Stefano Pioli wants Rafael Leao to lead a Milan resurgence as he warned his team their Champions League run must not come at the expense of a top-four finish.
The Milan head coach said Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not yet ready to start games after making two substitute appearances since returning from major knee surgery.
They cannot therefore look to the inspirational Swedish veteran, but in 23-year-old Portuguese winger Leao they have a proven match-winner and last season’s Serie A MVP.
Beaten by Fiorentina in the last round of games, Milan host Salernitana on Monday, and victory would vault them back into the top four.
The Rossoneri were on a high after booking a Champions League quarter-final spot on Wednesday, edging through at Tottenham’s expense.
Now Pioli wants them to book another adventure in that competition with a strong finish to their domestic campaign.
“We are aware that we have to focus on the league with attention and determination,” Pioli said. “To repeat the feelings we are experiencing in the Champions League, we need to finish in the top four in Serie A, and we are focused on achieving this.
“We need to find the consistency that we have lacked so far. The team is doing well physically, mentally and also tactically. We can still improve a lot and performances like the one in London help us to grow.”
Milan drew 0-0 with Tottenham to win through 1-0 on aggregate, and they will learn their next Champions League opponents in Friday’s draw.
@Ibra_official: Just warming up #SempreMilan pic.twitter.com/ps1STZrcBj
— AC Milan (@acmilan) March 10, 2023
“Tomorrow we have to be the best Milan possible because it’s an important match,” Pioli said. “As a team, we must and can improve in our choices.
“Ibra will not start against Salernitana. He is improving his fitness and will be ready to help us.
“Leao is giving us a lot, and he played well in the last few games. We have to serve him better. Rafa is the player with the most freedom of movement, and he has to look for spaces to harm the opponent’s defence.”
Leao had 11 goals and eight assists in Serie A last term, and he has eight goals and six assists this time around, with ample time to top his 2021-22 totals.
Pioli, quoted on Milan’s website, said his Serie A champions of last season need to collectively find some of that Scudetto-winning spark again.
“Compared to last season, we are doing better in Europe, not so much in the league,” he said. “The goal is to finish in the Champions League places, and every game will be crucial from now on, because there are fewer and fewer to go.
“Before the quarter-finals, we have four matches – difficult and important ones – to play in Serie A; we cannot look beyond that.”
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