Just two wins away from guaranteeing a first Scudetto since 2011, AC Milan take the penultimate step towards Serie A supremacy when they meet Atalanta BC on Sunday.
The Lombardy rivals convene at San Siro with the hosts two points clear at the top of the table following four successive wins, while their visitors are embroiled in a battle for European football next term.
A first league title for 11 years is almost within touching distance for Milan, entering the final corner of an absorbing Scudetto race, after a stirring comeback victory over Hellas Verona last week returned them to the top of the Serie A standings above city rivals Inter – their only remaining challengers.
With just two games left of the campaign, Stefano Pioli’s side can now push five points ahead before their Nerazzurro rivals play Cagliari shortly after the conclusion of Sunday’s meeting with Atalanta.
However, it could all have been very different for the Rossoneri, as when Verona captain Davide Faraoni headed in the opening goal at Stadio Bentegodi last Sunday, Pioli may have been fearing the worst.
Despite seeing an excellent individual effort ruled out by the VAR earlier on in proceedings, Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali – a boyhood fan of the club, who was also celebrating his birthday – went on to find the net either side of the interval, before Alessandro Florenzi sealed the deal with a powerful late strike not long after leaving the bench.
The Rossoneri have responded with great character to seeing a 13-match unbeaten run ended by Inter in the Coppa Italia semi-finals last month – beating Lazio, Fiorentina and Verona in successive Serie A fixtures to seize the initiative going into the final two rounds.
Even a draw this weekend would see Milan finish a season with more than 80 points for the first time since 2010-11, when they last won Calcio’s greatest prize, and much of their recent success has been built upon defensive resilience – despite an improvised pairing at the heart of their back four.
With the help of Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu – Danish defender Simon Kjaer being sidelined by serious injury, and captain Alessio Romagnoli dropping down the pecking order – Pioli’s men have faced the fewest shots in Serie A during 2022.
Indeed, throughout this calendar year, only Liverpool have conceded fewer goals than the Rossoneri’s nine in the top five European leagues, so they have the foundation to end a seven-game winless streak at home to Sunday’s opponents.
Atalanta have been beaten in both of their last two Serie A meetings with Milan after losing only once in their previous 11, but are remarkably undefeated against their Lombardy rivals away from home since January 2014.
As they attempt to burst their more illustrious neighbours’ bubble on Sunday evening, it is quite fitting that the Nerazzurri have fared far better on Milanese soil than at their Bergamo headquarters, given the way a strange 2021-22 campaign has panned out for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side.
After a 3-1 win at Spezia last week, only champions-elect Milan and third-placed Napoli have picked up more points than La Dea from away matches this season, but posting only four wins from 18 attempts at the Gewiss Stadium has utterly undermined any hopes of a fourth consecutive Champions League qualification.
Sitting eighth in the table, Atalanta are locked together on points with both Fiorentina and Roma ahead of Serie A’s penultimate weekend, and have negative head-to-head records against both, so they may even miss out on Europa Conference League football if they fail to take points from their trip to San Siro and next week’s curtain-closer, at home to Empoli.
Having had 20 different scorers in Serie A this season – more than any other side, and the second-highest total in the league’s long history – it is perhaps perplexing why the Bergamaschi have stuttered over recent months, but with Luis Muriel and Mario Pasalic back among the goals of late, Milan certainly cannot rest easy before their final home game.
AC Milan Serie A form:
AC Milan form (all competitions):
Atalanta BC Serie A form:
Atalanta BC form (all competitions):
We say: AC Milan 1-0 Atalanta BC
Though it ultimately finished 3-2 to Milan in October’s reverse fixture – after Atalanta pulled two late goals back to give the scoreline a hint of respectability – this time around, the high stakes could make it a much tighter affair.
Indeed, even a single strike could decide the destiny of the points, and the sense of self-belief forged by recent comebacks can help the Rossoneri edge out La Dea and inch closer to the title.