Stefano Pioli feels qualifying for the Champions League could "change everything" for Milan – particularly when it comes to retaining three key members of his first-team squad.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all out of contract at the end of the season, while the Serie A club also face a decision over whether to sign on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori on a permanent deal.

However, ahead of the resumption of domestic duties after the international games in March, Pioli made clear the focus for everyone is on finishing the campaign strongly.

Milan sit second in the table and despite their form tailing off in 2021 – they have lost five times in the league since the turn of the year, having gone unbeaten in the competition in the first half of the season – they have a glorious opportunity to finish in the top four.

"In the eyes of Ibra, Calhanoglu and Donnarumma I see serenity," Pioli told the media about the trio on Friday.

"Their future is now for us - it would change everything for us to go to the Champions League. I see a lot of concentration and attention."

Tomori had made 12 appearances in all competitions since his arrival from Chelsea in the mid-season transfer window, with the temporary deal including a purchase option.

"We are very satisfied with how he has started, he is a smiling boy, he gives us important characteristics," Pioli said of the centre-back. "We must continue to do well without thinking about the future."

Milan are in early action on Saturday, taking on Sampdoria at San Siro.

The Rossoneri have failed to win in any of their last five home games in all competitions, a run that included a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United that ended their involvement in the Europa League.

Catching Serie A leaders Inter - who sit six points clear and have a game in hand - may be difficult but Pioli has set a points target for his players to work towards in the closing months.

"We have always taken responsibility with great conviction and confidence," he said.

"There comes a decisive moment - everything we have done so far is to be here right now. We want to get to the end of the season without regrets.

"Ten games are a lot and there are still many points to play for, 75 could be the right threshold to reach the Champions League but it is difficult to make calculations.

"The fight will be very tough, we have to think about the next game."

Stefano Pioli says Milan "scraped the bottom of the barrel" as they came from behind to seal a dramatic 3-2 Serie A win over Fiorentina on Sunday. 

Hakan Calhanoglu struck 18 minutes from full-time to move the Rossoneri to within six points of leaders Inter, who have a game in hand after their clash with Sassuolo this weekend was called off after a COVID-19 outbreak at the club.

The result meant Milan equalled their record of 12 away wins in a single top-flight season and ended a run of three games across all competitions without a win. 

That included a Europa League last-16 defeat to Manchester United, and Pioli acknowledged his side had to dig deep to bounce back from that setback.

"This was the most difficult game because we were coming off the disappointment of the Europa League," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"We had been playing every three days for many months and knew we had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for the remaining drops of energy to get it done."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had earlier put Milan ahead to become the oldest player to reach 15 goals in a single Serie A season, aged 39 years and 169 days, and the striker insisted afterwards they are still very much in the title race.

Pioli agreed with the veteran Swede and said Milan will do everything they can to reign in neighbours Inter. 

"Ibra is right to talk about the Scudetto because we were up there most of the season," he added.

"We're not that far away now and we have the quality to play every single game for a victory. Whether we achieve it is another matter, but we can certainly try.

"Naturally, we started the season with very different objectives, as we were aiming to be in the top four. 

"Now we are there, we want it to be a positive campaign right to the end. I've always said there will be four very happy teams at the end of the season and three who won't be."

Pioli also highlighted the contribution of Ismael Bennacer after he was introduced for Sandro Tonali shortly before the hour mark. 

The Algeria international completed 30 of his 31 attempted passes and enjoyed a pass completion rate in the opposition half of 95.2 per cent. 

"I would agree that although Tonali and [Soualiho] Meite are doing well, Isma has some specific characteristics that work really well with our system," Pioli said. 

"He'll go on international duty now and hopefully get some minutes in his legs so he'll make a big impact in the final push of the season."

Milan are next in action at home to Sampdoria on April 3.

Stefano Pioli is hopeful Zlatan Ibrahimovic can help get Milan's campaign back on track after confirming the striker will start Sunday's Serie A clash with Fiorentina. 

