Stefano Pioli had no doubt Milan would produce an instant response to their setback against Juventus, though he was again left counting the cost of injuries and suspension following the win over Torino. 

Serie A leaders Milan saw their unbeaten league start come to an end in a 3-1 reverse in midweek, a game that saw Davide Calabria have to deputise in midfield. 

However, the Rossoneri continued their title tilt with a 2-0 triumph over Torino thanks to first-half goals from Rafael Leao and Franck Kessie. 

"I must admit, I was not at all surprised by this performance," Pioli told DAZN. 

"I know these lads and expected them to give this kind of a response. The first half was excellent, particularly in terms of quality, and we inevitably came under pressure during the second half against a Torino side in good form."

However, Leao will miss Milan's next game through suspension due to an accumulation of yellow cards, while Sandro Tonali left the game on a stretcher and Brahim Diaz picked up a knock. 

"We don’t have any news yet, we'll have to see, they both got nasty knocks," Pioli added of the injured duo. 

"What does disappoint me is losing Leao for the next game, because I've never seen a player booked for simulation in midfield. I don't think that was in any way fair or a real understanding of the situation." 

There was some positive news as Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his comeback from a calf injury late off the bench having been expected to play no part. 

"We knew that if he passed the final test tomorrow in training, he'd be ready for a small portion of the game," Pioli said. 

"The muscular injury is behind him now, we will see what to do in the Coppa Italia. Zlatan is unique, we hope to have him in full shape as quickly as possible."

Andrea Pirlo warned the victory over leaders Milan will be "of little use" to Juventus if they fail to defeat Sassuolo on Sunday and says the Rossoneri remain the team to beat in the title race.

Champions Juve ended Milan's 27-match unbeaten run in the Italian top flight with a 3-1 victory at San Siro on Wednesday.

The Turin giants had eased to a ruthless 4-1 win over Udinese in their first match of the year last weekend and an impressive triumph over Milan served as a warning to their rivals.

Juve boss Pirlo stressed the importance of his side maintaining the high standards they have set when they take on a Sassuolo team that are just a point behind them in the table.

The former Italy playmaker said in a media conference on Saturday: "It was an important victory in Milan, at an important moment too, but if we don't win tomorrow, it will be of little use.

"I still consider Milan the team to beat, because they are at the top of the table."

He added: "We take our responsibilities. We have been winning for nine years, it is normal that there is pressure on us. I've asked the team to improve their concentration and mental strength, especially when we take the lead, that is a very important phase.

"We must have the same desire to achieve a result - whoever the opponent is - and then we will see where we are in April."

Matthijs de Ligt became the latest Juve player to test positive for COVID-19 this week, with Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro having missed the win over Milan after contracting the coronavirus.

Pirlo is not feeling sorry for himself after the Netherlands defender joined the list of absentees.

"The positive cases affect us, as they affect anyone. But let's think about moving forward, there are other problems," he said.

"I have four defenders, in addition to [Alessandro] Di Pardo, who can play on the flank. I will choose between them, because we are in the bubble and we cannot summon other players."

Pirlo will be able to call upon Giorgio Chiellini and Merih Demiral at Allianz Stadium this weekend, while Alvaro Morata will be checked on to see if the striker can return from a thigh injury.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic could feature for Milan for the first time in seven weeks when the Serie A table toppers host Torino on Saturday.

The 39-year-old produced scintillating early season form, scoring 10 goals in six top-flight matches following a bout of coronavirus to establish Stefano Pioli's side as the pacesetters in the Scudetto race.

However, Ibrahimovic suffered a hamstring strain after netting a brace in a 3-1 win at Napoli on November 22, before a calf injury in training last month further delayed his return.

Pioli told reporters on Friday that he did not expect the former Sweden international to return but he was listed in a 24-man squad published on Milan's website on the day of the game.

The Rossoneri's lead at the Serie A summit is down to a point after they suffered a first league defeat of the season at home to Juventus in midweek, the reigning champions running out 3-1 winners as Federico Chiesa scored twice.

Milan's form without Ibrahimovic this season has held up very well, with a 70 per cent win ratio in the matches without him edging 66.7 per cent from four wins and two draws with him on the field in Serie A.

