Seeking to extend their advantage at the top of Serie A – for one day at least – AC Milan welcome a faltering Empoli side to San Siro on Saturday.
While the Rossoneri returned to the top of the pile following last week’s crucial win over Scudetto rivals Napoli, they have sometimes struggled against the league’s minnows so will be keen to take three points against a team yet to win in 2022.
Ending a run of three draws in successful style, Milan edged out one of their fellow title contenders last week, as Olivier Giroud’s clever finish proved enough to claim a narrow victory over Napoli at Stadio Maradona.
As a result, Stefano Pioli’s side are in first place again – leading city rivals Inter by two points, though having played a game more – and have inched closer to realising dreams of a first championship triumph since 2011.
Though held to a draw by Inter in the clubs’ Coppa Italia semi-final first leg at the start of the month, the Rossoneri are still in contention for a domestic double, but to achieve such heights they will surely have to improve their recent record against teams from the league’s lower echelons.
Having recently drawn at rock-bottom Salernitana and proved unable to defeat lowly Udinese for the second time this season, Milan have won only two of their last six Serie A encounters with sides in the bottom half of the table.
Pioli may be somewhat concerned, too, about his team’s decreasing productivity in the opposition penalty area, as in their last three league games at San Siro neither side has scored more than once – since the end of January, only Genoa’s home matches have seen fewer goals.
That may be a far cry from when Milan won 4-2 at Stadio Carlo Castellani in the reverse fixture of this Saturday’s engagement, in a period when they scored 13 times in four league and cup games, but titles are often won with as much grit as glamour.
Remarkably still sitting comfortably in mid-table despite their decline, since mid-December no side has earned fewer points in Serie A than Empoli, who have failed to win a single game in the process.
Losing five and drawing six of their matches during that spell, the Tuscan club are only as high as 13th in the standings due to a combination of their superb start to the season and the inadequacies of others. They do, though, remain 10 points above the relegation zone with 10 games left to play.
The Serie B champions have certainly seen their form nosedive since the turn of the year, but their away record still compares favourably with those around them in the top-flight pecking order – with 21 points from 14 road trips seeing them sit seventh in those rankings.
Curiously, it has been on home soil where the Azzurri have struggled most and leaked the majority of their 53 goals conceded so far – the second-worst total throughout Serie A.
Therefore, a second straight away game may even play in their favour on Saturday night, where they will hope to follow up last week’s disappointing goalless draw at Genoa with an almighty shock at San Siro.
We say: AC Milan 2-0 Empoli
Only 18th-placed Venezia have conceded more shots on target than Empoli’s total of 162 in Serie A this season, so an opportunity surely presents itself for Milan to stretch their lead in the standings.
The hosts’ scoring rate may have dipped in recent weeks, but Leao and Giroud have been in impressive form, with ‘King Zlatan’ also bringing his charismatic presence to bear on the bench. Therefore, Empoli’s winless run will roll on.