Rafael Leao is determined to silence his critics when AC Milan seek to overturn a 1-0 deficit in the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final against Roma.

Leao came in for criticism after last week’s first match, but showed a much better version of himself as Milan fought back from two goals down to take a 3-3 draw at relegation-battling Sassuolo on Sunday.

The 24-year-old forward, who scored Milan’s first goal, recognises he needs to bring more consistency to his game.

“I hope to help my team,” Leao told Milan TV.

“If I don’t score a goal, I hope to play well and win. This is the most important thing, to move forward.

“After the first leg, where I didn’t do very well, I was disappointed and with Sassuolo I wanted to give the right answer. If I make a mistake, I always try to come back even stronger, to learn from my mistakes.

“I found the joy of doing well and helping my team-mates. I want to play better now. We know the comeback is possible. We have to start strong, try to score in the first few minutes and then play like a final.”

Goalkeeper Mike Maignan is expected to return in goal after sitting out Sunday’s match as a precaution, but Simon Kjaer is a doubt after suffering a muscle injury in that match. Both he and fellow defender Pierre Kalulu missed training on Wednesday.

Gianluca Mancini struck in the 17th minute as Roma took an impressive 1-0 victory at the San Siro last week, carrying on their good form since Daniele De Rossi replaced Jose Mourinho in the hotseat.

The 2022 Europa Conference League champions came ever so close to making it back-to-back titles after they were defeated on penalties in last year’s Europa League showpiece and are 90 minutes away from another semi-final.

But De Rossi knows AC Milan are far from beaten as they prepare for the second leg in Rome.

As quoted on romapress.net, he said: “Milan? They will fight with everything they have. This is their last resort, they want to win and achieve one of their objectives for the season. It will be difficult.

“There are characteristics of the opponent that must always be respected and you need to think about the opponent’s coach’s moves. The first leg with Milan was quite balanced, perhaps it went a little better for us. Milan won’t change their tactics too much, but we must not overthink our own gameplan.

“We will prepare the match to win it, to try to score a goal which would be a blow for them even if it might not be decisive.

“Milan are a very strong team, they are better than us, but in the first leg we showed that we are not that much inferior and I told my team that we can play for it. We are one step away from an important milestone such as a European semi-final.”

Stefano Pioli knows AC Milan face a “steep climb” to rescue their season as reports the Rossoneri boss could soon be replaced continue to gather steam.

Milan have won their last five Serie A games and next face relegation-threatened Sassuolo on Sunday but Thursday’s 1-0 home defeat by Italian rivals Roma in the Europa League quarter-finals did nothing to help dispel talk of Pioli’s potentially-imminent departure.

Reports suggest former Real Madrid and Wolves head coach Julen Lopetegui is being lined up to succeed Pioli, whose contract at San Siro does not expire until June 2025.

It has been claimed the Parma-born manager has the next three games to save his job: at Sassuolo this weekend, the return leg at Roma and then crucially the derby against Inter Milan on April 22.

With the Nerazzurri 14 points ahead as the domestic campaign enters its final seven games, losing to Inter could effectively end the title race and leave Milan looking over their shoulder at Juventus – while their European adventure could already be over if they fail to remove Roma’s advantage, earned by Gianluca Mancini’s first-half goal at San Siro.

Pioli told reporters after the Europa League clash: “The climb is steep because the level has risen, but I’m convinced the team can play at a higher level and if we play at that level, we have every chance of playing.

“That’s what I told the team after the game.”

Midfielder Tommaso Pobega and defender Pierre Kalula are unavailable for Sunday’s Mapei Stadium showdown due to injury, with Theo Hernandez and Filippo Terracciano’s involvement in the balance. Tijjani Reijnders is more likely to be involved than English midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

In the Sassuolo camp, winger Domenico Berardi’s season is already over thanks to an Achilles tear and Norway defender Marcus Holmgren Pedersen is at least a few weeks away in his recovery.

The Neroverdi are two points from safety after being denied victory by Salernitana at the death last time out, Giulio Maggiore scoring a last-minute equaliser in a 2-2 draw to deny the Emilia-Romagna club their first away win since late November.

Well-travelled veteran boss Davide Ballardini took over in Sassuolo at the beginning of March and has taken six points from his five games so far.

