Stefano Pioli has stated ‘tomorrow is the end of the first part of our season and we want to end it on a high with a good game against a strong opponent’ as he defended Franck Kessié and revealed Junior Messias will be available.
After the huge disappointment against Atlético Madrid on Tuesday, tomorrow Milan face Atalanta at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia for the last match before the international break (20:45 CET), and they’ll look to extend their winning run in the league.
Today, coach Pioli held a press conference at Milanello, where he answered the various questions of the journalists, from Mauro Suma, through Sky and Milannews.it, and even questions from Twitch:
On the eve of Atalanta-Milan, do you see something special in Ibrahimović agreeing to return to Milan after that disastrous 5-0 defeat in 2019, and then Ibrahimović turning 40 on the day that we face Atalanta again tomorrow?
“Well, we return to where it all started, because it’s clear that in that January, following that infamous defeat, that is when we started to truly build our journey – with Zlatan, Kjær and Saelemaekers. But our journey is not over yet, tomorrow is Ibra’s birthday, he is a year older but he’s certainly not at the end of his journey yet either. Tomorrow is a very important game, against a very strong team; one that has been a major threat for many years now, so we’ve prepared very carefully and very well.”
Commenting again on Ibra’s journey: looking forward, how much longer can he last? Especially considering his physical issues in recent times. Do you have any idea how many years Ibra might last? And if you could do anything – what would you give Ibra for his birthday?
“I don’t know how many years he can play, considering his enthusiasm, his passion, the desire to work with the team and to train with the team, I’d say he might be able to play for eternity. But it will be his body that decides when he needs to give up. He might not be in perfect condition for every game, but with the passion and motivation he has, he’s always an incredible player and an incredible asset for us. I wish I could gift him longevity, so that he could continue to do what he loves doing for a long time, which is playing football, winning and competing; I’d make his career as long as possible, but we’ll see…”
A question about the very demanding and challenging match in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid: how do you see the squad ahead of Atalanta?
“We’ve had the right number of days to recover from that effort, we’ve played often in this recent period but so have our opponents. The games we’ve played did take away a lot of physical energy, but they have given us awareness and confidence in our ability and quality. We have prepared well, we know it will be a challenging game but we’ll do our very best to win.”
You’d like to give longevity to Ibrahimović, but might he be part of the game tomorrow?
“I’ll be deciding the squad tomorrow morning, but Zlatan will not be among the called-up players. He will use the international break to the best of his ability to be able to play after the break. The more strong players we have available, the better choices we have, the more chances we have of winning. Tomorrow is the end of the first part of our season and we want to end it on a high with a good game against a strong opponent, playing all our cards.”
A question about Kessié: following his sending off against Atlético, there’s been a lot of talk that his form has dropped off, but he was fundamental and crucial for the squad last season and in the season before. So are you worried about Kessié’s recent slump in form or do you still feel that he’s an important part?
“I’m not worried but his attitude is the same as he had before, he has the right attitude in training, at work every day. He’s always willing to do his best, work hard, he’s always a serious professional, so I’m absolutely confident that he’s the same player he was last year. But, he’s not yet in full match fitness – I think he’s played quite well but he still needs a bit more to reach his full potential. But that is to be expected given the Olympics in the summer and the injury that he had. It’s perfectly normal to be slightly behind in terms of condition. I’m lucky to have a lot of very strong players, Franck is one of those players. He’s one of the players who can give a major contribution to our cause. I think it’s wrong to judge performances based on a contract. A player who has a contract for life can make the same mistakes as the player whose contract is about to expire. I judge Franck based on what he gives to the team and how he works with the team. Many teams have players who are running out their contract, but there’s not all this attention. Sooner or later we’ll have our decision, whether it is positive or negative I don’t know. What I care about is his desire and passion to play and work hard now. That is what really matters.”
You often say that there is no point looking back at a game after it’s over. But Atlético was quite a painful defeat. Did you make an exception this time and use the anger from that defeat to push the team on for the match against Atalanta?
“Defeats and disappointments need to stay with you, they need to teach you; you need to be able to turn them into positive energy moving forward, that is essential. We have never just forgotten about a game, we have always analyzed our games, understood where we went wrong and when we were 11 on 11, we proved that we were more than a match for them. Also our individual players showed significant levels of growth. In the end, we didn’t get the result we wanted, but we did perform very well and we wanted to turn that disappointment into great energy, so we can play very well tomorrow. Last season, Atalanta was second in the table in our last match, the last day of the season and it was that victory that allowed us to qualify for the Champions League. We showed great confidence in our ability.”
Talking about tomorrow’s game, there’s talk of Atalanta being less flashy and less impressive than they were in previous seasons. What do you think about them?
“I think that over the last few years, Atalanta have always started off slowly at the beginning of the season, but they are in a good form, they won in the Champions League on Wednesday. I watched their game at San Siro against Inter with great attention, it was a spectacular game. Atalanta took 21 shots on goal, that’s an incredible number. Atalanta are tactically, physically and technically very strong, they are trained very well and it’s a very strong team. I expect a very demanding and a tough game, against a determined opponent; an opponent that is organized, physical, and has technical players up front who can change the game at any moment. But I think we have the same characteristics as they do, so this is a Champions League face-off; two teams playing in the Champions League, both trying to compete to qualify for the Champions League again; both determined to win and put our opponents under as much pressure as possible. We need to play with great care and with a lot of focus.”
