Stefano Pioli claimed Milan could have done more in their 1-1 Champions League draw at Salzburg, as he acknowledged next week's clash with Dinamo Zagreb has already taken on extra importance. 

Milan fell behind to a terrific solo effort from Noah Okafor after 28 minutes of their Champions League opener, but claimed a share of the spoils thanks to Alexis Saelemaekers' fierce left-footed finish.

The Rossoneri have now avoided defeat in 14 of their last 15 opening group-stage matches in the competition (W10 D4 L1), but they struggled to break down their resolute hosts despite taking charge in the second half.  

Milan enjoyed 65 per cent of the possession in Salzburg – their highest such figure in the Champions League since records began – but Rafael Leao's late deflected effort was the closest they came to a winner.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Pioli expressed his satisfaction with the point, but highlighted the Rossoneri's need to improve. 

"It was a good result with a sufficient performance but not of a high level. If the quality level is not raised there are dangers," Pioli said.

"We could have done better, but they are strong, we bring home a positive result. 

"The boys know how to recognise when they are good on the pitch, today we struggled on the second balls and they could start again with their dangerous forwards. 

"There was a lack of speed in the construction, we could have found better solutions and when we did, we were dangerous.

"We could have taken up the space better to play a little more of the game in their half."

Having watched Group E favourites Chelsea slip to a demoralising defeat at Dinamo Zagreb earlier on Tuesday, both sides had the chance to take charge of the race for qualification.

Milan face Dinamo in their next continental outing next Wednesday, and Pioli admits the Croatian outfit's victory over the Blues has heightened the importance of that match.

"I did not expect the result between Dinamo Zagreb and Chelsea," he admitted. "This teaches us that in football there are no obvious matches. 

"Salzburg are a good team and last year they never lost at home. The next match for us will have an important weight." 

With Tuesday's result, Salzburg are unbeaten in five home Champions League games (W3 D2), while they have not started any of their five campaigns in the competition with a loss (W1 D4).

Only Deportivo La Coruna (also five times) also played in as many Champions League seasons without ever losing their opening match.

Rossoneri defender Fikayo Tomori echoed his coaches' views, expressing relief at remaining unbeaten against resolute opponents.

"It was the game we expected. They are strong on pressing and very fast up front," he said. "We played well, we could have done better, but a point on this field is difficult to take. 

"So we are happy, even if we are also aware that we can do more. We knew it would be difficult. Taking a point in Salzburg is not bad at all. 

"We played well, but not at our level. The group is open, the next match against Dinamo Zagreb, we have to do better and win. We can qualify." 

Milan came from behind to clinch a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Salzburg in their Champions League opener, as Alexis Saelemaekers cancelled out a superb solo goal from Noah Okafor.

Okafor's outstanding strike gave Salzburg the lead midway through an evenly matched first half, only for Saelemaekers to smash home an equaliser shortly before the break on Tuesday.

Stefano Pioli's men failed to build on the Belgium international's effort but almost grabbed a stoppage-time winner through Rafael Leao, who was denied by the frame of the goal.

Having failed to escape the group stages in the Champions League last season, however, the Serie A champions may still be relieved to escape without defeat ahead of meetings with Dinamo Zagreb and Chelsea.

Both sides created openings in an entertaining start, with Nicolas Capaldo heading over the crossbar before Olivier Giroud drilled a poor effort straight at Philipp Kohn from a tight angle.

But Salzburg hit the front through a tremendous goal after 28 minutes, as Okafor collected Fernando's pass before slipping the ball between Pierre Kalulu's legs and finishing neatly beyond Mike Maignan.

Milan drew level five minutes before the break, however, as Leao teed up Saelemaekers to slam a left-footed effort past Kohn from 10 yards out.

Salzburg missed a golden opportunity to regain their lead eight minutes after half-time, with Fernando somehow lifting his effort over the bar from six yards out when meeting Maurits Kjaergaard's cross.

Nicolas Seiwald then tested Maignan from range before the hosts appeared to run out of steam, allowing Sando Tonali to dictate the play for the Rossoneri.

Leao went agonisingly close to snatching the win in the 93rd minute, but saw his long-range effort deflect against the post and away to safety.

What does it mean? Group E looks wide open

With Chelsea succumbing to a dismal 1-0 defeat in Zagreb earlier on Tuesday, either side could have taken control of Group E with a victory.

