Why AC Milan could give Manchester United a run for their money in Europa League tie 

Following the demolition of Real Sociedad, next up for Manchester United in the Europa League is a giant of European football, who’ve had a surprising renaissance this season. 

AC Milan have been on the road to recovery for the best-part of a decade now, with their last Serie A title coming in 2011.

Their last appearance in the Champions League came in 2014, so while Juventus and neighbours Inter have been top-dogs, Milan have plundered from experienced operators to former players in the managerial hot-seat – all failing miserably. 

AC Milan have endured something of a surprise renaissance this season at home and in Europe

Stefano Pioli's team are singing to his tune and they'll be confident ahead of facing Man Utd

Stefano Pioli’s team are singing to his tune and they’ll be confident ahead of facing Man Utd 

In step Stefano Pioli in late-2019. With Milan reeling in 13th place, they were on to their ninth manager in as many years and the Italian – who used to coach rivals Inter – was welcomed by #PioliOut trending amongst Milan supporters online. 

There aren’t many naysayers now though. While the last few months have seen a drop-off – perhaps inevitably – Milan have flourished this season and led the Italian top-flight for much of the campaign. 

So, what has been the secret to their success this season? And how can they cause Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team problems over two legs in this last-16 clash of continental heavyweights? 

HOW HAVE THEY DONE THIS SEASON?

Very well, far above expectations. 

In a league dominated by Juventus for nine seasons, Milan were the runaways at the top from the start of the season in September. 

They won eight of their first 10 league matches and did not lose in Serie A until January 6 – against Juve. 

Whilst also doing enough to progress in Europe, Pioli came across a system of counter-attacking in big games which worked. 

Obviously helped by a clinical up-top and every player working in doggedly at their roles individually, Milan fans suddenly had a team where they could dare to dream again. 

Ibrahimovic celebrates after netting in a significant victory against Napoli back in November

Ibrahimovic celebrates after netting in a significant victory against Napoli back in November 

However, in the last month or so, they’ve come somewhat unstuck – not least due to their rivals Inter. 

A tempestuous Coppa Italia quarter-final – memorable for the clash between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku – finished with a devastating last-minute exit. 

A chastening 3-0 defeat in the league on February 21 was also a significant blow to their title hopes, off the back of a surprise defeat to Spezia Calcio.

But they’re still in with a shout, six points off Inter – four clear of Juve below them. 

After sneaking through in the Europa League last-32 against Red Star Belgrade on away goals, is now the time for Pioli to switch his focus? 

Two painful defeats - one memorable for this clash between Romelu Lukaku and Ibrahimovic - to Inter have derailed Milan in the past six weeks

Two painful defeats – one memorable for this clash between Romelu Lukaku and Ibrahimovic – to Inter have derailed Milan in the past six weeks 

WHO ARE THE STARS? 

There’s one obvious star in the irrepressible Ibrahimovic – but there’s far more to this effective Milan side. 

Let’s start with the self-proclaimed lion though. Last summer, his future was hazy, amid retirement talk. But, persuaded to carry on by Pioli, the Swedish star has more than proved his critics wrong. Too old? Not a chance. 

He is the team’s top scorer with 16 goals in all competitions and was – during Milan’s pomp this season – the runaway figure at the top of the Serie A standings. 

Ibrahimovic has been a leader for this Milan side both on and off the pitch at the age of 39

Ibrahimovic has been a leader for this Milan side both on and off the pitch at the age of 39

But with Ibrahimovic’s misdemeanours and injuries – he will miss the first-leg at Old Trafford – Milan’s excellent form has tailed away. 

Who else though? Defensive midfielder Franck Kessie is an ever-present, with the most appearances in the whole squad at 38 – even above goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. 

The Ivory Coast international has an excellent knack for breaking up play via his reading of the game and is in amongst the goals too – 10 this season, their second highest-scorer. 

