Stefano Pioli is getting ready for his Champions League debut as a coach tonight and he spoke to the press.
2014 was the last time Milan stepped on the pitch for the Champions League. Tonight at Anfield – the wait ends: the Rossoneri take on Liverpool away from home for the first Matchday.
On Tuesday, coach Pioli held a press conference at Milanello, where he answered the various questions of the journalists.
Stefano, a year ago we played Shamrock Rovers, Bodø/Glimt, Rio Ave… with the greatest of respect to those three opponents – now we are playing Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto. Does that already show how much the team has improved? And how do we make sure that we actually stay at Europe’s top table?
“Yes of course, there has been progress compared with the opposition that we played in the preliminary rounds of the Europa League last season; a whole season has gone by since then, but we have made mistakes, we have worked on tweaking things and getting better in that time. And I think the start of the season has really proven that the team know how they need to set-up, how they need to play and how they need to approach certain matches. But of course the standard will improve now, increase, that’s what we wanted and that’s what we were striving for throughout last season. It’s now a great opportunity to show that despite the level going up we are still able to compete.”
I’m going to start with the last bad piece of news which is that after the training session on Tuesday morning, Zlatan Ibrahimović picked up that knock. Two questions in one now: going to Anfield without Ibra – how much can it impact your team selection? And given that he was out for four months and he did everything to make sure that he can come back and he came back with a bang in your last match against Lazio, and then a few hours later he pulled up again; are you not considering the fact that you might pick a Milan side without Ibrahimović? He’s about to turn 40 and that might be the case throughout the season…
“No… first and foremost, Zlatan would have started the game but it’s simply a swelling to his Achilles tendon. He was actually looking fit after four months but maybe the pitch at San Siro caused him a bit of it. We hoped that he’d be able to start, he gave us the go this morning but unfortunately he is still experiencing pain and there’s no pain in taking a risk in such an important stage of the season. It’s a massive game on Wednesday, we have plenty of important fixtures coming up. I’m considering a Milan side with Zlatan, that’s what he wants, that’s what I want, and that’s what all of his teammates want as well. We’ve got plenty of very good options and that’s part of football; occasionally you have these unexpected absentees, but we’ve prepared very well. We’ve got Giroud, we’ve got Rebić… I’ll see which one of those players will start the match and which will come off the bench. I’ll certainly need them, but we’re well stocked in the forward line. So we are disappointed for Ibra, above all for him because he always wants to be involved and he always wants to be fit, but I think we’ll see him again very soon.”
You played in the European Cup as a player but you’ve never been involved in the Champions League as a Coach; you came very close but you didn’t make it to the competition… you’ve got over 20 years of experience. Could it hold it back, the fact that you haven’t been involved in the Champions League in your coaching career? How does a Coach deal with this sort of situation?
“You do it just as you do it in any other match, you try and approach the game as best you can, prepare the fixtures as best you can… I’m a big fan of English football, I know Liverpool inside-out, we have studied them well, and we have really broken down what they do. A number of us don’t have any Champions League experience but football is in the end the same game, we know what we need to do when we have the ball and when we’re out of possession… we know how to intervene to try and make sure we stay in the game against a very good team. I think we made it into the Champions League thanks to our ideas, our energy, our mentality, and we need to try and maintain all of those components parts; above all in Wednesday’s fixture.”
You’ve got the hardest team in the group, at least on paper, first up. Is that actually an advantage in terms of how you manage the campaign?
“No, I don’t think there will be any easier games… I think they’ll all be tricky fixtures. I didn’t expect our first match to be the easiest game, it’s a very tricky group, and our opponents are very competitive, they’ve been playing in Europe – all of them – for a number of years now. But we want to try and write our own history as of Wednesday night. And as Kjær said, we’ve got the utmost respect and know what a good side Liverpool are, but we are also convinced of what a good team we are.”
In light of the absence of Ibrahimović, clearly you have to pick one of Rebić and Giroud when it comes to who will start at center forward. How much of playing time does Giroud have in his legs, because he obviously just came back from COVID-19? How is he looking?
“On Monday he was a bit down, now he’s better. He still doesn’t have 90 minutes under his belt, because obviously when you’re out of action for a couple of weeks you are lacking something. But Rebić is coming off a great game, he is looking fit, he’s willing to play and he worked a great deal for the team. So I’m sure that whoever starts and whoever comes on, will be ready. They do have different characteristics, they are different players but of course they do slot in well with the rest of the team.”
Against Lazio we did a very good job when it came to pressing them high. Is there a risk that Jürgen Klopp might pinch that idea? What might happen then? Will it then be important to see Maignan knocking a ball long to Leão?
“Yes, we need to be very intelligent out there on the pitch and be aware of the space that the opposition afford us, but the same goes for us. When you’re defending then of course you’ll allow the opposition some chances. Liverpool do like to press high, they normally don’t like to sit back so they will press in the entirety of our half of the field, but we will need to keep the ball under pressure or we will kick the ball long directly. It’s about making the right decisions and having the right executions from a technical perspective.”