Ibrahimovic returned from a thigh injury with 25 minutes from the bench in Thursday's 1-0 loss to Manchester United in the Europa League. 

He was unable to mark his return to action with a goal against his former club but has 16 for the season overall, 14 of those coming in the same number of league appearances. 

Milan have struggled for goals in the 39-year-old's absence, scoring four times in their last five games in a run that includes back-to-back blanks in defeats to Napoli and United. 

Indeed, after scoring in 38 consecutive league games, Milan have failed to score in four of their last nine, losing each of the four matches in which they did not find the net. 

Pioli is therefore glad to have Ibrahimovic, who was this week recalled to the Sweden squad after a near-five-year absence, back available for Sunday's trip to Fiorentina.

"Zlatan took advantage of his minutes on Thursday to improve his condition and will start from the first minute tomorrow," Pioli said at a pre-match news conference on Saturday. 

"I still don't know if he has 90 minutes in his legs, but his presence is important for us and he will make a big difference." 

Milan went down 2-1 on aggregate to United - Paul Pogba's strike in the second leg at San Siro ultimately proving the difference - and are left battling in just one competition between now and the end of the season. 

The Rossoneri lost 1-0 to Napoli last time out in Serie A and have won just two of their last six league games, placing them nine points behind leaders Inter. 

Juventus are a point further back with a game in hand, meanwhile, but Pioli is not throwing in the title towel yet with 11 matches still to play. 

Asked if it bothers him that many have ruled Milan out of the Scudetto race, Pioli said: "Who has said that? Maybe I should hang up some newspaper headlines in the locker room? 

"Being eliminated by United is something we regret, but we come out of the game even more aware of our qualities and that little details can make all the difference." 

Sunday's opponents Fiorentina ended a three-game winless run with a 4-1 victory at Benevento last weekend to move up to 14th. 

Cesare Prandelli's side have drawn three of their last four home league games with Milan and Pioli is anticipating a tough test in Florence.

"We're aiming for the top and must try to win every match. But I think tomorrow might be the most complicated of them all," said Pioli, who both played for and previously managed La Viola. 

"Fiorentina are in good shape, and we are coming off a very tiring run of games. I am sure we'll step up a gear after the international break." 

He added: "I experienced a great deal in Florence as a player and then a coach, then of course the tragedy of what happened to Davide Astori leaves its mark.  

"It can never be a normal match. Florence and Fiorentina are more than opponents. Last year, the welcome I received when I returned there filled me with joy." 

Ibrahimovic's return is a big positive for Milan, but they remain without fellow attackers Mario Mandzukic and Rafael Leao, while Ante Rebic is serving a suspension. 

"We knew there could be difficulties with such a packed schedule and we've so far played more competitive games than anyone else," Pioli said of his side's recent injury woes. 

"I feel that the team has overcome the difficult moment, as recent performances have been strong and we only lost due to minor incidents.  

"There are some justifications for the number of injuries, whereas in some cases we missed something and that mustn't happen again."

Stefano Pioli says it is understandable Milan are struggling to cope with a crippling injury list after losing further ground in the Serie A title race.

Milan fell to a 1-0 loss at home to Napoli on Sunday through Matteo Politano's strike early in the second half, the Inter loanee's fourth goal in his past eight league games - as many as he managed in his first 17 appearances of the campaign.

The defeat leaves Pioli's men nine points behind leaders Inter, having themselves been at the summit just a month ago.

Milan were again without striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Napoli, as well as Mario Mandzukic, while Ante Rebic and Hakan Calhanoglu have also spent time on the sidelines.

That told as the Rossoneri failed to find a way past David Ospina from their five shots on target, though Pioli pointed out fellow heavyweights Inter and Juventus would also struggle if they were without their best players.

"When you are missing that many players, it does make a difference, especially when they are players who also bring experience and leadership," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"We had to play many games without a real centre-forward, so considering all of that, the team deserves praise for all they've been able to do in the circumstances.