However, Pioli's men average slightly more goals (2.3 to 2.1), shots (17 to 15.6) and crosses (12.8 to 11.2) per 90 minutes with Ibrahimovic as their attacking spearhead.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli claimed the experience of losing 3-1 to Juventus at San Siro was "healthy" for his side, saying: "We had not felt that for a while."

A Federico Chiesa double and a third goal from Weston McKennie ended the leaders' unbeaten Serie A record this season, consigning them to a first in 28 matches in the Italian top flight.

Milan had 20 shots, but Davide Calabria's equaliser late in the first half was the only one to find the back of the net and Pioli admitted his side were second best on the night.

"We have to tip our hats and give credit to our opponents for managing to get back in front," Pioli told Sky Sports Italia.

"We did what we needed to, created chances and inevitably allowed some, but after going behind for the second time, it became more difficult to get back into it.

"It was a very even game up until the second Juventus goal and I feel that's the moment that changed it.

"We were penalised by their quality in situations where we could’ve been a little more concentrated."

The defeat came on a night when Milan's closest title challengers and city rivals Inter were beaten 2-1 at Sampdoria.

Despite seeing his players miss the chance to go four points clear at the top of the table, Pioli reflected on the positives.

He said: "The lads had their heads down in the dressing room and were disappointed, but in a way it was healthy for us to experience defeat, as we hadn't felt that for a while.

"I gave them a pat on the back, said they ought to be proud of what they achieved in the circumstances.

"We proved that we are a strong team tonight."

Andrea Pirlo hailed the spirit in his Juventus team after they defeated Serie A leaders Milan 3-1 to continue their revival but said he is ignoring results of the teams above them.

The Bianconeri made it three wins from four league matches as Federico Chiesa scored a brace and Weston McKennie netted at San Siro as Milan's 27-match unbeaten run in Serie A was ended.

The result moved Juventus up to fourth in the table, seven points behind Milan with a game in hand, on a night when second-placed Inter lost 2-1 at Sampdoria.

"It was important for us," Pirlo told Sky Sport Italia, reflecting on the result.

"We weren't interested in the results of the teams above us, as we were concentrated on our own progress.

"We'll see in a few months where we are.

"The important thing was this spirit of a team that wants to be in control, especially against the Serie A leaders on their own turf."

Pirlo picked out Chiesa for praise after he took his Juventus goal tally to five since joining on a two-year loan from Fiorentina in October 2020.

The Juve head coach said dynamic attacking performances were the reason they agreed a potential deal to pay Fiorentina up to €50million (£45.3m) for Chiesa when his loan expires.

"We signed him so he could take men on in the final third," said Pirlo, who deployed Chiesa on the right wing behind a front pairing of Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo.

"His position might change, but his role does not."

Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci echoed his coach's call to ignore the results of teams around them, saying his team-mates are focused on Sunday's clash with in-form Sassuolo.

"Our objective is now to beat Sassuolo, that is all," said Bonucci.

"We have to get a run of victories to become more credible and even more of a team."

Copious injuries, late positive COVID-19 tests and a suspension; a highly anticipated clash between Serie A leaders Milan and defending champions Juventus at San Siro on Wednesday threatened to seriously underwhelm.

There was no Alvaro Morata for the Juve, while full-backs Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado were forced to sit out after returning positive coronavirus results.

Milan were without star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and their midfield was decimated by the absences of Sandro Tonali (suspension), Ismael Bennacer (injury) and Rade Krunic (coronavirus). The dire situation forced Stefano Pioli to start right-back Davide Calabria alongside Franck Kessie in the central pivot.

Yet despite the difficulties faced by both teams, a thriller was served up in Milan, and Federico Chiesa took centre stage as Milan's unbeaten streak in Serie A was ended at 27 by a 3-1 loss to Juve.

ACT ONE

The last time Milan held a superior position to Juve heading into a meeting of the sides was in November 2015, and on that occasion the Bianconeri emerged triumphant thanks to a goal from Paulo Dybala.

While the Argentina international, who has been struggling for consistency and dealing with a fever, was not the man to open the scoring on this occasion, he still played a pivotal role.