But Milan were unable to push for a winner after levelling shortly before half-time, leaving the Rossoneri with just one win in their last 10 Champions League games (D3 L6), beating Atletico Madrid last November.

Meanwhile, no team will enjoy a trip to Austria; Salzburg are now unbeaten in their last five home games in UEFA's flagship club competition (W3 D2). 

Salzburg rely on youth once again

Salzburg have acted as a springboard for several top-class talents in recent seasons, and if Okafor's excellent solo goal is anything to go by, the 22-year-old Swiss forward could be another. 

Excluding own goals, each of their last 15 Champions League goals have been scored by players aged 23 or younger, the longest such run by any side in the competition's history.

Leao lays on a leveller

Having fired Milan to victory in the Derby della Madonnina on Saturday, Leao continued his electric form by teeing up Saelemaekers to get the Rossoneri back on level terms.

Leao has now delivered 11 assists in all competitions since the start of 2022, the most of any Serie A player.

What's next?

Milan travel to Sampdoria for their next Serie A outing on Saturday. Salzburg go to SV Ried in the Austrian Bundesliga on the same day, before facing Chelsea next Wednesday.

Rafael Leao was Milan's hero in the derby against Inter and head coach Stefano Pioli says the Rossoneri are determined to tie the in-demand forward to a new deal.

Leao scored twice and provided an assist for Olivier Giroud as the Serie A champions defeated their city rivals 3-2 in an entertaining clash at San Siro on Saturday.

It was a welcome performance for Milan supporters, who had seen their star linked with a move to Premier League big-spenders Chelsea on transfer deadline day.

However, the Blues were rebuffed in their attempts to strike a deal for a player who reportedly has a €150million release clause in his contract, which runs until June 2024.

Pioli said he was never fearful Leao would depart and has now confirmed the plan is to tie the 23-year-old to a longer contract.

"These are not things that I can decide, but I believe the club wants to offer Leao a new deal soon. He is working at the best level," he told reporters.

"Rafa has beautiful attitudes, he knows that he has been gifted with talent.

"Then for the contract, whoever has to do what he has to do."

Giroud says he was always confident his Leao would stay with Milan, saying: "I was not worried about him. I knew he would remain here."

Pioli is sure there is plenty more to come from the Portugal international.

Speaking to DAZN, he said: "In order to improve, you need talent and intelligence, so Leao has both of those. We gave him the time and freedom to make mistakes so he could learn.

"Naturally, every time we put him in one-on-one situations, he's an important weapon in our armoury. 

"Rafa has a body language that might confuse people, but I can assure you he knows what potential he has and is very eager to learn."

Simone Inzaghi blamed an Inter "blackout" for the 3-2 derby defeat to Milan at San Siro as Rafael Leao's double settled the Derby della Madonnina.

The Inter head coach was unimpressed with his team's defensive performance as the Rossoneri took local bragging rights, with Leao's double and an Olivier Giroud strike countered by goals from Marcelo Brozovic and Edin Dzeko.

Inzaghi, whose title hopefuls have lost two of their first five games of the Serie A season, praised Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan, although the Frenchman only made three saves.

"We found a great Maignan and they scored against us very easily," said Inzaghi. "To win the derby we needed to do more, half an hour is not enough."

Brozovic gave Inter an early lead, but Leao levelled in the 28th minute, on his 100th Serie A appearance.

The Portuguese winger set up Giroud to put Milan ahead, before dancing through a ragged Inter defence to fire the nominal home side 3-1 ahead, at the stadium the clubs share.

Dzeko halved the deficit, but Inter could not get back on level terms.

"Now we will analyse the game and our mistakes," Inzaghi told DAZN. "At the beginning the game was balanced. After the 1-1 we had a blackout half an hour which cost us two goals that we cannot concede. We probably deserved more, but we had to do better."

He added: "I have to try to understand what happens to us in those moments: we are the same as last year, but we have conceded eight goals in five games."

Milan boss Stefano Pioli saw his side go at least briefly to the top of the table.

"There is a great rivalry that has strengthened in recent years," Pioli said of the derby. "Inter wanted to prove themselves superior, but they did not succeed. I coach lads who continue to amaze me with their energy and their constant desire to improve.

"We were good at reading the game, Inter made us dribble and we did it without forcing hasty plays.

"We had prepared for the game in this way, precisely knowing how Inter would play. We have shown maturity on the pitch, we have an awareness that makes me happy. For 70 minutes we played like a great team."

