When the two teams square off at San Siro on Wednesday, AC Milan will try to keep Red Bull Salzburg at arm’s length because they only need a draw to advance to the Champions League knockout stage.
The Rossoneri must win to avoid falling behind the visitors and losing first place in Group E, which is already decided with Chelsea expected to finish first.
After winning four straight Serie A games, Milan travelled to Croatia last week in desperate need of a victory after getting defeated by Chelsea twice. A calamitous own goal by the hosts, along with goals from Rafael Leao and Olivier Giroud, helped the Scudetto holders defeat Dinamo Zagreb 4-0. The Scudetto holders entered the second half with a slim lead after stand-in center-back Matteo Gabbia had opened the scoring in the first half.
As a result, Milan finished second in both Group E and the Italian top division. However, after making several lineup adjustments for the weekend match against Torino, coach Stefano Pioli finally ran into trouble: his team lost for just the second time in the league this season and for the first time on the road in 18 Serie A away games.
The injury-plagued Rossoneri dropped to third as a result, six points behind free-scoring Napoli, but their victory at Stadion Maksimir gave them control over their own European fate.
Now, Pioli’s team is tantalisingly close to qualifying for the round of 16 for the first time in nine long years with just a draw against closest rivals Salzburg. Whatever happens, Milan can no longer finish fourth, meaning that continental football is already guaranteed for 2023.
They would like to win the Champions League games three times in a row for the first time since October 2011, which would guarantee their inclusion in the last-16 draw on Monday.
Milan has only lost one of their previous 12 meetings with teams from the neighbouring country of Austria, and they have gone undefeated in their last eight, so history is undoubtedly on their side when it comes to these contests.
In fact, Salzburg’s only other Champions League away match against Milan ended in a 3-0 loss back in the Rossoneri’s 1994 heyday. No Austrian club has ever won a UEFA-sanctioned match at San Siro in the previous 12 attempts.
Die Roten Bullen, however, are hoping to advance past the group stage for the second consecutive season after failing to do so in any of their previous three campaigns.
Matthias Jaissle’s team has talked about preparing for “a final” at the storied Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, so Wednesday is simply a matter of “win or bust” for them.
The enduring Austrian champions were defeated 2-1 by Chelsea last time out in a game that was entertaining but ultimately went against them due to a goal from Kai Havertz midway through the second half, rendering Junior Adamu’s fine equaliser meaningless.
Salzburg had been unbeaten in Group E up to that point and had gone 16 games without a loss overall. On Saturday, they bounced back with a Bundesliga victory over Hartberg, with Swiss striker Noah Okafor scoring the game’s lone goal..
The club’s last 15 goals in the Champions League under Jaissle have all come from players under the age of 23. Okafor, who is 22 years old, is just one of many such players. The average age of Salzburg’s starting XI in this season’s group stage is 22 years, 279 days, making them the youngest team.
They will then bet on their courage to make history at San Siro and advance to the round of 16 with a memorable win. If they lose and Dinamo win, they could still come in fourth place and go home empty-handed.
Milan Team News
Due to injuries and his need to rotate some players, Stefano Pioli, who just this week signed a new deal with Milan that will last until 2025, has lately had an unsteady starting XI.
Tommaso Pobega and Divock Origi should make way for Ismael Bennacer and Olivier Giroud, as such a strategy did not work out well in Turin. At the age of 36 years, Giroud became the oldest player in history to score his 20th Champions League goal last week.
Fikayo Tomori, an English defender, is back at the back for the hosts after serving a suspension in Zagreb. He should team up with either Matteo Gabbia or the incredibly seasoned Simon Kjaer at the centre of the back four.
Fullbacks Davide Calabria and Alessandro Florenzi, as well as Belgian winger Alexis Saelemaekers, are still out with injuries to their thighs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mike Maignan are still out.
AC Milan possible starting lineup:
Tatarusanu; Kalulu, Tomori, Kjaer, Hernandez; Tonali, Bennacer; Rebic, Diaz, Leao; Olivier Giroud
Salzburg Team News
Junior Adamu, who scored last week, and Oumar Solet, both of whom are dealing with thigh issues and might not be ready in time, are Salzburg’s main worries in that regard.
Due to the absence of Fernando and Nicolas Capaldo, Mattias Jaissle may opt to start with Noah Okafor and Benjamin Sesko in tandem up front, depending on Adamu’s state of readiness. Max Wober, who can also play in the middle if necessary, will compete with Roten Bullen captain Andreas Ulmer, 36, for the left-back position.
Red Bull Salzburg possible starting lineup:
Kohn; Dedic, Pavlovic, Wober, Ulmer; Gourna-Douath; Seiwald, Sucic, Kjaergaard; Noah Okafor, Benjamin Sesko