"Try to imagine Inter without [Romelu] Lukaku, Lautaro [Martinez] or [Alexis] Sanchez; maybe Juventus without [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Alvaro] Morata or [Federico] Chiesa.

"We had more than half the season without Zlatan, while Rebic and Calhanoglu were also injured for long periods.

"We showed all week that this is not just a strong team, but a special one. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough tonight.

"We should've either been more courageous or sat back more, but tonight we tended to be somewhere in-between and were caught in no man's land."

Milan have now won just two of their past six league matches and are only six points better off than fifth-placed Napoli, who also have a game in hand to play.

And with the second leg of their Europa League last-16 tie with Manchester United to come on Thursday, three days before a trip to Fiorentina, Pioli accepts fatigue is now playing a big part.

"It was a very tough and tiring week. I saw a performance that was sufficient, but that's not enough," he said.

"We returned from Manchester at 3am on Friday morning. It's obvious the Europa League is more stressful and damaging than the Champions League, especially when we started in September.

"Having said that, we are Milan and would never want to be without that European presence. We weren't expecting to be in second place, but now that we are here, we want to keep hold of it.

"Inter have the momentum - they really started to step on the gas after their Champions League exclusion and it allowed them a full week to prepare for every game.

"We are not looking ahead or over our shoulders; we just stay focused on our path."

Napoli, previously without an away win in four league outings, are now unbeaten in their past six league encounters with Milan at San Siro since December 2014.

The home side's misery was compounded late on when, shortly after Theo Hernandez had a strong penalty shout rejected, substitute Ante Rebic was dismissed for dissent.

Despite now being closer to fifth place than first, however, midfielder Sandro Tonali insists Milan are still looking up the table rather than down.

"I don't think there is fear, otherwise we'd lose every game," he said. "We are here and must continue to aim high and not give up now."

"This is not the game we prepared - it was not what we intended to do. Napoli closed down all the spaces and we didn't create enough scoring opportunities.

"The ones we did create with Rafa Leao were not converted and then Napoli scored their first real chance."

Stefano Pioli felt Milan showed they have the belief in their ability to sustain a challenge for trophies in a 2-0 Serie A win at Hellas Verona on Sunday.

Rade Krunic and Diogo Dalot scored superb first Serie A goals to move second-placed Milan three points behind leaders Inter.

Krunic opened the scoring with a sublime first-half free-kick and Dalot doubled their lead with a classy strike early in the second half.

Rossoneri head coach Pioli was proud of the way his side extended their unbeaten run to four matches ahead of a Europa League round-of-16 first-leg tie at Manchester United on Thursday.

He told Sky Sport Italia. "We have shown that we have belief. It was a difficult match."

Pioli added: "We are not Martians, we are a young team of the which everyone was proud of and which everyone now asks for continuity.

"But we know how to overcome our defects, we know our strength and merits."

Theo Hernandez and Ante Rebic were added to Milan's injury list following the draw with Udinese, but Pioli says they will not complain about absentees, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic also sidelined.

He said: "We were good at not feeling sorry for ourselves, we must be balanced in evaluating our performance, even when we win."

Stefano Pioli did not see any shortage of commitment from his Milan side in the 1-1 Serie A draw with Udinese, but conceded the quality was lacking.

Franck Kessie scored a 97th-minute penalty with the last kick of Wednesday's encounter at San Siro, as Milan's title hopes took another hit – Inter now have the chance to move six points clear should they beat Parma on Thursday.

Milan's equaliser came courtesy of a remarkable error from Jens Stryger Larsen, who inexplicably handled in the area as Udinese looked to see out what would have been just a second away win in their last eight league matches on the road.

The Rossoneri were without their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is set to miss up to three weeks with a thigh injury, and Milan head coach Pioli acknowledged his team were missing the "characteristics" the 39-year-old brings, while also bemoaning Mario Mandzukic's absence.

"We wanted to win, it's a shame," Pioli told DAZN. "We knew that it would be difficult against a team with everyone behind the ball.

