Stefano Pioli was happy with how his team reacted against Celtic, as they secured qualification in the Europa League with a game in hand.
The Rossoneri hosted Celtic for a match at San Siro last night and it started in the worst possible fashion for them as after 15 minutes they found themselves two goals down (Tom Rogic 7′ and Odsonne Édouard 14′), and without Simon Kjær who picked up an injury.
However, Milan – still without Zlatan Ibrahimovic but with Stefano Pioli back on the sidelines – fought back wonderfully and managed to get the three points: Hakan Çalhanoğlu (24′), Samu Castillejo (26′), Jens Petter Hauge (50′) and Brahim Díaz (82′) scored the goals, while Gigio Donnarumma had a number of great saves. It’s actually the first time in Milan’s history that they came back from a 2-0 disadvantage in Europe.
Since Lille beat Sparta Prague in the other match on the group, Milan and Lille have secured qualification with one match still to play. Milan are in second place, facing Sparta next Thursday.
“The game? The guys wanted to test me, to see if I had recovered! [Laughs],” Pioli told Sky Italia. “We had started well but two moments carelessness put us in difficulty. It is true that every game gives us ideas upon which we grow, and tonight there were many of those. We must understand that you can go behind but you can get back to any match by team as a team. Today we did well, we are a young team, we were down by two goals and without Kjær, we were missing other important players, but we managed to recover, we were a team and this is what counts.
“The opponents? Celtic tonight had little to play for from the standings point of view but they wanted to get an important result. We like these type of matches, we can do better but I’m very satisfied with the team’s reaction. Having qualified with a game in hand, catching our breath for a moment with such a busy schedule is important for us.
“Being away while positive for COVID-19? Two weeks seemed like an eternity, beyond the matches, there is the desire to be together. We have the pleasure of working together and hard to give and get the most out it. We want to continue like this, be ambitious, and above all think about the next game.
“The absence of Ibrahimović? We know that Zlatan is such an important player even when he is not playing. I like the definition of Bonera, who called him a team leader. He has given the team even more competitiveness and the team was good at taking advantage of Ibra’s presence. We hope he can come back soon, I don’t think he can come back on Sunday since it’s a muscle problem and we need to be careful. It’s better to wait for a match and feel good rather than risk it. We are waiting to understand his condition and that of Leão. We’ll see how it goes day by day. The sooner we recover them the better, even though we have many solutions: today Hauge, Brahim and Castillejo scored, these are important signs.
“The opponents in Serie A? Inter, Juventus and Napoli are stronger than us and they started out with different objectives. I repeat to the team that we must be ambitious to try to win every single game, we have shown that we can play on par with Roma, Inter and Napoli and I ask the team to grow a lot more. I believe that the team can still grow a lot, few players have reached their best, I hope this team can continue to grow even more.
“Injuries? The worries are injuries: Leão picked up a problem in the national team, Ibra in Naples, Kjær got a muscular problem and we don’t yet know the extent of it. The temperatures don’t help… we wanted a lot of commitments and we won’t back down, we will be able to also overcome these injuries.
“The death of Maradona? I faced him as an opponent, even though I never marked him personally – I used to mark Bruno Giordano or Careca. He was a fantastic player, I have always admired him, and he was a Champion and a genius. In this period I’ve seen many documentaries about him and I was moved. Diego will never die, he remains a myth of football, a legend. I’m really sorry, he will always remain in our hearts and minds.”
Speaking to MilanTV, Pioli said: “I think this game has given us some interesting prompts. I don’t think we started the match with the wrong mentality because we tried to dominate it from the start but we also made some mistakes which complicated matters significantly and we must learn from this that we always need to be alert, we need to understand all the situations and be technically precise. Another important lesson from tonight is the team’s great strength, they continued to believe in their abilities and kept on playing: 2 goals down we were very much alive, we continued to attack while conceding a few chances to a team that counters well but we won once again showing great quality and a great heart. If we can go forward with these 2 characteristics, we can go far.
“Another record broken? We don’t pay any mind to the records, we’re focused on growing and improving. However, they do go to show that we have made tremendous progress, we went 2 goals down, it hasn’t happened much this year but we showed character and the determination to fight back, to come out on top despite the difficulties we faced: we didn’t just go 2 goals down, we lost Kjær to injury early on. At a time when we are already without other key players, especially in terms of personality and character. All that shows this team’s true strength, they want to do well, they want to play well, they always fight to win and that is a massive step ahead.
“The group? I am very fortunate to have many players at my disposal, even though we were without important players in attack like Ibrahimović and Leão and I chose to rest Saelemaekers, I still had quality players to choose from. I’m very happy Hauge is showcasing his quality, I believe he can still improve a lot because he hasn’t been with us long and still struggles with the language, and he’s not quite used to the positions on the field. But he has great quality. Then there’s Brahim and Çalhanoğlu, I have many options, and Castillejo who scored and could have scored many more, and he’d scored against Lille too. It’s great that the guys make my job more difficult when I have to choose and it’s good they’re always ready because we’ll need many strong players because we have a lot of objectives and tough matches to play.
“Securing qualification? Our objective was to win the group but the most important thing was to qualify. Having done so a game early will allow me to make more reasoned choices. Many are already playing but those who aren’t will be given time, it’ll be their turn and a good test for them.”
Pioli also held a post-match press conference: “The goal of Hauge? It was a game that got very complicated with the double disadvantage, but the team was good. This game will serve as a lesion. Hauge scored a good goal, I’m very because is understanding the way to play.
“If at the start we played as individuals and not as a collective? We made a mistake in the situations we know, making mistake from a technical point of view. It’s a game that will make us grow and improve more and more.
“Why did I play Kjær instead of Romagnoli? Because Romagnoli had some problems recently. Talking to Alessio, it was preferable not to have him play three games in one week. Simon felt good, unfortunately these things can happen, it could have happened on Sunday too. Clearly, the risk of injury increases when you play every three days.
“If Ajer can be of interest in January? I’m not the director of the Technical Area. Let’s see, there are a lot of games left until January. We focus on the next games and then we’ll see if and what we can do in the January mercato.”