Pioli relishing Conte battle as Milan make long-awaited Champions League knockout return

By Sports Desk February 13, 2023

Stefano Pioli is relishing Tuesday's meeting with old foe Antonio Conte as Milan prepare to host Tottenham in their first outing in the Champions League knockout stages since 2014.

Milan finished second to Chelsea in Group E to progress to the last 16 for the first time since the 2013-14 season, when they were hammered 5-1 on aggregate by Atletico Madrid.

Conte's Tottenham stand between Milan and a spot in the last eight, with the former Juventus and Inter boss one of five Italian coaches still present in the competition.

Conte has won eight of his last nine games against Milan (L1) in a run dating back to 2013, and he joins Pioli, Inter's Simone Inzaghi, Napoli's Luciano Spalletti and Real Madrid's Champions League specialist Carlo Ancelotti on an impressive list of Italian bosses to escape the group stage.

Asked who was the strongest of those coaches at Monday's pre-match press conference, Pioli said: "Ancelotti is a symbol but so are Conte and Spalletti. 

"There are lots of good coaches, we have a good school and important characteristics. 

"Conte is a great coach and one of the few colleagues who called to congratulate me on the Scudetto last season.

"It will be a difficult challenge, inevitably it will be like this for a quarter-final place. A week ago they beat Manchester City. It will be a great game that we will have to play well."

Despite Milan's absence from the latter stages of the competition in recent years, only Real Madrid (14) can better the Rossoneri's tally of seven European Cup/Champions League titles.

Asked whether Milan's illustrious history in the competition could present a psychological barrier for Spurs, Pioli said: "I can't know what our opponents are experiencing, I know what we feel. 

"We are highly motivated and it's normal. We only think up to Tottenham. Winning the Champions League is a dream today but it's useless to think about it now."

With Milan 18 points adrift of Serie A leaders Napoli and suffering defeats in the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana last month, their Champions League tie against Spurs will go a long way to dictating whether their season is deemed a success.  

Speaking to Sky Sport ahead of his press conference, Pioli described the tie as the most crucial occasion of his career.

"They will be the two most important matches of my career, having never played in a Champions League round of 16. We have prepared ourselves in the best possible way," he said.

"Our aim is to play with more pace and intensity, you can't ignore that in these competitions. We have prepared ourselves to be up to it."

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  • Albania's Daku banned by UEFA for two games after offensive chanting Albania's Daku banned by UEFA for two games after offensive chanting

    UEFA has banned Albania's Mirlind Daku for two games after the forward led supporters in nationalistic chants following Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Croatia at Euro 2024.

    Daku grabbed a megaphone before joining in with offensive chants about Serbia and North Macedonia after full-time in Hamburg.

    Issues persist at the European Championship in Germany, with chants relating to historic political and ethnic tensions in the Balkans region.

    "Daku will be banned for a total of two UEFA representative team competition matches for which he would be otherwise eligible," a statement from European football's governing body said on Sunday.

    "[Daku] failed to comply with the general principles of conduct, violated the basic rules of decent conduct, used sports events for manifestations of a non-sporting nature and brought the sport of football into disrepute."

    Daku has since apologised for his actions but will miss Monday's game against Spain in Dusseldorf, where Albania could book their place in the knockout stages for the first-ever time with victory.

    The Albanian Football Association sent out a statement to issue an "appeal to all Albanian fans to be more responsible and avoid the creation of these totally avoidable incidents and riots".

    Albania's football federation has also been fined €47,500 for lighting fireworks, a pitch invasion and transmitting provocative messages not fit for a sports event during the same match.

    Meanwhile, Croatia were also penalised for lighting and throwing fireworks during the game, with UEFA issuing a €28,000 fine.

    Serbia had already threatened to withdraw from the tournament over the chanting by Croatia and Albania fans at their match before the Serbia FA condemned "shameful racist behaviour" in a separate statement.

  • France v Poland: Deschamps remains calm despite Les Bleus' struggle for goals France v Poland: Deschamps remains calm despite Les Bleus' struggle for goals

    France manager Didier Deschamps says he is "not concerned" with his side's recent struggles in front of goal ahead of their final Euro 2024 group game against Poland on Tuesday.

    Les Bleus are all but through to the knockout stages of the European Championships, sitting joint-top of Group D with four points, but need to avoid defeat to ensure progression.

    Yet France's only goal at the tournament so far has come courtesy of Maximilian Wober turning into his own net in the opening 1-0 victory over Austria, before a goalless draw with the Netherlands on Friday.