"I saw determination and a lack of clarity. There was a lack of quality and rhythm, not anger and determination.

"We start again as always with the next match. Each game has its own story. On Sunday we found an opponent who wanted to play, Udinese instead play this [defensive] type of game.

"Today we lacked the right characteristics to face this type of match, we lacked the two real strikers in the squad. [Rafael] Leao and [Ante] Rebic have other characteristics.

"Now we must try to resume our run. A half positive result, let's think about the next game."

Leao and Rebic both struggled to assert themselves against Udinese's three-man defence.

Rebic – the second-highest scorer in Serie A in the back half of the season (since January 29), behind Inter's Romelu Lukaku – failed to have an attempt on goal or create a chance, while Leao only tested Juan Musso with a tame flick late in the first half.

Pioli did not look to single out his attackers, however, though he acknowledged Leao in particular has a lot to add to his game.

"I always expect a lot from my players," Pioli said. "Rafa has characteristics more suited for attacking spaces.

"When he finds a closed defence, he still doesn't have the shrewdness to anticipate the defender."

Ibrahimovic was watching on from close to the bench and was seen looking disgruntled at Milan's display.

"We didn't come out of this game satisfied, he's like everyone else," Pioli explained.

The good news for Milan is that, in Kessie, they have a midfielder on 10 goals in all competitions this season, though nine of them have come from the penalty spot.

Kessie's cool finish, timed at 96:20 was the latest Milan have scored in Serie A since 2017, while the Ivory Coast international has now netted 25 league goals in total for the Rossoneri – matching Robinho's tally.

Ante Rebic has been passed fit to partner Rafael Leao up front but it remains to be seen if Alessio Romagnoli will start when injury-hit Milan face Udinese in Serie A on Wednesday.

Rebic scored the winner in the Rossoneri's 2-1 victory over Roma on Sunday before being withdrawn due to injury.

Milan head coach Pioli says the Croatia international will be ready to start against Udinese and Leao will take his place in the team after coming off the bench at the weekend to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Asked about Rebic's fitness, Pioli said: "He's fine, he can start against Udinese. On Sunday he played a great match, his characteristics are important for us. There is no doubt about his qualities."

Pioli said following the much-needed win over Roma that he suspected Ibrahimovic, who is appearing at the Sanremo music festival, was weary rather than wounded and the talismanic striker will not face Luca Gotti's men.

Milan are taking no risks over Ibrahimovic's fitness, with a Europa League showdown against his former club Manchester United to come next week.

Hakan Calhanoglu will also miss the encounter with Udinese, which second-placed Milan will start knowing a victory would leave them just a point behind leaders Inter, while Ismael Bennacer and Mario Mandzukic are expected to return next week.

Leao has not scored since January 9, but Pioli has full faith in the 21-year-old.

"Up until a few days ago we talked about an improved Leao and inside the game," he said. "I'm satisfied with Leao, tomorrow he will start from the beginning.

"From a mental point of view he is ready, he has grown a lot."

Captain Romagnoli was left out of the starting line-up at Stadio Olimpico and Pioli refused to be drawn on whether the defender will be restored to the side.

"The matches are all important but also different, for me to be able to choose is great luck," Pioli said. "Only tomorrow morning we will try the starting eleven, we will choose the most suitable team and the best players."

Stefano Pioli says Milan are no longer happy simply playing the part of challengers in the Serie A title race and will work hard to recover from a testing stretch that now includes a derby defeat to Inter.

The Rossoneri have led the league for much of the season but slipped four points off the pace with Sunday's 3-0 home loss to their rivals at San Siro.

Lautaro Martinez added to his early opener with a second after the break, with Romelu Lukaku capping Milan's second consecutive Serie A defeat.

Pioli's side also conceded a last-ditch equaliser to Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League since losing at Spezia, their overwhelmingly positive campaign threatening to come off the rails.

Milan have now suffered four defeats in Serie A in 2021, twice as many as in the whole of the previous calendar year.