After drifting across the pitch to offer support to Chiesa, he held up a pass from the winger before returning it by dragging the ball back behind his standing leg and flicking it around Alessio Romagnoli.

It was weighted perfectly for Chiesa's dart into the box, which was not tracked adequately by Theo Hernandez, and he drilled a shot across Gianluigi Donnarumma into the bottom-left corner.

ACT TWO

A thoroughly entertaining first half saw Juve control possession but Milan get more shots away. There were 21 in total during the opening 45 minutes, 12 for the Rossoneri and nine for Juve, a number only two Serie A games this season have exceeded (Sassuolo v Cagliari – 22, Cagliari v Napoli – 23).

Wojciech Szczesny kept out Samu Castillejo, Rafael Leao and Hakan Calhanoglu, as well as stopping Aaron Ramsey from scoring what would have been an incredible own goal, before he was finally beaten by the unlikely source of Calabria.

Juve did not appear happy the goal was allowed to stand, with Calhanoglu putting in a contentious challenge on Adrien Rabiot to launch the counter-attack from which Leao fed Calabria to guide a fine finish into the top-right corner.

It ensured Milan found the back of the net for a 36th consecutive Serie A game – a run only bettered by Juve (43 in 2014 and 44 in 2017) – with Leao involved in an eighth goal in 12 league appearances this season, one more than he managed across the entirety of the previous campaign.

ACT THREE

Unsurprisingly the game was far less open after the interval, but Chiesa was able to separate the teams once more.

Again it was Dybala leading the supporting cast, spotting his team-mate in space on the right and drilling a pass across for him to attack Hernandez once more.

Just as in the first half, Chiesa's feet proved too quick as he shifted the ball to his left and threaded a curling shot between Hernandez and Romagnoli and into the bottom-left corner. It was his sixth goal involvement (three scored, three assisted) against Milan in Serie A, which is more than he has managed against any other side.

The 23-year-old is proving himself to be a man for the big occasion. Since the start of last season, he has been thoroughly impressive against the best teams in the league. In that time, he has had a hand in three goals against Milan (two scored, one assisted) and Atalanta (two scored, one assisted) and also scored in meetings with Inter, Napoli and Lazio.

THE UNDERSTUDIES

While Cristiano Ronaldo was arguably the quietest of Juve's forward-thinking players, Chiesa made way for Dejan Kulusevski a minute after his goal, as Weston McKennie entered for Dybala.

The pair combined to put the game to bed in the 76th minute, McKennie sweeping in after a fine run down the right from Kulusevski.

The sole consolation for the Rossoneri was that they remained top of the league due to Inter's defeat to Sampdoria earlier on Tuesday, but Chiesa's blockbuster display proved Juve will not be content with solely being extras in the title race this season.

Federico Chiesa scored a brilliant brace as Juventus ended Milan's unbeaten start to the season and clinched a crucial 3-1 victory that moves the Serie A champions up to fourth in the table.

Andrea Pirlo's men produced a scintillating attacking display to become the first team to beat leaders Milan in the league in 28 matches and did so without leading scorer Alvaro Morata.

Ably assisted by Paulo Dybala on both occasions, Chiesa scored with confident finishes in either half and Milan's waves of attacking pressure found Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in fine form before Davide Calabria found the net.

The Bianconeri, who added a third through substitute Weston McKennie, will hope this was a turning point in a tumultuous season, having played with the guile and poise they have lacked for so much of it, while Milan will reflect on a missed opportunity to extend their lead at the top to four points after Inter lost to Sampdoria.

Juventus' high press overwhelmed Milan early on and Paulo Dybala tested Gianluigi Donnarumma from six yards before Chiesa crashed a thunderous shot onto the post.

With 18 minutes played the Old Lady's superb start paid dividends, Dybala's smart back-heel sending Chiesa into the area and the Fiorentina loanee sent a low shot bouncing into the far corner of Donnarumma's net from 12 yards.

Juve had Szczesny to thank for keeping them ahead with a string of saves but he was powerless to stop Calabria's shot from finding the top corner after the lively Rafael Leao teed him up – although Juventus claimed Adrien Rabiot was fouled in the build-up.