The Watermelon Peel can perhaps take heart from one of the shock results of last term when they stunned Milan 5-2 at San Siro, but they have not won the home version of this match-up since March 2016, losing six of the seven subsequent editions.

Gianluca Mancini’s first-half header was enough to give Roma a slim lead in their Europa League quarter-final tie with rivals Roma.

Milan had previously won both Serie A clashes between the two sides this season but it is Roma who take a 1-0 lead into the second leg at the Stadio Olimpico next week.

Last season’s beaten Europa League finalists will fancy their chances of reaching a semi-final against either West Ham or Bayer Leverkusen after edging to victory at the San Siro.

The visitors started the quicker of the two teams but it was Milan midfielder Tijjani Reijnders who had the first meaningful effort of the contest as he forced a decent save out of Mile Svilar.

At the other end, Mike Maignan made a terrific stop to keep out a deflected Stephan El Shaarawy strike, although Romelu Lukaku appeared offside in the build-up.

However, Roma would take the lead from the resulting corner as Mancini slipped his defender to head in Pablo Dybala’s set-piece.

Having scored the winning goal in the derby clash with Lazio last week, the Italy defender is proving a handful at the other end of the pitch.

Milan went in search of a leveller and Olivier Giroud came close only to see two quick-fire efforts both cleared off the line by Lukaku.

An acrobatic overhead kick from Rafael Leao was off-target with Reijnders again testing Svilar before the break.

The Netherlands midfielder was again thwarted by Svilar in the Roma goal soon after the interval.

Roma skipper Lorenzo Pellegrini flashed a shot wide of the target on the hour-mark, with Bryan Cristante following suit shortly after.

Theo Hernandez and Reijnders came close for Milan as they pushed for a leveller, Svilar on hand to tip a cross-cum-shot from Yacine Adli onto the crossbar.

The hosts’ goal never came as Giroud also hit the woodwork with a marvellous late chance.

AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli believes now is the time for his players to show their strengths heading into the defining period of the campaign, starting with an all-Italian Europa League quarter-final against Roma.

The Rossoneri are on a run of seven straight wins in all competitions and sit second in Serie A, six points clear of Juventus.

However, with hopes of the Scudetto all but over given the healthy lead of rivals Inter at the top of the table, Pioli knows all of that hard work will count for nothing if his squad do not last the distance in Europe.

“We are in a good moment, but now comes the most important moment of the season which will decide the balance of our season, what we have done, our positive or negative path,” Pioli told a press conference.

“This is the moment which we must demonstrate our strength, demonstrate that the journey we have had through ups and downs has improved us. It depends on us.”

Pioli added: “We have to play the whole match with attention, quality, intensity and maximum minute by minute.

“We want to win, we will try. For me we are not that far from the level of the best in Europe – we play modern football and we are competitive”

Milan will be without defender Fikayo Tomori through suspension, but Simon Kjaer and Malick Thiaw have returned to training with the rest of the squad.

Roma head to San Siro on the back of a derby win over city rivals Lazio, which left them fifth in the table and three points behind Bologna in the battle for Champions League qualification.

Milan have beaten Roma in both of their Serie A fixtures this season.

The 3-1 defeat at San Siro in January saw Roma part ways with manager Jose Mourinho and install former player Daniele De Rossi until the end of the season.

Pioli is expecting a stern test from the Giallorossi, who knocked out English side Brighton to reach the last eight.

“I think De Rossi is doing an excellent job,” the Milan boss said.

“It wasn’t easy to overcome a team that defended with many players when Mourinho was there, probably tomorrow we will find a different opponent with different characteristics.

“We know what Roma are about and their important players, but we don’t know what we will face tomorrow.

“However, we are prepared and mature enough to be able to read what they concede to us and then also make the most of our own skillsets.”

What the papers say

West Ham will join Liverpool, Tottenham and AC Milan in the hunt for 26 -year-old Fulham defender Tosin Adarabioyo, according to the Guardian. The former Manchester City player will be a free agent in summer, but Fulham are hoping to retain his services.

Football Insider says Chelsea are trying to secure the signature of Athletic Bilbao forward Nico Williams for £43million. The 21-year-old Spain international has scored six goals and had 14 assists for Athletic in all competitions this season.