Pioli saw improvement in this performance compared to the Spezia setback, though, as Milan enjoyed 59.9 per cent of the possession and had 15 attempts, and the coach is determined to stay level-headed.

But the team's ambitions have changed over the course of the campaign and there must now be a response, he added.

"I believe that our strength has always been balance – and belief in our work," Pioli told DAZN.

"If they had told us months ago that at this point of the season we were second in the standings, we would have jumped for joy. This doesn't have to make us happy and content now.

"In these past two or three games, we have not been able to put our quality on the field. We need to get back to doing more.

"We were really poor in the Spezia game. Today we feel sorry for ourselves, for the fans, for the club, but today we played our game.

"We have to maintain clarity, positivity, and evaluate things well. When you lose, you have to work harder and this we will have to do."

While Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma became the youngest player to clock up 200 games in Serie A in the three-points-per-win era, his opposite number ensured the milestone passed with little cause for celebration.

The outstanding Samir Handanovic made eight saves, his most in a game for Inter since pulling off eight against Lazio in January 2019 and most in a Serie A outing since the same number against Juventus in December 2017.

Only three times in Handanovic's Nerazzurri career has he made more than eight stops in a match.

The keeper denied Zlatan Ibrahimovic on five occasions as the veteran Milan superstar failed to add to his tally of 10 Milan derby goals.

Pioli recognised Handanovic's display but refused to criticise Ibrahimovic, who was withdrawn after 75 minutes with cramp in his calf.

"A centre-forward is conditioned by the performance of the team," he said. "In the first half, we did not have the accuracy in the plays, in the final pass.

"In the second half, then we created and had scoring chances. It is a long time since Samir Handanovic saved so often and so well. It is a difficult week, but we will recover."

Just one of Handanovic's saves came in the first half and Pioli rued Milan's slow start as he reflected on the match as a whole.

"The goal immediately after five minutes weighed heavily," he said. "We struggled to find the rhythm, intensity and quality that was needed to find spaces.

"We let Inter play the game where they are strongest.

"In the second half, we were succeeding but we were unable to score in our best moment. Then came the second goal.

"I have nothing to say about the second half of my team; in the first half, we had to do something more."

Stefano Pioli and Antonio Conte are relishing the prospect of a possible Scudetto shoot-out in Sunday's Derby della Madonnina.

Inter lead Milan by one point at the Serie A summit heading into this weekend's showdown after leapfrogging their bitter rivals last week.

With nine-in-a-row champions Juventus eight points adrift of top spot, albeit with a game in hand to play, the title is looking likely to end up at San Siro this season.

Milan are seeking a first Scudetto since 2011, a year after Inter last prevailed, and Sunday's game may go a long way towards determining who finishes top come the end of the campaign.

It is the first time the sides will meet holding the top two positions in the table since April 2011 and Conte is expecting a unique derby in the behind-closed-doors contest.

"It will be different to the previous derbies because of the teams' high positions - first and second," Conte said at a news conference on Saturday.

"This is very satisfying for the city of Milan. There is a lot at stake, certainly more than just local pride.

"We have to do our best to win the game and stay top of the table. It is an important match. When the table is like this you need to be even more determined."

Milan beat Inter 2-1 in October and are seeking a league double over their city rivals for the first time since 2010-11.

However, Inter won last month's eventful Coppa Italia quarter-final tie by the same scoreline and Pioli is anticipating a cagey affair in this latest tussle.

"Tomorrow we will play a derby like we have not seen for many years, with a lot on the line," Pioli told reporters.

"Both us and Inter have a clear identity. The derbies are always balanced matches with many goalscoring opportunities.

"It is not necessarily decisive for the fate of the championship, but it is important because we have been in the lead all season."

The big talking point from the most recent meeting between the sides was the coming together of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku.

But Conte, who won three titles during his time in charge of Juventus, does not believe tempers will flare this time around.

"It's going to be a match with two teams trying to win and surpass each other," Conte said.