Pioli's lone complaint was that he felt Milan let their attention drift after going two goals clear, saying that at that point, "we thought we had already won, and it is a mistake we must not make".

All eyes turn to one of the biggest derbies in world football this weekend, as Milan and Inter battle it out at the San Siro.

The two arch-rivals went toe-to-toe in the hunt for the Serie A title last season, with Milan emerging victorious on the final day to clinch the league crown for the first time since 2011.

Stefano Pioli's side have begun their title defence with an unbeaten start to the campaign, securing two wins and two draws, while Inter have won three of four, losing to Lazio last Friday.

Still early in the season, a single point separates the two and bragging rights are on the cards on Saturday, though neither side has a particularly good record against one another in recent years.

Milan seek to end poor derby return

A 2-1 victory over Inter in February, where Olivier Giroud netted a brace, puts Milan in hunt of consecutive league wins against Inter for the first time since 2011 – which were the first two league derbies played under Massimiliano Allegri.

While they were victorious in that particular clash, the two Coppa Italia semi-final ties in March and April saw Milan unable to score in either tie, meaning they could go three consecutive derbies without scoring for the first time since 1980.

Milan's last win as the designated host at San Siro against Inter came in Serie A back in January 2016, with Inter winning three and drawing three against the Rossoneri since then.

 

Inzaghi's unwanted record

Simone Inzaghi has only won one point in his first two derbies in Serie A since joining the Nerazzurri and is seeking a win to prevent an unwanted record, as failure to do so would see him become the first Inter coach not to win any of his first three matches against Milan in the top-flight since Osvaldo Bagnoli in 1993 (D2 L1).

In order to secure victory, Inter could turn to Joaquin Correa who has scored four goals in Serie A against Milan, more than any other side. The Argentine has also scored four goals in his last five appearances in the competition, having gone goalless in his previous 18.

Either way, there should be goals and a victor as Inter are the only team, excluding relegated and promoted sides, not to draw a Serie A match since last April.

During that sequence, Inter have 11 wins, at least three more than any other team, and two losses – one of which was the 3-1 defeat to Lazio last Friday.

 

Leao vs Lautaro

Having fended off transfer interest from Chelsea, Rafael Leao is set to make his 100th Serie A appearance in Saturday's game and the Brazilian's record sees him stand as one of the finest young players in the division.

Among players born since 1999, Leao has provided 16 Serie A assists, more than anyone else, and has scored 24 goals – putting him behind only Juventus' Dusan Vlahovic (55) and Inter's Andrea Pinamonti (25), who is on loan at Sassuolo.

With Romelu Lukaku absent through injury, Inter will turn to Lautaro Martinez to find the difference and the Argentine enters the tie in a fine vein of form.

Martinez has been involved in a goal in each of his first four appearances this season (three goals, one assist), only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (2007-08) and Nicolo Barella (2021-22) have had a hand in a goal in their first Serie A appearances in a second for Inter since 2004-05, when Opta started collecting assist data.

 

Pioli's perfect return

Though Milan's recent record against Inter does not make for pretty reading, their overall record heading into Saturday's derby is encouraging as they have won five consecutive home matches in Serie A.

A sixth in a row with victory against Inter would see Milan hit that tally for the first time since August 2014, under Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi.

Milan's defence is also looking strong, having kept a clean sheet in their last two Serie A matches. A third this weekend would see Milan secure three clean sheets in the first five top-flight seasonal games in three campaigns in a row for the third time in their history (after 1952-23, 1953-54, 1954-55 and 1978-79, 1979-1980 and 1981-1982).

Stefano Pioli is set to unleash Rafael Leao on Inter in Saturday's Milan derby after keeping suitors at bay before the transfer window closed.

The exciting Portuguese forward was thought to be a target for Chelsea but remains with Milan and is poised to make his 100th Serie A appearance against the Nerazzurri.

Up to this point, Leao has started in 69 of his 99 league games, and among players born from 1999 onwards he has provided the most assists (16) in the competition.

In terms of goals scored among that age group, the 23-year-old stands third on the list with 24, behind only Dusan Vlahovic (55) and Andrea Pinamonti (25).

Pioli never believed he would lose Leao before the shutters went up on the market on Thursday, but the finality will have come as a relief to many associated with the club.

"I have never been worried about the possible departure of Leao, I have always seen him fully involved and determined," Pioli said on Friday.