Former Arsenal loanee Dani Ceballos is set to leave Real Madrid for rivals Atletico Madrid as he struggles for game time at the LaLiga leaders, the Sun reports. The 27-year-old Spain midfielder has played just 14 games for the Real Madrid in the league this season, mostly as a substitute.

Social media round-upPlayers to watch

Mohamed Salah: The 31-year-old Liverpool striker is set to be targeted once again by Saudi Pro League clubs this summer with Al Ittihad reportedly set to offer £70million for the Egypt star, Talksport says.

Lucas Paqueta: French media outlet L’Equipe says Manchester City have agreed to terms with the 26-year-old West Ham midfielder.

AC Milan extended their winning Serie A run to five matches with a routine 3-0 home victory over 10-man Lecce.

Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud gave the Rossoneri control inside the first 20 minutes at San Siro, before the visitors had Nikola Krstovic dismissed just before half-time.

Rafael Leao wrapped up a comfortable success in the second half as Milan consolidated second place with seven matches of the season remaining.

It was a chastening afternoon for Lecce, whose survival hopes had been boosted by four points and two clean sheets from Luca Gotti’s first two matches in charge prior to this contest.

The visitors were the first to threaten, with Joan Gonzalez firing just wide with a low shot from the edge of the area in the third minute.

However, the hosts opened the scoring three minutes later when Pulisic received the ball from Samuel Chukwueze and found the corner of the Lecce net with a powerful left-footed shot from 20 yards.

Goalkeeper Wladimiro Falcone saved a Pulisic close-range header soon after, before Leao’s 11th-minute effort was deflected wide for a corner by defender Lorenzo Venuti, following a good run by Chukwueze.

It was 2-0 in the 20th minute when Giroud’s flicked header from Yacine Adli’s corner went in at the far post.

Lameck Banda and Alexis Blin both tried their luck for Lecce – who fought back from two goals down to claim a point when the teams met in Puglia in November – before Gonzalez headed against the crossbar in the 29th minute.

However, the visitors’ hopes of an unlikely repeat were further damaged a minute before half-time when striker Krstovic was dismissed for a high boot on Chukwueze.

Lecce’s afternoon was summed up by the 57th-minute incident which saw Milan increase their lead to 3-0.

Pontus Almqvist went down in the penalty area under a strong challenge from Theo Hernandez but play was waved on and within seconds Leao had received an incisive through-ball from Adli and provided a cool finish through Falcone’s legs for a goal which was allowed to stand after a VAR check.

Hernandez struck the crossbar for Milan in the 64th minute, before Almqvist and fellow substitute Santiago Pierotti brought good saves out of Mike Maignan inside the final 15 minutes.

However, there was no further scoring and Milan were able to see out a comfortable victory – the ninth time in the last 10 meetings they have won this fixture, with the other drawn.

AC Milan are in good physical and mental shape for the crucial games ahead, their coach Stefano Pioli said ahead of the visit of Lecce to San Siro.

The Rossoneri sit comfortably in second place in Serie A, six clear of Juventus but 14 adrift of city rivals Inter Milan, and have a mouth-watering Europa League quarter-final tie against Roma to look forward to, with the first leg being played at home next Thursday.

Lecce, who have made a positive start under new coach Luca Gotti with four points out of six, will have it all to do against an in-form Milan who are looking for a fifth straight Serie A win.

“We’re coming into the important part of the season in good shape, especially mentally, and I think our play is at a good level too,” Pioli told reporters at a pre-match press conference.

“Having managed to work with a lot of players consistently in every training session and in every game and not having had any setbacks, or any problems during the week, automatically ensures the team is in good condition.

“I am ever more convinced that (the players’) physical condition depends on their mental state.

“We have already had four wins in a row earlier this season but came up short at the fifth – tomorrow we have a new chance to make the most of our qualities with lots of focus and concentration, because we face a team that since changing coach has yet to concede a goal.

“They created a lot of problems for Roma in their last match. We’ll need a convincing performance.

“So far we are doing very well. We must continue like this because the end of the season will determine various situations.”

Pioli welcomes Danish defender Simon Kjaer back from injury but will be missing Malick Thiaw, who has a foot problem.

“The fact that Malick is not called up also depends a lot on the Europa League,” Pioli said.

“As a precaution he will be left at home, but with the great hope that he can be there against the Giallorossi.”