    France failed to score with any of their 15 shots in a wasteful display against the Oranje as Deschamps went without Kylian Mbappe, who was only fit enough for the bench due to his broken nose.

    Asked about Les Bleus' profligate showings, Deschamps responded: "I am not concerned. It is just the name of the game.

    "Sometimes you have countless chances and don't hit the back of the net, and sometimes it is the other way round.

    "I would be worried if there were not any chances. Efficiency at high-level football is important, and it is something we can work on.

    On Mbappe's fitness, Deschamps added: "Everything is going in the right direction; he is recovering from the shock, there is the haematoma part which will diminish each day, he will get used to his mask, which modifies the vision a little. But he is fine."

    Poland became the first side to be eliminated from the tournament following France's draw, after they lost their opening matches to the Netherlands (2-1) and Austria (3-1).

    They have faced their own problems without Robert Lewandowski, who missed the start of the tournament due to a hamstring injury before appearing from the bench against Austria.

    "We are depressed by this result, but we still have one more game in our group, and we need to put our best foot forward and try to win three points," Lewandowski said.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    France – N'Golo Kante

    N'Golo Kante was a surprise inclusion in Deschamps' squad for the tournament after a two-year absence from the national side, but his performances so far have earned him the Player of the Match award in their opening two games.

    The midfielder has made more major tournament appearances without losing than any other European player, with France unbeaten in all 17 games he has played across the Euros and World Cup (W12 D5).

    Poland – Piotr Zielinski

    Poland may be out of the tournament but will be desperate to go down fighting, with Piotr Zielinski again expected to be key here.

    Zielinski has been directly involved in more shots than any other Poland player at Euro 2024 (11 – seven shots, four chances created), as well as completing the most passes for his side (68) across the first two rounds.

    MATCH PREDICTION: FRANCE WIN

    This will only be the third meeting between France and Poland in a major tournament, and the first at the Euros. Poland won a third-place play-off match 3-2 at the 1982 World Cup, while France triumphed 3-1 in the round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup.

    Including all competitions, France are unbeaten in their last eight meetings with Poland (W4 D4), since losing a friendly match 4-0 in August 1982.

    Les Bleus simply need to avoid defeat to qualify for the knockout stages, and they are unbeaten in their eight games in the group stage at the Euros under Deschamps (W4 D4), with their last such defeat coming on MD 3 versus Sweden at Euro 2012 (2-0), under Laurent Blanc.

    Meanwhile, Poland have lost both of their games at Euro 2024 so far but have never previously suffered three defeats in a single group stage at a major tournament.

    Poland have lost their final group stage match in three of their four previous appearances at the European Championships, with the exception being a 1-0 win against Ukraine in 2016 – the only time they have reached the knockout rounds of the competition.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    France – 73.9%

    Draw – 14.8%

    Poland – 11.2%

  • The Numbers Game: England desperate to build momentum against Slovenia ahead of last 16 The Numbers Game: England desperate to build momentum against Slovenia ahead of last 16

    England know a win, but more importantly, a performance is needed when they face Slovenia in Cologne on Tuesday. 

    The Three Lions squandered the opportunity to secure qualification to the knockout stages of Euro 2024 after a lacklustre display against Denmark last time out.

    Harry Kane's 18th-minute opener had given Gareth Southgate's side an early advantage but, much like in their opening 1-0 win against Serbia, England then failed to capitalise on an early lead.

    This time they were punished on Thursday when Morten Hjulmand's effort from distance levelled proceedings, with Denmark perhaps unfortunate to not claim all three points. 

    Many involved with England have already acknowledged they must improve and alterations are expected in an attempt to build momentum heading into the last 16, should they get there. 

    Here, we use Opta data to preview the Three Lions' final Group C clash.

    What's expected?

    England are expected to win and top Group C, with the Opta supercomputer handing them a dominant 75.5% chance of getting the job done in Cologne.

    Slovenia are predicted a meagre 10.4% likelihood of claiming a maiden triumph against their opponents in the same data-led simulations, with a draw forecast slightly higher at 14.1%. 

    This will be only England and Slovenia’s second encounter at a major tournament, with the Three Lions winning 1-0 in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup, but Southgate's men have a fine record in this meeting.

    Slovenia have failed to win any of their six matches against England across all competitions (D1 L5). Greece and fellow Group C side Denmark are the only opponents they have faced on more occasions (seven) without ever winning a single match.