Milan won the last league derby, a 2-1 victory in February when Olivier Giroud's double saw the Rossoneri come from behind to take the points, an important result on the way to a first Scudetto since 2010-11, dethroning Inter in the process.

It means Milan will be looking to win consecutive league games against their city rivals for the first time since 2011, although Inter got the better of the two-leg Coppa Italia semi-final between the teams in March and April.

Pioli said Giroud had "a crucial role" to play in Saturday's game, and stressed Milan have prepared "down to the smallest detail".

"I expect a vibrant contest: the derby is the derby and so it will be an even contest," Pioli said. "We must not lose focus for even a second, we'll have to move hard and fast. Effort, aggression and sacrifice will all be required."

The transfer window has been an inevitable distraction despite Pioli's best efforts to focus on Inter. Milan look to have traded prudently in its closing stages, agreeing loan deals for Barcelona's American full-back Sergino Dest and Wolfsburg's teenage Belgian midfielder Aster Vranckx, while also signing Schalke's young centre-back Malick Thiaw.

Pioli described the newcomers as "important players with ample room for improvement".

Dest arrives in the wake of Milan losing right-back Alessandro Florenzi to a leg muscle injury that will reportedly sideline him for around eight weeks.

"We are gutted for Florenzi's injury," said Pioli, quoted on Milan's official website. "He is a leader on and off the pitch. We're still evaluating how to proceed in order to manage his recovery in the best possible way."

Assessing what Dest brings, Pioli said: "He has quality and pace, we got him to play the full-back position but he has the right characteristics to play in other roles too."

Stefano Pioli criticised Milan after a poor performance resulted in a goalless draw with Sassuolo, but the head coach expects better in Saturday's derby against Inter.

The Rossoneri have two wins and two draws in the first four games of their Serie A title defence, though the display on Tuesday away at Sassuolo left much to be desired.

Pioli's side were far from their best, perhaps fortunate to share the spoils after Mike Maignan was required to save a Domenico Berardi penalty in the first half.

Having missed a chance to collect three points, Milan opened the door for Inter, Roma and Napoli to leapfrog them in the early stages of the 2022-23 Scudetto race.

Fierce rivals Inter are next up for Pioli and the Milan coach acknowledged there must be an improvement on this latest showing.

"It was not a Milan of quality, technique or decision-making," Pioli said. "We played football that was too frenetic, we weren't able to read the game and this made it complicated.

"It made it dirty, ruffled and with little rhythm. We struggled to find spaces. We started well, I liked the beginning very much, then we lost calmness and we were in too much of a hurry in the search for the opponent's goal.

"I have already seen the players, they have spoken more. We lacked quality and calmness, they are aware and it is important. I think that the next matches will be different."

Asked whether preparations were different due to the looming clash with Inter, Pioli added: "We recovered after [Saturday's 2-0 win over] Bologna and tried to prepare for the game well from a tactical point of view.

"Saying something to the team for the derby will be easy. It is a derby, the rivalry is high and we know how much the result can weigh and we will prepare for it in the best possible way."

Fast-paced play and a never-say-die attitude characterised Milan's route to Scudetto glory last season – a facet that was largely missing against Sassuolo.

Milan's championship-winning season has changed the way Pioli's side are judged, and the coach urged his players to rise to that challenge.

Pioli said: "Our expectations have increased and we have to hold them up, but that's right, it's a privilege."

Rafael Leao scored one goal and assisted another as Milan downed Bologna 2-0 on Saturday, with Stefano Pioli hailing his talented winger.

The Portugal international wrong-footed goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski in the first half to open the scoring – his eighth Serie A goal at home since the start of 2022.

No Serie A player has managed more strikes on their home ground in that period, and Leao turned creator after the interval as he teed up Olivier Giroud, who acrobatically volleyed home to double Milan's lead.

Another dazzling performance from Leao, who played a large part in Milan's Scudetto triumph last season, came just days after reports in Italy claimed Chelsea want to sign the 23-year-old.

Milan are reportedly attempting to tie the forward down to a contract renewal and Pioli will be desperate to keep his star attacker, who he feels is beginning to fulfil his talent.

"A player with such potential must continue to think he can improve," Pioli told Sky Sport Italia.

"He has never made a mistake in his attitude, he has never missed a training session and wants to grow.

"He has body language that can fool people, but he's really smart. He must never stop trying to improve."