Franck Kessie has been an ever-present for this Milan team at the heart of the midfield

Franck Kessie has been an ever-present for this Milan team at the heart of the midfield 

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has been reliable and has even stepped in as captain

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has been reliable and has even stepped in as captain 

Elsewhere in attacking positions, Samu Castillejo, Hakan Calhanoglu and Brahim Diaz have all been regularly called upon, with Croat Ante Rebic also hugely effective. 

Further back, Donnarumma has continued to be a reliable man between the sticks, while the arrival of Chelsea centre Fikayo Tomori in January has revitalised the back-line alongside captain Alessio Romagnoli.

Full backs Davide Calabria and Theo Hernandez are key cogs too, more on that later. 

WHO IS THEIR MANAGER?

A former Serie A centre back himself, 55-year-old Pioli’s role at Milan is his 14th different managerial role in Italian football.  

Pioli has galvanised a sleeping giant this season, though there has been a drop-off recently

Pioli has galvanised a sleeping giant this season, though there has been a drop-off recently 

Spells at Bologna, Lazio and Inter – as recently as four years ago – means he is well-accustomed to what is needed from a domestic standpoint and it has undoubtedly all come together for him this season. 

He signed a contract extension until 2022 last year and boasts a win percentage record above 55 per cent in all competitions. 

From the mess he inherited upon his arrival 18 months ago, Pioli should receive enormous credit for the revival in this sleeping giant’s fortunes. 

HOW ARE THEY EFFECTIVE? 

Milan are comfortable with the concept of playing on the counter-attack – on the big occasions, their opponents regularly have more possession. 

Particularly on the road, Milan thrive on the counter-attack. They often overload out-wide, in order to maximise their opportunities for overlapping full backs to be effective. 

Calabria and Hernandez – a standout performer at left back – surge forward to great effect. Outnumbering opponents out-wide forges opportunities in front of goal. 

Watch out for ex-United right back Diogo Dalot too, who could feature either on the right instead of Calabria or on the left for Hernandez, who is an injury doubt. 

Right back Davide Calabria has been a key player for AC Milan this season

Left back Theo Hernandez has been equally if not even more effective on the other side, though he is a fitness doubt for the first-leg

Full backs Davide Calabria (left) and Theo Hernandez (right) are crucial to this Milan team 

They are not the most free-scoring team in the league, with Napoli in sixth having scored five more goals than their 50 in Serie A.

But they picked up a habit very early on of grinding out victories, often by slim margins, as illustrated by their tight progression against Red Star last month.

Sounds perfect for a European run, then. 

CAN THEY CAUSE MANCHESTER UNITED PROBLEMS? 

Absolutely, though this match does hit them at a bad time. 

Pioli is without a number of key players due to injury at the moment. Ibrahimovic, Rebic, Calhanoglu are all set to miss the first leg, while Hernandez’s fitness is up in the air. 

Attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, one of many players out injured, will be sorely missed

Attacking midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, one of many players out injured, will be sorely missed

Back-up striker Mario Mandzukic – an experienced scorer of goals on the European stage – is also out, along with midfielder Ismael Bennacer. 

With United boasting a near-enough full-strength squad, there’s no doubt the Red Devils have the upper-hand.

However, with no other option to turn to up front, Pioli is likely to pick Rafael Leao up front, whose raw pace could trouble Harry Maguire in particular. 

Fikayo Tomori, on loan from Chelsea, has impressed for the Italian side since his January arrival

Fikayo Tomori, on loan from Chelsea, has impressed for the Italian side since his January arrival

The battle of the in-form full backs will also be fascinating to see, as will Kessie’s role in trying to nullify Bruno Fernandes’ threat. 

Tomori, on loan from Chelsea, has also impressed in his two months since moving to Italy. Up against Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford, the Englishman will back his strength and sharpness. 

With the second leg back in the San Siro, Milan will simply be looking to make sure the tie is still alive come the reversal next week. It should be an intriguing two-legged clash.