Going back to Kessié and on the attention given to Kessié’s renewal, or lack thereof: why is there so much talk about issue? Could it be an external person who is pushing the issue? Do you believe this issue will continue through the whole season? And a second question: when you need to rest Brahim Díaz, could Bennacer play in what was his position at Empoli – as a trequartista? Do you think it’s a possibility?
“As for Kessié, I don’t know, it has nothing to do with me. Honestly, I don’t know what’s behind it, I don’t know when things will be finished and it’s not what I care about. What I care about is his attitude, his will and his quality and strength that he puts to the service of the team. Those are the things I care about, everything else does not regard me, it does not regard the field and it is a thing that I cannot control. In every negotiations there are two sides. As for Bennacer, it could be. It will depend on the opponent, it’ll depend on the situation… he can play in that position, he has already played there. But tomorrow for the first time I will finally have Messias available. I think he can play either on the center or on the right, I’m sure he will do very well for us, playing with personality, speed and technique. So we have the options and we need to find the right ones for each game.”
When all the strikers return to fitness – Giroud, Ibra and Pellegri – who will be the first choice on the left: Rebić or Leão?
“Both. They are both first choices, they both feel like first choices, they are both great players and in each match we’ll decide. Tomorrow will be our 7th game in 21 days and then after the break we’ll have another period, just as intense, and we’ll be the second Tour de France with Roma, Porto and then the Derby. We have many important players, what’s important is that they are all ready to give the best for the team in every single game. That is how we can make the difference.”
Following the game against Atlético, you repeated that you wanted to show the players the first goal conceded. How did the players react to seeing that? And do you believe the team is ready to avoid such a mistake again tomorrow?
“We’ve seen it again, we know these situations and we’re aware of them. We try very hard to learn from our mistakes, to create opportunities to improve on. Obviously, looking at the video it’s much easier to know what should be done, doing it on the field is more difficult. It is a pity that we conceded that goal, despite the fact that we were a man down, we need to be more careful, we need to be more focused, and tomorrow we will be.”
Will Kessié start tomorrow or do you think he needs a bit of rest?
“I have three first-choice players for tomorrow – two will start, one will come off the bench. Tonali is in shape, Bennacer is in shape, and Franck is in shape. I will choose two for the game, knowing that I have a third option on the bench to change the game if I need to.”
What is the difference in Leão? What has made the difference in how he performed before and how he performs now?
“All improvement is the result of a person wanting to improve and do their best, and to get the most of their career of their life. We are here to stimulate and motivate the players. Rafael has learned from certain situations, certain experiences, he’s definitely a more complete player than he had been, and he knows he still has a lot of room for improvement.”
After 6 games, Milan have the same number of points as last year after as many games. But the team seems more mature and more aware of how they should approach games, do you see any differences between this season and last season?
“I’m happy to see a team that is more aware of its own abilities, that knows how to stay on the field, how to approach the games and these are things that we need to do tomorrow against a very strong opponent. We are becoming strong and tomorrow is a chance to prove it against a top-level opponent.”
A question about Bennacer’s great performance against Atlético: given that he suffered from COVID, can we expect a similar journey for Giroud, who also contracted COVID?
“I agree with the judgement on Bennacer, we have the data to show that he played excellently against Atlético. He needed time to recover from his physical and health issues, which meant that he sometimes played below his levels. But, once he reached peak condition, he was great again. Giroud will have the same situation. He has to recover his fitness, once he has recovered completely, the back issue is not completely gone yet – and I hope that after the break I will have him at 100% fitness – then he’ll be a very important player.”
A question about Messias: what impression do you have of Messias? And what position do you see him playing in? Could he play as a trequartista instead of Brahim, or on the right instead of Saelemaekers?
“He has only trained twice with us – yesterday and today. But what I’ve seen has impressed me a lot, he has a lot of quality, he knows how to stay on the field, he knows how to take on his opponents. I believe he can play well both on the wing and in the center. So he can do very well in multiple positions on the field. It’ll also depend on what positions we wish to take up when we’re in possession. He is certainly a quality player and he will be very important to us.”
Arrigo Sacchi said yesterday: Pioli is an intelligent man and I hope he does not make any mistake. A mistake would be to play catenaccio with 6 defenders and an ultra-defensive approach against Atalanta. Against Atlético, the Italian ultra-tactical defensive approach stereotype did not help…
“All I can say that he expressed his opinion but he also praised me. I made a decision, I will analyze them and next time I’ll try to do better.”
Everyone talked about Ibra and Giroud. Few talked about Rebić and Leão, but both have shown great hunger and determination…
“It’s right to talk about Ibra and Giroud, because they are Champions. But at this time of the season, Rafa and Ante are playing very well, they are offering great solutions. We are talking about completely different players, Leão and Rebić are better when there are spaces to play, whereas Giroud and Ibra are better in the build-up with the team. Recently I haven’t had the chance to rest them very much, so they’ve played a lot, and they’ve always been ready when called upon.”
What will be the best approach tomorrow: to attack or to stay off and wait for the opponents to attack us? Should we try to control the game or should we try to react to our opponents?
“It will all depend on the situations in that moment. I think that the more quality the opponent has, the more space you concede them near your penalty area – the more danger you run. If we want to press them the whole field man-on-man, we’ll have to be very careful, very focused, defend very well and it won’t be easy. It’s not something that suits us. We will try to play our own game, we will try to implement our own approach.”