Pioli praised the efforts of forwards Rafael Leao and Samuel Chukwueze ahead of the Lecce match.

“We arrive at the most important moment with Rafa in excellent condition, I am very happy with what he is doing,” Pioli said.

On Chukwueze, he added: “I am very satisfied with his journey, we had a video meeting with him on Friday, his data is even superior to that of (his time at) Villarreal, he must continue like this.”

Lecce were the opponents the very first time Pioli coached the Rossoneri back in October 2019.

The club are 13th, four points above the relegation zone.

AC Milan extended their winning run to six matches with a 2-1 victory over Fiorentina on an emotional night at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.

There had been tributes before kick-off to Fiorentina general manager Joe Barone, who collapsed in the team hotel just as they were preparing to travel to the stadium for the match against Atalanta and later died in hospital.

The Rossoneri produced a clinical display with second-half goals from Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Rafael Leao either side of Alfred Duncan’s equaliser to consolidate second place in the Serie A table.

Following a minute’s silence, AC Milan, without the suspended Theo Hernandez, made a positive start as Olivier Giroud forced Fiorentina keeper Pietro Terracciano into an early save after a driving run from Samuel Chukwueze.

Fiorentina – returning to action for the first time since their Europa Conference League tie against Maccabi Haifa on March 14 – continued to be pressed into some deep defending, with Rossoneri winger Leao a constant threat down the left.

Leao floated a cross over to the back post, where Chukwueze’s downward header was palmed away by Terracciano.

La Viola finally created an opening in the 26th minute when Andrea Belotti was played into the Milan penalty area but Mike Maignan stood up to make a smart save.

After Leao’s angled effort was stopped by Terracciano at the near post, Fiorentina again broke quickly with Belotti flashing a ball across the Milan six-yard box.

Terracciano saved from Leao after the forward spun in the right side of the area before Giroud blazed over as Milan pressed for the breakthrough ahead of half-time.

Milan took the lead two minutes into the second half.

Chukwueze sent Leao clear down the right and his improved backheel went across the six-yard box. Fiorentina defender Nikola Milenkovic slipped over, which allowed the ball to fall to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who dug it out from under his feet to stab home a 10th goal of the season.

Fiorentina, though, were soon back on level terms in the 50th minute when Duncan clipped a fine finish into the far corner from the edge of the Milan penalty area.

In a hectic spell, Milan regained the lead in the 53rd minute when Tijjani Reijnders’ through pass saw Leao race clear past Milenkovic before calmly taking the ball around the onrushing Terracciano and knocking it into an empty net.

Milan full-back Alessandro Florenzi went close to a third when his fierce drive from the edge of the area was palmed clear by Terracciano at full stretch.

Rossoneri keeper Maignan was then called into action again to acrobatically push over a rising effort from Belotti and then tipped away a half-volley from Rolando Mandragora.

With 15 minutes left, Milan substitute Christian Pulisic saw his goal on the break disallowed for offside as Stefano Pioli’s side closed out a sixth straight win in all competitions.

AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli is refusing to look any further ahead than Saturday’s Serie A trip to Fiorentina as he targets a rousing finish to the season.

The Rossoneri, who have won their last five games in all competitions, head for the Stadio Artemio Franchi sitting in second place in the table, 14 points adrift of derby rivals Inter, but only three clear of Juventus in third.

With the prospect of Europa League glory still very much alive – they face compatriots Roma in the quarter-finals – the campaign could yet end on a high note, although Pioli, who will be without the suspended Theo Hernandez, will not allow his players to get ahead of themselves.

He told a press conference: “A decisive period is about to begin. We’ll need to focus on playing the best football we can as we look to improve the level of our performances with two very important months in store.

“We have nine league matches remaining and we hope we’ll also be involved in five more Europa League fixtures. Every game will be important, starting from Fiorentina. They’re a team that have often caused us problems.

“It’s only normal to talk about the future when there’s an international break, but I’m focused on doing the best I can in the next 60 days so we can finish the season in the best way possible.

“Conclusions can only be drawn at the end, so we’ll take it one game at a time.”

Fiorentina have proved tricky opponents in recent seasons – in the last six league encounters, the sides have been separated by just one goal, and La Viola have won the last two games they have hosted.