"We must never forget that, even if this is a big game and a derby, it remains a sport. I don't predict much tension in the atmosphere.

Ibrahimovic has scored 10 goals in all competitions in this fixture, including eight for Milan, and Pioli would not swap his striker for Inter star Lukaku.

"I respect Lukaku, but I prefer Ibra," Pioli said. "Tomorrow's game must be a collective effort; we must play as a team. It is the collective that highlights the qualities of the individual.

"We have to play well because we know how to do it, we have the technical qualities."

Asked how his Inter side plan to deal with Ibrahimovic, Conte said: "You neutralise threats by working as a team and reducing the errors.

"Ibrahimovic is a top player who is doing very well for Milan. He has already scored against us this season, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will score again."

Milan have lost three league games since the start of 2021 - one more than over the whole of 2020 - and were held 2-2 by Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League on Thursday.

Pioli, who has constantly played down his side's title aspirations, accepted an improvement is required on the back of some below-par displays.

"We did not raise our levels against Red Star - even the defensive phase did not see us as solid and compact," he said.

"Tomorrow we must be very careful and determined. Our goal is to give the best, then we'll see what we've achieved at the end of the season."

Stefano Pioli remains confident Milan can agree contract extensions to keep Hakan Calhanoglu and Gianluigi Donnarumma at the club. 

Both goalkeeper Donnarumma and midfielder Calhanoglu – two influential players in helping Milan sit top of Serie A – have expiring deals, along with talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 

Technical director Paolo Maldini recently said Milan hope to reach terms to retain the trio beyond the current campaign, with head coach Pioli wanting them to stay as they build for the future.  

"The important thing is that both the club and the technical group have already had their say in a convincing way," Pioli said of contract negotiations ahead of Saturday's trip to Spezia.  

"We are happy to be able to continue the journey together and the boys are also very determined. 

"We all want to do well, the club is building something important and we are all focused on doing the best." 

Donnarumma has played in 20 of 21 league games under Pioli this season. The 21-year-old boasts a save percentage of 73.33 in Serie A – only Lazio's Pepe Reina (73.68) has managed better out of all the goalkeepers to feature at least 10 times in the competition. 

Calhanoglu, meanwhile, has a league-leading eight assists despite missing three games after testing positive for coronavirus. Indeed, since the beginning of December, he has set up seven goals in Serie A, the joint-most in the top five European Leagues, along with Kingsley Coman at Bayern Munich. 

The Turkey international will be back in the team to face Spezia as Milan aim to avoid a first league loss on the road since December 22, 2019. 

"Calhanoglu will start, either (Ante) Rebic or (Rafael) Leao will play on the left," Pioli said on Friday. "We will see what will happen – we want to get to the end of the season without regrets.

"We have ample room for improvement, we must raise our level because expectations are now high."

Pioli received praise from Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis for his work this week, with the pair united in their aim to help the Rossoneri become a dominant force again, both domestically and in Europe.

"We are in tune and his statements have made me very happy, our relationship with time has grown," Pioli said of the comments made by Gazidis.

"With the club we are going in the same direction and we have only one goal, to bring Milan back up. There have never been divisions and we must continue like this."

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli said evergreen star Zlatan Ibrahimovic "doesn't have to stop" at 500 goals after reaching the landmark figure in his club career.

Ibrahimovic passed 500 club goals in Milan's 4-0 Serie A rout of Crotone, increasing his tally to 501 with his sixth league brace of the season on Sunday.

The 39-year-old opened the scoring after half an hour before doubling the lead with 26 minutes remaining at San Siro, where Ante Rebic netted a quick-fire double as Milan returned to the top of the table.

"There's no need to add anything. We just have to congratulate with him," Pioli told reporters.

"It's an unbelievable milestone but we are talking of an absolute number one, he is a champion. I just want to congratulate him again and send him a message.

"He doesn't have to stop at that number."

Only with Paris Saint-Germain (156) has Ibrahimovic scored more goals in all competitions, having managed 83 for Milan across two spells.

