Stefano Pioli insisted there is still more to come from his Milan side as he targeted a winning end to an impressive 2020.
Milan enter their final fixture of the year against Lazio sitting top of the Serie A standings, one point better off than bitter rivals Inter and four in front of reigning champions Juventus.
The Rossoneri are the only unbeaten side in Europe’s top five leagues in 2020-21, winning nine and drawing four of their 13 matches.
Going further back, meanwhile, no team in Serie A has accrued more wins (22) or lost fewer games than Milan (two) this calendar year.
Another victory for Milan at home to Lazio on Wednesday will make certain of top spot at Christmas and Pioli is desperate to end 2020 on a high.
— AC Milan (@acmilan) December 21, 2020
“It’s important that we give our all to win this game, without thinking about the standings and where we currently are,” he said at a pre-match news conference on Tuesday.
“We have to play for 95 minutes with absolute conviction. We still have room for improvement and are not focused on others like Juve and Inter.”
Milan’s extraordinary year, albeit one that will end without a trophy to show for their efforts, is in stark contrast to a dire 2019 that ended with a crushing 5-0 loss to Atalanta.
That was Milan’s heaviest defeat for more than 21 years and Pioli considers that to be a turning point, a transition helped by the arrival of free signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic the following month.
“Sometimes defeats teach you more than victories,” he said. “It was a humiliating defeat for everyone involved, but that was the first stone on which we build this Milan.
“From that point on we understood what was needed, and in January the club made some excellent purchases.”
While Ibrahimovic has been key to Milan’s form over the past 12 months with 20 goals – only Cristiano Ronaldo (33), Ciro Immobile (27) and Romelu Lukaku (22) have scored more – others have also stepped up at important times.
Rafael Leao has benefited from Ibrahimovic’s recent spell on the sidelines, starting seven league games this term and scoring Serie A’s quickest ever goal inside six seconds in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Sassuolo.
He is the youngest player in the top five European leagues to have scored at least three times in the last three seasons, but Pioli has told the 21-year-old to add more goals to his game.
— Lega Serie A (@SerieA_EN) December 21, 2020
“Nobody at the age of 21 can think they have reached full football maturity,” Pioli said. “Leao has to think more about scoring goals and do more as a forward.
“All young players can still improve. That goes for all the squad – a talented group that can grow a lot. They are taking steps forward and it is important to continue like that.”
Alexis Saelemaekers was also on target last time to double his goals tally for the Serie A campaign in a game that saw Pioli field a team with an average age of 22 years and 313 days – Milan’s second youngest line-up since 2004-05.
“He is a player who is working every day to grow and improve,” Pioli said. “He is learning to be less frenetic when he is on the ball in full swing.
“I didn’t previously know about him as a player but his name was suggested by the scouts and we then watched him together.
“The performances of all my players make me understand that I have a strong and youthful squad. Now I hope to have more players back from the treatment room when we return.”