Milan’s latest visit to Florence comes with the home team still mourning the loss of general manager Joe Barone, who collapsed and died at the age of 57 as the Fiorentina party prepared to leave the team hotel for their league clash with Atalanta earlier this month.

Pioli, whose side won the reverse fixture in November 1-0, said: “It’s not the first time that Fiorentina have experienced a complicated situation. Florence and the team’s fans are fantastic when there is a need to come together to overcome difficult moments like a bereavement.

“We expect a special atmosphere at the start in memory of a person who did so much for the club.”

Vincenzo Italiano’s side, who head into the weekend in eighth place and four points adrift of the top six, have not played since a 1-1 Europa Conference League draw with Maccabi Haifa on March 14 with the Atalanta game having been postponed after Barone was rushed to hospital.

Italiano said: “We need to restart and honour our director with all the things that were his: passion, love and attachment to this city, these colours and this club.”

AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli is preparing for his side to push themselves when they face Verona in their final match before the international break.

Pioli’s men have a quick turnaround from Thursday night, when they made it two from two over Slavia Prague with a 3-1 win in their Europa League last-16 second leg encounter to book a quarter-final match-up with Roma next month.

First, the second-placed Serie A side will hope to gain more ground on leaders Inter and put more distance between themselves and Juventus, who sit just one point below the Rossoneri.

Pioli told Sky Sports Italy: “We’re fine, it’s a positive moment, our three offensive players have quality. We have to do well on Sunday in another difficult match against Verona, before recovering energy during the break.”

He also praised the efforts of Rafael Leao, who netted the third of AC Milan’s goals on Thursday with a stunning strike into the top corner.

Leao was in turn just as complimentary about his boss, telling Sky Sports Italy: “I’m feeling good, I’m getting along well with (Olivier) Giroud and (Christian) Pulisic, the team is also good.

“It’s my job to help the team even when I don’t score or assist. I’m very happy with myself, but it’s the team that’s doing well.

“As I always say, (Pioli) is one more person who helps me. In the last three years he has better understood how to help me 100 per cent to make a difference, so this good moment is also thanks to him.

“With Giroud and Pulisic we understand each other well. I don’t need to watch them because I already know where they are going in the area; then behind me I have Theo (Hernandez), with him I have an extra weapon.

“Everyone helps me to be a better player, then Pioli puts me in a position to feel calm by telling me ‘Come in and have fun’.”

Verona have lost their last six Serie A matches against AC Milan, and have not recorded a home victory over Sunday’s opponents since December 2017.

Marco Baroni’s men sit in 15th at a crowded bottom of the Serie A table, with just five points separating 13th-placed Lecce from 19th-placed Sassuolo in the second relegation place.

Baroni knows it will be a tough ask to try to gain ground against AC Milan, playing down their chances as he addressed the Italian media in a press conference.

He said: “When you play against these teams, it’s always difficult. Perhaps it’s their best moment too, I have respect for the coach but we have to look at ourselves. We have to play our best game and it might not be enough anyway.

“We have great respect for Milan, they have champions who can decide matches with one play but you don’t defend individually, you defend as a team, you play together and as a team in these matches.”

An electric first-half display from Rafael Leao steered AC Milan into the Europa League quarter-finals as 10-man Slavia Prague succumbed 3-1 on the night and 7-3 on aggregate.

Just as they had in the first leg, the Czechs paid the price for a red card, Tomas Holes dismissed after just 17 minutes for a dangerous tackle on Davide Calabria.

The Rossoneri cashed in three times before the break, Leao lending a helping hand as Christian Pulisic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek netted before bending in a spectacular strike of his own from distance.

Slavia had not lost at the Fortuna Arena all season but were unable to summon a serious battle for their Serie A opponents until Matej Jurasek grabbed a late consolation.

They did manage one attempt before the tie slipped irretrievably out of their grasp, Mojmir Chytil denied by the outstretched boot of Mike Maignan – the goalkeeper’s last real contribution before coming off injured.

Within a couple of minutes, Holes went studs first into a challenge with Calabria and saw red after a VAR check, leaving his side to face the majority of the match at a numerical disadvantage.

Jindrich Stanek kept the hosts in it with a pair of sharp saves but could not hold back the tide when Leao played in Pulisic, who rifled home after turning inside with a smart touch.

