fallen to twice already this season.
Many expected the return to the team of Rafael Leao to reignite the reigning champions as they look to move back into the Champions League qualification places, but instead it was the reliable Frenchman that stole the headlines.
What’s going wrong for Rafael Leao?
Demoted to a role as a substitute for the last two Rossoneri fixtures, talisman Rafael Leao was back from the start against Torino and, having failed to score or assist in his last three Serie A appearances, should have been looking to make amends.
However, the Portuguese international made little to no impact, running into crowded areas or being easily dispossessed. With talks over a contract extension with Milan moving slowly and match-winning displays quickly becoming a distant memory, the issue may be playing on Leao’s mind.
Even once the Rossoneri had taken the lead midway through the second period, the 24-year-old’s evening did not improve. Making several poor decisions that did more to halt the Milanese attacks than the Granata defence.
Despite the 1-0 loss to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina, coach Stefano Pioli persisted with a back three, but left out captain Davide Calabria to use the more attacking Alexis Saelemaekers at right wing-back. However, the collective caution of Milan meant the hosts looked as though they were playing with a back five at times.
A surprise inclusion was 21-year-old Malick Thiaw alongside Pierre Kalulu and Simon Kjaer. Yet it was a slip in the penalty area from the Danish veteran just before half-time that caused Milan to hold their collective breath, but goalkeeper Cipran Tatasuranu was quickly out to smother the Torino effort.
However, the 3-4-3 formation allowed Theo Hernandez even more freedom to have an influence in the final third of the pitch. Ultimately, creating the goal that delivered a valuable three points, when curling a cross onto the head of countryman Giroud on 62 minutes.
Champions League concerns
With continental action returning midweek, this was not a performance that will have many believing that Milan will fare any better in Europe than domestically this term and will fear the visit of Tottenham Hotspur to San Siro in the first-leg of their Last 16 Champions League clash on Tuesday night.
A number of ex-Serie A players will return to the peninsula with the Londoners, along with former Inter coach Antonio Conte and managing director Fabio Paratici. The latter who has received a 30-month ban for their role in Juventus’ 15-point deduction for inflating player values.
The experience within Italian football that the Tottenham side brings from the English capital will ensure that they are unfazed by the Serie A champions. Whereas Milan might now head into the fixture expecting a damage limitation exercise and hope to have recovered some form by the second leg.
Missed opportunity for Torino
With AC Milan on the ropes and Pioli staring at four consecutive Serie A defeats for the first time since bein in charge of Bologna in October 2012, the Granata failed to take advantage despite a sluggish start from the hosts.
Having beaten the Rossoneri 2-1 in October, Toro had the chance to record a first league double over the Diavolo since 1984/85, but striker Antonio Sanabria failed to take advantage when presented with four chances to give the Granata the lead during the first period.
Torino would have moved within five points of the reigning champions had they been able to find a winning goal and based on this performance looked the side more likely to climb the table and challenge for Champions League qualification.