Charles De Ketelaere was another to impress against the Rossoblu, with the midfielder creating the opener for Leao after regaining possession inside his own half before powering forward to find his team-mate.

The former Club Brugge man also laid on a game-high four chances, and Pioli is delighted to see the new arrival settling in already after his reported €36million move earlier in August.

"There is no doubt that Charles is a great talent," the Milan head coach said. "It's normal that he has to grow and get to know his team-mates, but they are processes that take some time.

"He is already showing important qualities and he will only grow."

Milan remain undefeated after three Serie A games this term, extending a run that began last season to 19 unbeaten top-flight matches – the longest such streak in Europe's top five leagues.

The Rossoneri will hope to carry on their fine run of form when they head to Sassuolo on Tuesday, before a derby clash with Inter next weekend.

Rafael Leao scored one and assisted another as Milan continued their unbeaten Serie A start with a dominant 2-0 victory over Bologna.

Stefano Pioli's side had to recover from a goal down in each of their opening two league games, winning one and drawing the other, but did not need another rescue act on Saturday.

Leao was a constant threat down the left flank and grabbed a deserved goal in the first half, before setting up a smart Olivier Giroud finish in the second half to cap an impressive performance.

Victory at least temporarily moved Milan to the top of the embryonic Serie A table, while the Rossoneri are now unbeaten in 19 top-flight games – the longest ongoing undefeated streak in Europe's top five leagues.

 

Pioli's men started slowly but kicked into gear after 21 minutes as Charles de Ketelaere dispossessed Jerdy Schouten and powered forward to tee up Leao, who rolled his finish into the bottom-left corner.

De Ketelaere continued to be Milan's chief creative force, chipping a delicate pass through for Pierre Kalulu, only for the defender to waste a glorious one-on-one chance up against Lukasz Skorupski.

Junior Messias was the next to be thwarted by Skorupski, before Leao blazed over the rebound, and Giroud dragged just wide of the target prior to the break.

The Rossoneri deservedly doubled their lead after 58 minutes when Leao lofted in a cross from the left for Giroud to acrobatically volley into the bottom-right corner.

Nicola Sansone almost hit back for Bologna, but his driven effort cannoned against Mike Maignan's right-hand post as Milan preserved their first clean sheet of the campaign.

What does it mean? Milan continue Bologna dominance

Milan had only lost one of their previous 25 Serie A meetings with Bologna, with that defeat coming in January 2016 when Rossoblu coach Sinisa Mihajlovic was with the Rossoneri.

Given their recent dominance in this fixture and last season's Scudetto-winning exploits, it came as little surprise to see Milan control most of proceedings – not allowing a single Bologna shot on target.

With Inter to come next weekend, Milan have thrown down an early marker as they look to defend their title this season.

Home comforts for Leao

Leao was a pivotal factor for Pioli last season as Milan edged out fierce rivals Inter to lift the Scudetto, and the Portugal international proved his worth once more here.

The 23-year-old has scored eight times in the league at home since the start of 2022, with no Serie A player finding the net on more occasions at their own stadium in that time.

Awful Arnautovic

Marko Arnautovic was in the headlines earlier in the month after being linked to Manchester United, only for backlash from Red Devils fans to seemingly end any talk of a move.

The forward subsequently became the first player to score in both of Bologna's first two games in a Serie A season since Roberto Baggio in 1997-98, but he failed to deliver up against Milan's well-regimented defence.

What's next?

Milan will look to maintain their unbeaten run when they travel to Sassuolo on Tuesday ahead of the derby against Inter. Bologna host Salernitana on Thursday.

Stefano Pioli hailed Milan's resilience and maturity after the Serie A champions came from behind to claim a 1-1 draw at Atalanta on Sunday.

Milan looked set to suffer a first league defeat since a 2-1 loss to Spezia on January 17 when Ruslan Malinovskyi's long-range effort deflected past Mike Maignan.

However, Ismael Bennacer arced a terrific left-footed effort in off the post to spare the Rossoneri's blushes in the second half.

Although the result halted Milan's seven-match winning run in Serie A and denied the champions a perfect start to the new campaign, it offered further evidence of the Rossoneri's remarkable powers of recovery.

Milan have claimed more points from losing positions than any other Serie A side in 2022 (14), and the overall picture left Pioli satisfied.

"I go away convinced that we are strong, we have shown it," Pioli said. "Of course, there is the regret of not having won the game, it is a pity not to have won it, but I have seen a solid and mature team.