Ibrahimovic is one of the two players, alongside Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, to have scored the most braces in the top five European leagues in 2020-21.

The former Sweden international has scored 14 Serie A goals in 11 appearances this season, while he has 16 across all competitions.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not immediately looking to celebrate his latest achievement on Sunday after passing 500 club career goals in Milan's 4-0 defeat of Crotone.

The veteran Rossoneri striker increased his tally to 501 in club action with his sixth Serie A brace of the season at San Siro.

The first of Ibrahimovic's two strikes, assisted by Rafael Leao, arrived 15 minutes before the break to belatedly bring up the milestone.

The 39-year-old had been stuck on 499 for almost two weeks after a red card against Inter and a missed penalty at Bologna.

Ibrahimovic was asked by Sky Sport at half-time of his accomplishment but was not interested in discussing personal glory.

"It means I've scored a few goals in my career," he said. "But the important thing is to help the team. My job is to score."

Ibrahimovic added his second following the restart, and Ante Rebic then also netted a double, teed up twice by Hakan Calhanoglu in the space of 70 seconds.

Meanwhile, Milan kept their eighth league clean sheet of the season, a division high.

Coach Stefano Pioli was therefore keen to share the praise around at full-time, even as he hailed Ibrahimovic's efforts.

"He has great qualities and is a champion who is doing well," Pioli said. "He has great ambition and is competitive, which is why he always manages to stay at high levels.

"But let's not forget all the others who are all doing their best. There is still a lot to do and let's not get excited, because the difficult moments are yet to come."

Victory moved Milan back above rivals Inter at the summit, two points clear again despite losing two of their prior three home games.

Pioli added: "I believe that the growth of the team is in the right direction.

"We are a young but responsible group, always giving our best, every day, without being influenced by others and critics.

"Expectations rise and that is merited. We welcome it. Now we have to hold up."

Stefano Pioli was delighted to end a difficult week for Milan with what he felt was a deserved win over Bologna - but opposite number Sinisa Mihajlovic begged to differ.

The Rossoneri went into Saturday's game off the back of two successive defeats. After going down 3-0 at home to Atalanta in Serie A, they were knocked out of the Coppa Italia in midweek by rivals Inter.

Having been sent off against Inter and forced to deny suggestions he made a racist comment towards Romelu Lukaku during the quarter-final tie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed a penalty as he failed to reach 500 goals in his club career.

However, Ante Rebic tucked home the rebound to give Milan a half-time lead and Franck Kessie made no mistake from the spot in the second half.

Substitute Andrea Poli halved the deficit in the 81st minute but Bologna were unable to find an equaliser, Milan becoming just the third team to win nine of their first 10 Serie A away matches in a season.

"Without committing the naive error for the Bologna goal, we had an excellent match," Pioli told Milan TV.

"I'm happy with the performance and it's a victory which gives us confidence at the end a difficult week. It's deserved. 

"The last two training sessions we've done this week are the best in a long time. We have seen the return of important players and the team has managed to maintain a balanced attitude.

"We were not happy with the performance against Atalanta, the only team that has put us in difficulty this season. We played it out against all the others."

However, Mihajlovic felt Bologna were the better team in open play, insisting that Ibrahimovic's presence in his line-up would have led to a comfortable home victory.

"We created three or four chances and didn't score. It was an undeserved defeat and I think we played better," Mihajlovic told Sky Sport Italia.

"Fine, Milan are a better team, but we created our chances from open play. They scored from penalties and their only chances were from long balls.

"If we had Ibrahimovic on our side, we would have won 3-0. My players should be proud of their performance, they fought to the end, but as usual against bigger teams, we play well and don't win."

As well as the penalty, Ibrahimovic was also denied by a fabulous double save by Bologna goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski in the first half.

The talismanic striker was on target with three of his four attempts in total but will have to wait to reach the personal milestone. He has now missed three of his six penalties taken in Serie A this term, one more than in his previous 17 spot-kick attempts for Milan in the top flight.

