AC Milan ended 2023 on a positive note with a tight 1-0 win over Sassuolo in Matchday 18 of Serie A at the Stadio San Siro, giving them a vital boost ahead of the new year.
The win came off the back of a woeful 2-2 draw against Salernitana last time out and eased some of the pressure on coach Stefano Pioli, whilst bolstering their hopes of securing a Champions League qualification spot.
Victory came via a second half Christian Pulisic goal, as Milan ensured that they did not fall to a fourth successive home defeat to Sassuolo.
Relief for Pioli
The pressure has been building on coach Pioli in recent weeks after being eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage and a lack of consistency in Serie A leaving their title challenge in danger of falling apart. Indeed, there was talk that the former Inter and Lazio coach was in line to be dismissed if he failed to secure a positive result against Sassuolo.
Whether there is any truth to those rumours is moot following the victory, but nonetheless Pioli remains under pressure in the San Siro dugout and an unconvincing performance will do little to assuage concerns over his long-term viability.
The 2022 title-winning coach has a huge January ahead of him, with difficult matches against top-four challengers AS Roma and Bologna interspersed between more favourable clashes against Empoli and Udinese. It could prove make or break for Pioli.
Leao’s lack of form increasingly concerning
Another match, another blank for Rafael Leao. The Portugal international has established as one of Serie A’s best talents and his form in the previous two seasons was instrumental in Milan winning the scudetto in 2022, before reaching the Champions League semi-final last term, but this year has been a different story.
Leao has only netted three league goals this season and his last came in September, whilst he again struggled to make an impact against Sassuolo. Aside from a fine effort that was ruled out for offside, the closest he came was a second half opportunity wasted thanks to a tame shot when breaking into the box.
With Milan struggling for form and amid an injury crisis, they need their star man to start contributing again and a key target for the Rossoneri will be getting the most out of Leao in the new year.
Pulisic enjoying life in Serie A
Whilst the rest of the team may not be hitting the heights of previous years, new arrival Pulisic has certainly settled into Milan‘s squad and is proving himself to be a hugely influential player already.
The USMNT star arrived as a free agent from Chelsea with the baggage of years of being unable to make an impact in the Premier League, but continued to show his worth with another goal for the Diavolo.
Pulisic has struck six times in Serie A this season and is on course to enjoy his most prolific league season since becoming a professional at Borussia Dortmund, with his nine-goal haul in his maiden season at Chelsea in 2019-20.