"The boys gave very little to a very strong opponent, we suffered less pressure. Later there will be many aspects to highlight in order to improve."

 

Milan also recovered from a goal down to beat Udinese 4-2 in a thrilling contest last week, meaning they have fallen behind in consecutive Serie A matches for the first time since November 2021 (a 1-1 draw with Inter and a 4-3 defeat to Fiorentina).

Although Pioli was relieved at clinching a point against a lively Atalanta, the Rossoneri boss did highlight the need for attacking improvements, adding: "The last step was missing.

"[Junior] Messias' two chances, but also [Pierre] Kalulu's, are chances that you have to try to take advantage of. We'll go to work on these details, we faced a strong team that bothers everyone."

Recent arrival Charles De Ketelaere impressed after entering the fray as a second-half substitute in Bergamo, and Pioli is looking forward to seeing more of the former Club Brugge attacker in the coming weeks.

"He is growing, he is working on an equal level with his team-mates, the setting requires mutual knowledge, but he is a quality player," Pioli added.

"He will give us the right satisfactions, he will make us have fun. Now I can't tell you if he will play against Bologna [on Saturday], but we will start a period of matches every three days. Everyone will be starting."

Milan came from behind to claim a 1-1 draw against Atalanta as Ismael Bennacer cancelled out Ruslan Malinovskyi's opener with a fine equaliser for the Serie A champions. 

Malinovskyi's deflected first-half effort put Gian Piero Gasperini's hosts in the ascendency as Junior Messias, Pierre Kalulu and Theo Hernandez spurned good opportunities for the visitors.

With Stefano Pioli's side pinning Atalanta back after the break, Bennacer bent a fine effort home to earn Milan a valuable point in their bid to defend the Scudetto.

While Milan were unable to force a winner and make it two wins from two Serie A outings, they remain unbeaten in league action since January after claiming a point from a difficult away trip.

Rafael Leao and Malinovskyi both dragged efforts into the side-netting during an open start, before Messias volleyed wide after receiving a glorious cross-field pass from Hernandez 23 minutes in.

The hosts hit the front in the 29th minute when Malinovskyi met Joakim Maehle's cut-back with a left-footed strike from the edge of the area, beating Mike Maignan with the help of a slight deflection off Kalulu.

Kalulu headed Hernandez's free-kick over as Milan looked to respond after the break, before Leao cut inside to bend a long-range effort narrowly wide of the top-right corner.

Maignan turned Mario Pasalic's powerful header over the crossbar 10 minutes into the second half, before Juan Musso raced off his goal-line to smother Hernandez's goal-bound effort as the Rossoneri upped the ante.

Atalanta's resistance was finally broken with 22 minutes remaining, Bennacer whipping a terrific effort in off the far post after cutting in from the right to ensure the spoils were shared.

Stefano Pioli has rejected suggestions Milan are favourites to retain the Serie A title this season, claiming the Rossoneri will struggle to match last campaign's tally of 86 points in a "very competitive" league.

Milan ended an 11-year wait for the Scudetto when they edged out rivals Inter at the end of a fierce title race in May, and began the new campaign with a thrilling 4-2 victory over Udinese last week.

But several sides, including Inter, Juventus, Napoli and Roma – all of whom also started the season with a victory – have been tipped to challenge Milan for their crown, and Pioli expects a difficult fight.

"We have to be an interchangeable team," Pioli said ahead of Sunday's trip to Atalanta.

"It will be such a balanced championship that it will be difficult to score last year's points. Difficulties will come for everyone, even with teams that you don't expect.

"There are seven or eight strong teams, a very balanced and competitive league. One game at a time we must continue on our path and work to become more and more competitive.

"We are strong, here we all have to feel important, but nobody is indispensable. What is indispensable is the mentality and the work. 

"The winner will be whoever is the most consistent in results and performances. You have to play with intensity and quality. 

"Head-to-head matches are important and last year we won precisely because we scored so many points with the big teams."

Milan started both of their previous full Serie A seasons under Pioli with consecutive victories, beating Bologna and Crotone to begin the 2020-21 campaign before overcoming Sampdoria and Cagliari last term, and will be looking to maintain that record in Bergamo on Sunday.

Meanwhile, since clinching the title, Milan have acquired Belgian attackers Charles de Ketelaere and Divock Origi, and Pioli has refused to rule out further activity before the closure of the transfer window.