Szczesny got down well to save Diogo Dalot's powerful 20-yard shot as Milan came out firing after the interval but Juve weathered the storm before Aaron Ramsey missed a golden chance to give them the lead, shooting wide from close range with just Donnarumma to beat.

Just after the hour mark, Chiesa struck again, Dybala picking him out on the edge of the box where he bent a superb left-footed shot into the far corner.

Chiesa then left the field with an injury and was replaced by McKennie, who swept home Juventus' third in the 76th minute after a jinking run through Milan's defence by fellow substitute Dejan Kulusevski.

What does it mean? The fightback is on

Juventus have now won three of their last four Serie A matches and are playing with real verve.

Having had such a short pre-season with his side, Pirlo has been playing catch-up but his expansive, fast-attacking style of play seems to be finally bearing fruit as his players cut out defensive errors.

Dybala at his best

Dybala's two assists were as incisive and spectacular as Chiesa's finishes and the Argentina international also won six duels to help Juventus stay on top.

Leao rues missed chances

Milan could have been ahead at half-time had Leao made more of the clear-cut chances that fell to him and, despite his assist for Calabria's goal, he will remember this game for his three unsuccessful shots at goal.

Key Opta Facts

- Juventus have won 14 of their last 16 Serie A games against AC Milan (L2).
- AC Milan are enjoying the third-longest streak of Serie A consecutive matches with a goal: 36. In the history of the competition, the only two longer streaks have both been by Juventus: 43 in 2014 and 44 in 2017.
- Federico Chiesa has been involved in six Serie A goals against AC Milan (3 goals, 3 assists).
- Prior to Wednesday, the last time a player twice assisted the same Juve team-mate was in February 2018 against Sassuolo (Federico Bernardeschi to Gonzalo Higuain).

What's next?

Milan are at home against struggling Torino on Saturday, and Juventus entertain in-form Sassuolo a day later.

Milan pair Ante Rebic and Rade Krunic have tested positive for coronavirus ahead of Wednesday's Serie A meeting with Juventus.

Both players are asymptomatic and have begun a period of self-isolation at home, Milan confirmed on their official website.

The news comes on the back of Juve announcing that full-backs Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado had contracted COVID-19, also ruling them out of the crunch clash at San Siro.

Rebic has featured 14 times for Milan in all competitions this season, while Krunic has been used on 20 occasions.

The pair have appeared together in eight Serie A matches this season, Milan winning each of those games. On the seven occasions they have not featured, meanwhile, the Rossoneri's win rate drops from 100 per cent to 43.

Serie A leaders Milan are already without injured quartet Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexis Saelemaekers, Ismael Bennacer and Matteo Gabbia, while Sandro Tonali is suspended.

The club said in a statement: "AC Milan announces that Ante Rebic and Rade Krunic tested positive for a molecular swab carried out yesterday in anticipation of the match against Juventus.

"The players, asymptomatic, remained in isolation at home where a second control swab was taken today. The health authorities were promptly informed.

"All members of the team group underwent a further test today with negative results."

Speaking on Tuesday, doctor Roberto Testi, the director of the Department of Prevention at the Turin ASL, warned the high-profile contest may be called off if Juve report further positive tests on the day of the game.

"If there should be more positive tests and the evidence of an uncontrolled breakout within the squad, that would become a problem of safety for the other players," he told Corriere della Sera.

"Clearly, at that point, the ASL would be forced to intervene, isolating everyone and blocking Juve's departure towards Milan."

Milan enter the game 10 points better off than reigning champions Juventus having played a game more.

Stefano Pioli's men won the most recent encounter between the sides 4-2 last July and are seeking successive league wins in this fixture for the first time since 2010.

It will mark the first time Milan have faced Juve sitting ahead of their rivals in the table since November 2015, when losing 1-0 through a Paulo Dybala goal. 

Manchester City have reportedly annoyed Kevin De Bruyne with their contract offer amid interest in Lionel Messi.

De Bruyne, 29, has been expected to sign a new deal with the Premier League giants, with his contract expiring in 2023.

But with Messi coming out of contract at season's end, City's offer to De Bruyne has seemingly drawn questions.