    Yet Matjaz Kek may fancy an upset here as the normally resolute England defence has come under fire at Euro 2024. The Three Lions have faced five more shots than they have attempted in Germany (17 shots, 22 faced).

    They have failed to have more attempts than their opponents in five of their last seven Euros group stages (1992, 2000, 2004, 2012, 2020), something that hasn't happened in any of their last seven World Cup group stage appearances between 1998 and 2022.

    England are also averaging just 8.9 shots per game at the Euros under Southgate (80 in nine games). Going into Matchday 3, that is the lowest shots per game any nation has had under a manager to take charge of them in more than five matches at the European Championship on record (since 1980).

    Southgate will be desperate for his side to rediscover the creative spark that some of their star players have found so easy to muster with their clubs. 

    Changes expected for England, but who will Southgate turn to?

    With a plethora of attacking talent, the right blend of experience and youth, along with players picked to travel to Germany based on current form, England arrived at Euro 2024 among the favourites to win the tournament. 

    However, any form of cohesion and fluidity is yet to transpire for Southgate's side as jeers echoed around the Frankfurt Arena from the travelling contingent after their underwhelming display against Denmark. 

    Kane, who scored 44 goals in all competitions in his debut 2023-24 season for Bayern Munich, had the least touches (22) of any England player who started the game on Thursday, while also managing just one touch in the Danes' penalty area. 

    England's attacking quartet of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jude Bellingham and Kane managed 114 goals between them in all competitions last season, yet Southgate's men managed just two shots on target, forcing the Three Lions boss into a triple change with 20 minutes to go.

    Eberechi Eze, Jarrod Bowen, and Ollie Watkins were introduced but created just one opportunity of note. Meanwhile, Anthony Gordon and Cole Palmer are still yet to make an appearance in the tournament, despite combining for 33 Premier League goals for Newcastle United and Chelsea respectively last term.

    Despite creating more chances (three) and playing more line-breaking passes in the final third (five) against Denmark, it looks likely that Trent Alexander-Arnold's time in midfield could be up, but it remains to be seen who will replace him. 

    Chelsea's Conor Gallagher has replaced him in England's last two games, but only completed 82.4% of his 17 passes against Denmark, also collecting a yellow card for his troubles. 

    Kobbie Mainoo and Adam Wharton are possible replacements and have shown in the Premier League they are more than capable of stepping up, yet an appearance alongside Declan Rice in midfield would mark both's first feature at a major tournament.

    All or nothing for Slovenia

    Slovenia know they must achieve the unlikely to keep their Euro 2024 journey alive, with their confidence taking a hit after coming inches away from securing a maiden success at the European Championships. 

    Luka Jovic's leveller in Thursday's 1-1 draw with Serbia marked the latest result-altering goal in a Euros match of all-time (excluding extra-time), with his equaliser timed at exactly 95 minutes.

    That late heartbreak leaves Slovenia winless across five matches at UEFA's flagship international tournament (D4 L1).

    It had started well for Kek's side when Zan Karnicnik netted his second international goal, but Slovenia succumbed to a familiar fate.

    Their opener was only the second time they'd gone ahead in a game at the finals, with the other instance coming against Yugoslavia at Euro 2000 when Slovenia led 3-0 before collapsing to a 3-3 draw.

    Benjamin Sesko showed the greatest promise for Slovenia, having the joint-most shots (two) and shots on target (one) for his side, but was loose in possession, ending the game with a pass accuracy of 55.8% – the second-lowest in the team. 

    Yet there is still hope for Kek as Slovenia are unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions (W4 D4), only enjoying a longer such run once in history (nine games between September 2020 and March 2021).

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    England – Harry Kane

    While much was made of Kane's performance against Denmark, there is no denying the quality he offers the Three Lions in and around the penalty area.

    The Bayern Munich striker has only managed two touches in the opposition box at Euro 2024 so far, the same total as both Kyle Walker and Alexander-Arnold.

    Yet Kane still scored his fifth goal in his last six appearances at the tournament, with only Wayne Rooney (six) and Alan Shearer (seven) managing more Euros goals for England.

    Slovenia – Petar Stojanovic

    With England expected to dominate possession on Tuesday, Slovenia's defence will have to be at their best to give them any chance of getting something from the game. 

    Right-back Petar Stojanovic won possession 11 times against Serbia, with only Ales Ceh at Euro 2000 against Spain (14) managing to win the ball back more often for Slovenia in a major tournament game.

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