The Rossoneri need only a point at Sassuolo to claim their first Scudetto since 2011 but were beaten at home by the same side earlier this season
AC Milan’s players realised something special was awaiting them at San Siro last Sunday as their team bus drew ever closer to the stadium.
The streets were packed with people – roughly 10,000 of them, all decked out in red and black, waving flags and flares.
Coach Stefano Pioli admitted afterwards, “That obviously fired everyone up.”
None more so than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who reportedly damaged a bus window because he was banging his fists against it with such force, keen to show the supporters that he and his team-mates were just as charged as them.
Pioli, though, was keen to calm everyone down – which is pretty much what he’s done ever since he arrived at a club in chaos in 2019.
The players’ and supporters’ shared excitement was understandable, of course.
Milan were going into the final two games of the season, against Atalanta and Sassuolo, knowing that four points would see them beat city rivals Inter to a first Serie A title since 2011.
However, Pioli was preaching caution. Atalanta and Sassuolo, after all, are two of the most dangerous sides in Italy.
So, the Milan boss turned to one of the club’s most famous fans for inspiration.
“I showed the lads an interview with Kobe Bryant, who said at 2-0 up in the NBA Play-Offs, the job is not done yet,” Pioli told DAZN.
However, Milan are halfway there after a rousing Rossoneri performance.
The Giuseppe Meazza has generated some awesome atmospheres down through the years but not for quite some time – at least not from a Milan perspective.
The pre-match tifo was spectacular; the goal that decided the game even more so.
When Rafael Leao opened the scoring against Atalanta, a mixture of relief and euphoria swept over San Siro.
However, Theo Hernandez then ran the length of the pitch to secure all three points and there was nothing but blissful disbelief.
“What has he done?!” screamed former Milan midfielder Massimo Ambrosini, who was on co-commentary duty for DAZN. “What has he done?!”
Of course, what he had done – on top of scoring the best tribute to George Weah’s ‘Goal of the Century’ San Siro is ever likely to see – is put Milan within one point of the title.
One point – that’s all they need to cap a remarkable rise from near financial ruin in 2018 to Serie A champions just four years on.
However, nobody is taking anything for granted, least of all Pioli.
“When we took charge at Milan, the team had completely different tactical ideals and concepts, so we had to change everything,” he explained.
“Now the good thing is that the players enjoy making the most of our strengths and preparing tactically, being able to adjust also to limit our opponents.
“But we need to maintain that calm and concentration that, in the end, can often prove decisive.”
Of course, convincing the fans to calm down is an impossible task.
Some are upset that most of the media coverage this week has focused on Sassuolo’s chances of destroying Milan’s title dream, with little attention given to Sampdoria’s prospects of doing likewise to Inter.
In fairness, that’s hardly surprising. Milan are two points clear and have the superior head-to-head record against Inter; the title is theirs to lose now.
All eyes will be on Reggio Emilia and it’s worth adding that even some Milan fans are so desperate to make it into the Mapei Stadium that some match tickets are exchanging hands online for thousands of euro.
There is no denying, though, that Inter could very easily end up retaining the Scudetto.
Sassuolo boast some of the most exciting attacking talent in Italy, in Gianluca Scamacca, Domenico Berardi and Giacomo Raspadori, while they’ve already beaten Milan this season – 3-1 at San Siro.
Inter have also picked up some serious momentum in recent weeks, thanks to Lautaro Martinez and Ivan Perisic, and should have little trouble seeing off Sampdoria.
The suspicion remains that Simone Inzaghi’s Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana winners will ultimately be denied a domestic treble because of a calamitous defeat at Bologna last month.
Perisic had put Inter ahead at the Dall’Ara but Marko Arnautovic equalised before a dreadful error from reserve goalkeeper Ionut Radu gifted Nicola Sansone a late winner.
It was a pivotal moment in the title race, as that draw effectively meant Milan could drop a couple of points in the run-in.
They haven’t, of course. It’s now five victories on the spin for one of the more unlikely title winners in recent seasons.
Certainly, few would dispute that Inter have the stronger squad. What Milan undeniably have, though, is a remarkable sense of unity and fighting spirit.
Comeback wins at Lazio and Verona were crucial in keeping their Scudetto hopes alive, while the way in which a relatively shallow squad has dealt with injuries to a number of key players is testament to their character as much as their talent.
The players, their coach and the directors who have assembled a fantastic group on a shoe-string budget would make for most worthy title-winners.
They are going to need one more show of strength and solidity in Sassuolo, though.
Leads have been thrown away on the final day before. Inter are all too aware of how a Scudetto slips away, with May 5 one of the most infamous dates in the club’s history because of the collapse at Lazio that allowed Juventus to claim the 2001-02 Scudetto.
Indeed, former Nerazzurri president Massimo Moratti told Adnkronos only earlier this week, “Miracles can happen and things can change from one moment to another.
“Milan could face the same destiny as us on May 5. Perhaps, May 22 could become their May 5…”
Indeed, while the title is there for the taking for Milan, the job is not done yet.