 

TOP STORY – MAN CITY ANNOY DE BRUYNE AMID MESSI INTEREST

Manchester City have annoyed De Bruyne with their contract offer, according to The Athletic.

The report says the offer is less than De Bruyne is currently on because of potentially signing Messi. However, the Belgium international is still expected to re-sign.

City have been strongly linked to Messi, who could leave Barcelona at the end of the campaign when is contract is due to expire.

The Barcelona captain has insisted he will not make a decision on his future until the season's conclusion.

 

ROUND-UP

- Also coming out of contract is Bayern Munich star David Alaba. The Guardian reports Liverpool are interested in signing the defender, but Real Madrid lead the race.

- Staying at Real Madrid and there is uncertainty over Sergio Ramos' future. With his contract expiring at the end of the season, Ramos will not accept a one-year deal and the defender and LaLiga champions are distant in their bid to reach an agreement, according to Marca. The Manchester Evening News reports City are not interested in Ramos.

Antoine Griezmann is still yet to find his best form for Barcelona, but Sport reports the Blaugrana are not considering selling the forward.

Mesut Ozil could be set to leave Arsenal. Football.London reports the playmaker, who comes out of contract in June, is in negotiations with MLS franchise DC United.

- Linked with Juventus and InterOlivier Giroud is set to stay at Chelsea, according to Goal. They also claim Juve are considering Sampdoria forward Fabio Quagliarella as an alternative, while Milan look set to keep hold of star midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu.

Juventus wide player Juan Cuadrado has tested positive for coronavirus and will miss the clash with Serie A leaders Milan on Wednesday.

The Colombia international is asymptomatic but has begun a period of self-isolation, the Italian champions confirmed.

The news comes just a day after left-back Alex Sandro was ruled out after returning a positive test for the virus.

It means head coach Andrea Pirlo will be without two of his first-choice full-backs for the game at San Siro against Stefano Pioli's side, who are the only unbeaten team in Europe's top five leagues in the 2020-21 season.

The club said in a statement: "Juventus Football Club announces that, during the checks provided for by the protocol in force, Juan Cuadrado has emerged positive with COVID-19. The player has already been placed in solitary confinement and is asymptomatic."

Cuadrado, 32, has made 13 appearances in Serie A this term, scoring once.

Juve head into the Milan contest with a 10-point deficit to the league leaders, albeit with a game in hand.

While they have lost only once in 14 matches, Juve have won just seven times, leaving them in fifth place with 27 points.

They are hoping to avoid losing back-to-back league games against the Rossoneri for the first time since 2010, having been beaten 4-2 in the previous meeting last July.

The last time they faced Milan when behind them in the table was in November 2015, when a Paulo Dybala goal secured a 1-0 victory.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been ruled out of the Serie A clash between Milan and Juventus on Wednesday.

The 39-year-old striker has been sidelined since being substituted in the 3-1 win at Napoli on November 22.

The former Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain star has missed seven league games for the Serie A leaders, although the Rossoneri have fared well in his absence, winning five and drawing two of those matches.

Stefano Pioli's side are alone in Europe's top five leagues in that they have not lost a top-flight match since the 2019-20 season was initially shut down from last March.

They head into the match with champions Juve at San Siro knowing a win would move them 13 points clear of the Bianconeri, who are fifth with a game in hand.

Ibrahimovic had offered hope he could be fit to face his former club after recent injury trouble, posting training footage to social media on Monday with the caption "Tick tock tick tock".

Head coach Pioli, though, says the player is not fully fit and admitted to scolding him for causing a stir two days before the game.

"I told him off because, after that footage, I was peppered with phone calls," Pioli told reporters.

"He is better and he's working well, but he won't be in the game tomorrow."

Rafael Leao has performed well in Ibrahimovic's absence, scoring in the 2-1 win at Sassuolo and the 2-0 victory at Benevento in the past two and a half weeks, becoming the second-youngest foreign player to reach 10 Serie A goals for the club, behind only Alexandre Pato.

Pioli believes the 21-year-old's development is a sign of the way Milan have improved in the past year. The Rossoneri have taken 37 points from their first 15 league matches this term, the first time they have done so in the history of the competition in the three-points-per-win era.