However, the 56-year-old insists the Rossoneri will only move for the right target, as he revealed Simon Kjaer is closing in on a return after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury last year.

"As for the market, we have the will - if the situation were right - to improve certain situations," he added.

"But the squad is strong, Kjaer is approaching 100 per cent. I repeat, if we find something to improve well [we may be active], otherwise we are already competitive like this."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli said his team "must not repeat" their defensive errors in Saturday's opening win against Udinese when they face Atalanta next week.

The Rossoneri got their Serie A title defence off to a victorious start at San Siro as they beat Udinese 4-2, but had to come from behind after conceding just 90 seconds into the new season when Rodrigo Becao headed in a corner.

A penalty from Theo Hernandez and an Ante Rebic strike quickly turned things around, only for Adam Masina to head in an equaliser just before half-time.

Brahim Diaz restored Milan's lead less than a minute into the second half, before Rebic wrapped things up with just over 20 minutes to go.

While Pioli was clearly unhappy with conceding twice, he did acknowledge that his side recovered and played some of the football that saw them win their first Scudetto in 11 years last season.

"I didn't like conceding so early; we have to start better," he told DAZN. "Then we played half an hour of great football, against a very dangerous and physical opponent.

"We conceded two goals from crosses, we had to work much better. We will review everything and deal with these situations better.

"Sometimes we are more determined when we defend high instead of in front of our penalty area. This is a serious mistake, and we must not repeat it next Sunday against an opponent like Atalanta."

Rebic scored twice, his first Serie A goals at San Siro in 482 days, having not registered a league goal on home soil since playing Genoa in April 2021.

"Ante is a very strong player," Pioli added. "He knows how to move, he knows how to tie the game, he has all the characteristics to be important. He worked for the team, he really gave us a lot, so congratulations [to him]."

New signings Charles de Ketelaere and Divock Origi made their debuts from the bench, with the former putting the ball in the back of the net only to see it disallowed for a foul by the latter.

Pioli was asked about De Ketelaere, a big-money arrival from Club Brugge, and suggested the Belgium international will need more time before starting.

"The [first] impressions are very positive, he is an intelligent guy," he said.

"He can read situations in advance... He still doesn't have the best possible condition [fitness-wise]. He was probably used to working between the lines more, we aim to fill those spaces with more players.

"There is no doubt about his talent, but he comes from a different league and will need the time to understand this football. "

Stefano Pioli says Milan will "not back down" in the transfer market as they eye further reinforcements ahead of a "special" season.

The Serie A champions reportedly paid €36million to sign attacking midfielder Charles De Ketelaere from Club Brugge, and also brought in striker Divock Origi on a free transfer after his Liverpool contract expired.

But it has been a quiet transfer window for the Rossoneri after they ended an 11-year wait to win the Scudetto in May.

Milan start the defence of their title against Udinese at San Siro on Saturday and head coach Pioli hopes to have more new faces on board by the time the transfer window closes on September 1.

He told reporters on Friday: "I am very happy and delighted with who has arrived. If there is a chance to improve the squad, we will not back down."

Pioli added: "The transfer market can offer you situations that you may not have thought of until now. If there is the possibility the squad will be improved; different characteristics may be needed from those we have."

Such a hectic schedule due to the World Cup in Qatar will provide further challenges, but Pioli is relishing another title battle.

He said: "It will be a special season. Today I showed the team the whole calendar until November 13 and many will have 23-24 games in 90 days.

"I will need everyone available. In three months we will have already played a lot: we play 15 league games, the Champions League...

"It will be a very balanced championship and I think it will be difficult for everyone to improve the standard of the last championship. All the top eight are at a high level, the mid-table ones have grown. It will be a good fight."

As their Serie A rivals attempt to turn back time, champions Milan are looking to the future.

Romelu Lukaku, Inter's 2020-21 Scudetto hero, and Paul Pogba, the winner of four straight championships at Juventus, have returned to their former clubs following ultimately unsuccessful Premier League stints.

Of course, this is a move that worked for Milan last season, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic had played for three different clubs in three different countries between featuring in the Rossoneri's two most recent title-winning campaigns.

Ibrahimovic, soon to turn 41, has signed up for another season, but there is a young, exciting core to the Milan team who secured that latest title and will now bid to defend it.

Young stars repay Pioli's faith

Milan had the fourth-youngest average age of their starters in Serie A last season (25y 337d), older only than Empoli (24y 325d), Spezia (24y 334d) and Torino (25y 189d).