With the resistance broken, Milan wasted no time getting another, Loftus-Cheek providing the final touch after Theo Hernandez’s silky one-two with Leao put it on a plate for the Englishman.

With the pressure off, Fikayo Tomori will regret picking up a booking that will rule him out of the first leg of the quarter-finals but the celebrations resumed in added time before the break, the electric Leao letting fly with a beautiful curling effort from 30 yards.

The second half unfolded at a gentler pace, the home side focused on containment and the Italians emptying their bench in acknowledgement that they had wrapped things up.

Chances did occasionally appear, Lofus-Cheek slotting wide and Olivier Giroud aggrieved when he was unable to add his name to the scoresheet just after the hour mark.

To their credit, the Czech side did not lie down, firing a warning shot via Michal Tomic’s breakaway and then getting one back through Jurasek. He had only just come on when he picked up Christos Zafeiris’ pass and picked out the bottom corner of the net from the edge of the area.

Empoli coach Davide Nicola feels only a “volcanic” effort from his side will be enough to help them get a result at AC Milan.

The Rossoneri will be out to keep the pressure on Juventus in the chase for second behind runaway Serie A leaders Inter Milan and head into Sunday’s game on the back of a 4-2 win over Slavia Prague in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie.

Empoli, meanwhile, sit 15th, just two points above the relegation zone.

Nicola knows his men will be up against it at the San Siro but challenged them to go into the game with a positive mindset.

“When we talk about a team like Milan, strong and with a capable coach, it is not easy to identify flaws, but this is our job and we do it because every opponent has them,” Nicola told a press conference.

“We will need a volcanic Empoli, from the point of view of energy and obsessive organisation in both phases, but also of enthusiasm in showing our identity and the desire to continue on our path.

“We have prepared. The important thing is to do everything with maximum concentration and also with enthusiasm because we have to express ourselves.”

Nicola expects a response to last weekend’s home defeat by Cagliari,

“From a quality point of view, we have already set aside the previous performance,” said Nicola, whose side have won both of their previous two away games.

“We know we need to improve in some phases of the match.

“The desire to compete with a high-quality team, who are used to playing every three days, is an absolute growth opportunity for us.”

AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli will have to do without Rafael Leao through suspension after the Portuguese winger picked up a fifth yellow card in the Serie A victory over Lazio.

Swiss forward Noah Okafor is expected to start, having scored a late winner when coming off the bench at the Stadio Olimpico.

Nicola knows whatever side Pioli picks is set to provide a stern test.

“I don’t think Milan are Leao-dependent, he is an extraordinary player, but they have a competitive squad,” the Empoli coach said.

“Regardless of who is there, we must have the taste and mentality to express ourselves.

“Our attention to work never changes, regardless of the opponent we encounter.”

AC Milan saw off 10-man Slavia Prague 4-2 at San Siro in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie.

After Slavia defender El Hadji Malick Diouf was shown a straight red card in the 26th minute, the Rossoneri made the most of their advantage with first-half goals from Olivier Giroud, Tijjani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

David Doudera had earlier given the Czech side hope with an fine strike to make it 1-1 and Ivan Schranz reduced the deficit midway through the second half before Christian Pulisic’s close-range effort late on gave Milan breathing space heading into the return leg.

Having dropped out of the Champions League, Stefano Pioli’s men came through the play-off round, beating Rennes 5-3 on aggregate, while Slavia had finished first in Group G ahead of Roma.

It had been a bright start by the home side, with right-back Alessandro Florenzi clipping a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area just over the crossbar.

Slavia Prague, though, created the clearest opening of the early exchanges when an angled ball picked out Diouf in the left side of the penalty area, but the defender completely missed his kick.

The Czech visitors continued to offer a threat on the counter attack, and in the 15th minute Doudera sliced his shot wide after breaking into the right side of the box.

Slavia Prague found themselves down to 10 men after just 26 minutes when Diouf was shown a straight red card for catching Pulisic on the ankle with his late sliding challenge.

Milan broke the deadlock in the 34th minute when Giroud headed in at the far post from Rafael Leao’s deflected curling cross out on the left.

Slavia, however, hit back straight away as Doudera fired a superb right-footed volley in off the post when the ball dropped to him at the edge of the penalty area following a corner.