“He’s growing a lot, he has characteristics that we must try to enhance in the right way," said Pioli. "The important thing is to see the will to grow and improve on a daily basis.

"All matches are opportunities to prove our worth. We have to concentrate on the game and raise our level because they are strong opponents, with experience, and they have been winning for years.

"We're showing we can play for it and we'll therefore play to win. We have scored 17 points more than last year. This is the right path, but we can't speak of a decisive match after 15 rounds."

Cristiano Ronaldo's performance will be decisive when Juventus meet Milan in a huge Serie A clash on Wednesday, says Andrea Pirlo.

The Juve forward has racked up 14 goals in 11 Serie A games this season, netting a double and adding an assist in Sunday's 4-1 thumping of Udinese.

Pirlo will take charge of a match against Milan, with whom he spent a decade as a player and won the Champions League twice, for the first time.

Despite Ronaldo's form, Juve sit 10 points adrift of impressive leaders Milan, albeit the Bianconeri have a game in hand. 

"From the beginning we have tried to exploit Cristiano for his characteristics, clarity and incisiveness in the final third," said Juve boss Pirlo ahead of the San Siro battle.

"Is he decisive? Of course, as he was everywhere. 

"But it is normal to depend on him when you have such a champion in your team."

With the pressure on for a crucial clash, Pirlo feels it is Milan and not defending champions Juve who are currently the team to beat.

"Milan have not lost in a long time, they are first in the standings and they are the team to beat," he said.

"I see a great spirit in Milan, which leads them to win games. They come into the game off the back of excellent results, they fight and run together and they don't want to lose.

"The table always reflects the values of the championship. We play game after game to move up the standings, looking only at ourselves. We will see in April where we will be.

"We will try to impose our game at San Siro, without fear: these are the good matches to be involved in."


He added: "It will be a special evening for me, having experienced many memories with Milan. It was wonderful as a player, I think it will be the same as a coach.

"We know the importance of the match. We will play our game and do our best. It will be very important, but not decisive.

"We will need to be good at making few mistakes and to play well, technically, in order to not give space to Milan's breakaways, which is one of their strengths.

"In the Italian league you can't give up, not even for a second - every match must be faced with the same concentration. I want to see a Juve convinced of their strength, who play the game we have in mind."

Pirlo was asked for an update on available players after Alex Sandro tested positive for coronavirus.

"After Alex Sandro tested positive, we will have the results of the team's tests in the afternoon - until then we wait," he said.

"[Paulo] Dybala is doing pretty well, he is better after his fever so should be available for the game.

"[Alvaro] Morata is recovering and doing physiotherapy, [Giorgio] Chiellini and [Merih] Demiral are doing quite well, while Arthur and [Adrien] Rabiot have both recovered. 

"On Wednesday, we will evaluate who we will have available to bring to Milan. There will be no excuse for the game - the squad is competitive in all sectors. Other teams have had the same problems."

Milan won 4-2 against Juve in July, so they are looking for back-to-back wins against Juventus in Serie A for the first time since 2010, when Pirlo was playing at San Siro under Leonardo.

Juventus defender Alex Sandro has tested positive for coronavirus, the Serie A club announced on Monday.

The Brazil international - who played in Sunday's 4-1 league victory over Udinese in Turin - underwent a test after displaying what Juve described as "mild symptoms". 

Alex Sandro is self-isolating after it was confirmed he has contracted COVID-19, a concern for his club ahead of Wednesday's huge showdown with Milan.

"Juventus announces that following the appearance of some mild symptoms, a check was arranged for the player Alex Sandro, which revealed his positivity to COVID-19," a statement read.

"The player has already been placed in isolation. 

"The club is in contact with the health authorities for the definition of an effective implementation of the protocols needed to allow the training and competition activities of the team."

Alex Sandro featured for 83 minutes against Udinese before being replaced by Gianluca Frabotta, at which stage the hosts were 3-0 up in the game.

The 29-year-old has made seven league appearances under Andrea Pirlo during the 2020-21 campaign, as well as featuring three times in the Champions League group stage.