And this average was dragged up significantly by Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud.

Among the 10 outfield players to start 20 or more league games for Milan in 2021-22, nine were below that average age at the end of the season, with Giroud (35y 233d) the exception.

Giroud scored 11 goals, including two the day the Rossoneri won the title at Sassuolo, but even he made only 22 starts as Stefano Pioli showed faith in his young charges.

Pierre Kalulu (21 starts) was 21 on the final day; Rafael Leao (31 starts), Sandro Tonali (31 starts), Brahim Diaz (25 starts) and Alexis Saelemaekers (22 starts) were all 22; Theo Hernandez (30 starts) and Fikayo Tomori (30 starts) were both 24; and the now departed Franck Kessie (25 starts) was 25, along with Davide Calabria (24 starts).

Of those, only Diaz was not in the XI at Sassuolo, with the 28-year-old Rade Krunic preferred.

 

That this young Milan side held their nerve on that day – needing to avoid defeat to ensure they could not be pipped at the post by Inter – justified Pioli's approach, and the club have seemingly sought to get even younger ahead of their title defence.

Milan boosted by Belgium pair

Realistically, given the financial power of other clubs across Europe, Milan have had little choice but to pay for potential rather than proven performers.

Yet their early moves in this close season sought to find a blend of the two, as Milan honed in on two stars of Lille's shock 2020-21 Ligue 1 title success.

Centre-back Sven Botman, only 22, was a favourite of Paolo Maldini, while Renato Sanches, 24, appeared a good fit for a midfield set to be robbed of Kessie following his move to Barcelona as a free agent.

Unfortunately, Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain – backed by Saudi Arabia's PIF and Qatar's QSI respectively – outmuscled Milan in both cases.

Instead, Kalulu could be set to start again alongside Tomori, and Tommaso Pobega, returning from a loan at Torino and now 23, is a likely replacement for Kessie.

Milan have preferred to focus their limited budget on the attack, successfully holding off rival interest to sign Charles De Ketelaere.

 

The Belgium international, who turned 21 in March, contributed 14 goals and nine assists in 39 First Division A matches for Club Brugge last term.

De Ketelaere was the second-youngest player in the Belgian top flight to tally at least five goals and five assists for the season – after Anderlecht's Bayern Munich loanee Joshua Zirkzee (16 goals, nine assists).

He will now link up with Leao (11 goals, eight assists), who was the second-youngest to achieve that feat in Serie A in 2021-22 – after Sassuolo's Giacomo Raspadori (10 goals, five assists).

Even De Ketelaere's Belgium team-mate Divock Origi – another new forward signing, set to become Milan's latest experienced option up front – is only 27.

Still young, now experienced

The signing of Origi, an elder statesman in the Milan dressing room, would actually have made Serie A rivals Juventus (27y 319d) and Inter (29y 73d) younger.

Indeed, Inter were the third-oldest team in Serie A last season – after Sampdoria (29y 212d) and Lazio (29y 217d) – with their squad already in need of regeneration a year after winning the Scudetto.

There is no danger of Milan being in the same position, with their young side getting younger and extending their window in which they can expect to contend for further titles.

The Rossoneri were comfortably the youngest champions across Europe's top five leagues last season, with Champions League victors Real Madrid (28y 95d) the oldest.

 

Milan's title winners will undoubtedly benefit from their 2021-22 experiences, too.

Leao (85), Tonali (60), Diaz (47), Saelemaekers (45), Tomori (34) and Kalulu (13) had each played comfortably fewer than 100 games in Europe's top five leagues heading into the previous campaign. Kalulu had tallied a mere 727 minutes prior to his breakout year.

In the Champions League, they were even greener. Besides Giroud, who had played 41 games and started 25, those nine other Serie A regulars had made just 11 combined appearances and five combined starts in Europe's elite club competition up to that point.

Milan's European campaign did not pan out as they would have hoped, losing their first three group stage matches and finishing bottom of the table in a punishing pool, but there was a dramatic away win at Atletico Madrid, and the Rossoneri twice took the game to eventual finalists Liverpool.

There may be departures along the way – and Milan will hope to receive a fee, unlike in Kessie's case – but this team should continue to grow together.

If Milan's players progress as they have done so far, there will be plenty more title challenges – and perhaps even a tilt at an eighth European crown soon enough.

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