Ibrahimovic will hope to make it to 500 goals when the league leaders host struggling Crotone at San Siro next weekend.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed out on reaching 500 goals in his club career as Milan returned to winning ways on Saturday, securing a hard-fought 2-1 triumph at Bologna.  

Having taken his tally to 499 before getting sent off in the midweek Coppa Italia exit to Inter, Ibrahimovic failed to convert a first-half penalty awarded for a foul on Rafael Leao.  

However, Ante Rebic scored from the rebound as the Rossoneri bounced back from successive losses - including last weekend’s 3-0 humbling at home to Atalanta - to remain the pacesetters in the Serie A title race.  

Franck Kessie succeeded where Ibrahimovic failed in the second half to double the lead, punishing Adama Soumaoro's handball as he scored from 12 yards.  

Yet Milan did not have it all their own way, Andrea Poli converting fellow substitute Andreas Skov Olsen's cut-back cross to finally beat Gianluigi Donnarumma, who had made fine one-on-one saves from Nicola Sansone and Nicolas Dominguez before the break.  

Lukasz Skorupski was equally impressive in goal for Bologna, including producing a stunning double save to deny Ibrahimovic twice in a hurry in the 23rd minute.  

The Swede was frustrated again by the keeper from the spot, though there was nothing Skorupski could do when Rebic reacted quickly to steer in the rebound for just his second goal of the season. 

Bologna's hopes of a comeback were dealt a blow when Soumaoro's jump to cut out a long pass saw the ball strike him on both arms, Kessie punishing the defender as he took over penalty duties.

Poli's finish – slammed high into the net from close range in the 81st minute - set up a tense finish, yet Milan - who set a new club record by scoring for a 20th successive away league game – held on to claim all three points.

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli insists Zlatan Ibrahimovic is "certainly not a racist" but thinks his clash with Romelu Lukaku could rekindle his best form. 

Ibrahimovic was sent off having scored the opening goal in the Rossoneri's 2-1 Coppa Italia defeat to Inter this week. 

The veteran striker earned his first of two yellow cards after a heated confrontation with former Manchester United team-mate Lukaku, in which he appeared to tell the Belgian forward: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey". 

It was suggested Ibrahimovic was referring to comments made in 2018 by Everton majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, who said Lukaku had declined a contract extension because a "voodoo message" told him to move to Chelsea - a transfer that never transpired. 

Some accused Ibrahimovic of racially abusing Lukaku, with the Swede responding by stating on Twitter: "In ZLATAN's world there is no place for RACISM." United midfielder Paul Pogba also tweeted to say his old team-mate was "the last person I'd think of as racist". 

Ibrahimovic will serve a one-game ban for his red card but Pioli hopes a line can now be drawn under the incident as Milan focus back on Serie A.

"Ibrahimovic is determined and up for it, as he always is," Pioli said ahead of Saturday's game at Bologna. "Certain things can happen on the pitch; I'm not going to justify that, but you need to draw a line under it and move on. 

"Ibra is certainly not a racist; the club has always been on the front line in the fight against discrimination. Zlatan also needs these situations to get a bit of energy and motivation back." 

Milan's cup exit followed a 3-0 home league defeat to Atalanta that allowed Inter to close the gap on the leaders to two points. 

Pioli says back-to-back losses have not changed his view of his team's potential as he aims to return them to the Champions League. 

"We're not interested in what people are saying outside of the club," he said. "We just need to focus on ourselves, maintain a good balance, continue to work and improve. We know that opinions can change quickly in football. 

"It's useless to look back; we only need to look forwards. I haven't changed my mind on our quality. We have a good team and the ideas are there. We are able to put in consistently good and competitive performances, which we have shown up to now. 

"We're having a great season; we have 18 more points than we did at this stage last season and have closed the gap to our direct rivals.

"The second half of the season will be more complicated and hard-fought. Qualifying for Champions League football won't be easy, but we have the quality to do it."

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.