Juve travel to San Siro to face Milan - the unbeaten Serie A leaders - in midweek, followed by a home game against Sassuolo on Sunday.

Stefano Pioli lauded Milan's "heart, intensity, passion and belief" after they beat Benevento 2-0 to return to the Serie A summit despite playing for nearly an hour with 10 men.

Franck Kessie's penalty gave the visitors a first-half lead at Stadio Ciro Vigorito but Sandro Tonali's dismissal before the break left the Rossoneri up against it.

An inventive finish from Rafael Leao gave Milan a much-needed two-goal cushion early in the second half, with Gianluca Caprari missing a spot-kick at the other end for the wasteful hosts.

The win marked a fine response to Inter's 6-2 thrashing of Crotone earlier on Sunday, which had temporarily dislodged Milan from top spot.

But with his side now leading the way by a point, Pioli was full of praise.

"We showed heart, intensity, passion and belief. It's another very big victory," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"We don't let the results of our opponents put pressure on us. We put pressure on ourselves by demanding the best.

"There were a few errors, but we showed such unity to bring the result home.

"Every result is important to boost the self-belief."

Tonali was shown a red card after a careless lunge on Artur Ionita, with referee Fabrizio Pasqua upgrading his punishment from a yellow after reviewing the incident on the pitch-side monitor.

"I hugged Sandro in the locker room, he was sad about leaving the team down to 10 men," said Pioli.

"The issue with VAR is that things look much worse when slowed down compared to the dynamics of the movement, but Sandro will learn from this."

Next up for Milan is the visit of champions Juventus, though Pioli insists the result will not be pivotal in the title race.

"I think it'll be a great game between two teams in excellent shape," he said.

"I continue to say Juventus, Inter and Napoli are the strongest sides in Serie A, we just have to keep going along our path.

"It's not decisive or the passing on of any baton. Juve won the last nine titles and aren't far behind us at the moment.

"I continue to maintain we can talk about other things when we look at the table in April and if we are still in this position. Our strength has been to take it one game at a time, so we don't want to change that attitude.

"We are missing some important players, Tonali will be suspended, so it's going to be tough against Juventus. Whatever happens, it won't be decisive."

Milan returned to the Serie A summit with a 2-0 win at Benevento as Stefano Pioli's side survived playing with 10 men for almost an hour.

With rivals Inter having gone top after a 6-2 thrashing of Crotone earlier on Sunday, the Rossoneri responded with a gritty victory at Stadio Ciro Vigorito.

Franck Kessie scored a first-half penalty but Sandro Tonali was dismissed before the interval to make it a potentially uncomfortable evening for the visitors.

However, Pioli's men dug deep and Rafael Leao produced a moment of magic four minutes into the second half, with Gianluca Caprari's missed spot-kick robbing Benevento of a golden chance to get back into the match.

With champions Juventus up next, Milan have a chance to send out a signal to the rest of the division that this really could be their year.

Brahim Diaz flashed an early long-range shot over the crossbar as the visitors, unbeaten in 14 on the road, signalled their intent.

Benevento were the architects of their own downfall as Milan took the lead after 15 minutes, a defensive mix-up ending with Alessandro Tuia felling Ante Rebic in the box, with Kessie coolly converting the subsequent spot-kick.

Roberto Insigne came within inches of pulling the hosts level but saw his fine strike crack the inside of Gianluigi Donnarumma's left-hand upright.

Filippo Inzaghi, who played at San Siro for over 10 years, saw his Benevento side handed a boost when Tonali was shown a red card for a careless lunge on Artur Ionita.

The home side tried to force the issue as Gianluca Caprari and Gaetano Letizia both fired off dangerous efforts, but Milan made it to the break with their lead intact. 

Pioli's charges earned the breathing space they so desperately craved courtesy of a fine goal from Leao, who beat Lorenzo Montipo to Rebic's throughball and turned smartly before lifting a pinpoint finish over the stranded goalkeeper.

Benevento's frustrations deepened when Caprari dragged a woeful penalty wide after Rade Krunic had clumsily fouled him in the area, with Milan almost adding a late third when Kessie's low shot hit the inside of the post and rolled across the line.

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