Giroud saw his effort saved by Slavia keeper Jindrich Stanek, who then got down to palm away Matteo Gabbia’s header.

Milan’s pressure finally told just before the break when Reijnders drove in a low shot from 20 yards after a quick corner was pushed out to the left side of the penalty area.

It was 3-1 in first-half stoppage time when England midfielder Loftus-Cheek powered in a header from a corner.

Soon after the restart, Leao flashed a low drive across the face of goal and Slavia continued to sit deep looking to limit further damage.

The Czechs, though, reduced the deficit in the 65th minute when Schranz fired in an angled strike after Milan again failed to clear a free-kick.

Frustration started to creep in from the home crowd as the Rossoneri failed to break down Slavia’s resolute backline.

Milan eventually restored some breathing space with five minutes left when Leao’s angled chip across goal was touched over the line by Pulisic.

AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli has called on his side to meet a pivotal stage of the season “head on”.

Milan host Czech side Slavia Prague on Thursday in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie.

They go into the match on the back of a last-gasp 1-0 win at Lazio in Serie A, their first victory in four matches.

“We didn’t play at our best, technically, at the Olimpico, but we showed great character,” Pioli said at his pre-match press conference.

“The only game we let ourselves down in was against Monza, but over the last few months and in this recent period the team has kept up a certain level.

“The decisive part of the season is upon us and we’re ready to meet it head on.”

Milan dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their Champions League group behind Borussia Dortmund and Paris St Germain.

“The Champions League is no longer part of our campaign after a few details got away from us,” Pioli added.

“Now, we must focus on just doing well in this competition. We must have the mindset that we can win the trophy.

“Firstly, we will need to be at out best to get through this round and take it one step at a time, albeit with awareness and enthusiasm.

“We have to make the most of home advantage; it is a key period of the season because it’s not easy for anyone to be competitive in Europe and in the league.

“Slavia lost only to Roma in the group stage. They are an intense, direct and energetic team. They play with three players up top – all close to each other – and like to threaten in behind; they have strong and physical forwards.

“It’s not the badge that goes out onto the pitch, but the players and they have reached the quarter-finals twice in recent years. We respect our opponents.”

French midfielder Yacine Adli knows Milan are among the favourites to lift the trophy in Dublin in May.

He said: “We know we’re coming up against a strong side. We’re playing the first leg in front of our fans and we’ll try to bring an intensity onto the pitch from the first minute.

“When AC Milan play in any competition, the aim is to always go and win it; we have a big opportunity. We are a top side and we want to prove it.”

Stefano Pioli called for his AC Milan side to be more “cynical” in front of goal ahead of their Serie A trip to Lazio as they look to turn the heat up on second-placed Juventus.

Milan were held to a 1-1 home draw by Atalanta in their last fixture – having lost to Monza and Rennes in their previous two matches – leaving them four points behind Juve in the Serie A standings and just five ahead of in-form Bologna in fourth pace.

The Rossoneri will now be eager to get back to winning ways against Lazio on Friday and coach Pioli wants his side’s performance to be consistent, calling for additional cutting edge up front.

“We want to produce the same performance as last week whilst aiming for a different result,” Pioli said on his club’s website.

“We analysed the positives after Atalanta but also tried to understand why we couldn’t score one more than them because we had the chance to. We need to be more cynical”.

Lazio have lost three of their last five Serie A matches, winning the other two, and will also be keen to get back on track after surrendering a half-time lead to lose 2-1 at Fiorentina last time out.

That was the second time in three matches Lazio have ended up empty-handing after taking the lead, and left them eighth in the table, eight points off the top four.

Pioli believes Maurizio Sarri’s “motivated” team will bring the fight to them at the Stadio Olimpico, where Lazio are playing only their second home match in six league outings.

Pioli also ruled out resting any of his players ahead of next week’s Europa League last-16 first leg at home to Sparta Prague.

“They (Lazio) are a team with great quality that comes off the back of an unsatisfactory performance,” said Pioli.

“They will be motivated but can also be thrown off by playing with intensity. The game against Slavia Prague will be very important, we are studying them but are fully focused on Lazio.

“Then we will have an almost full week, there won’t be changes in Rome in order to rest players. I believe that both sides will try to play with different ideas. The midfield battles will be very important”.

While Milan will still hold hope of overhauling Juve in second spot, Pioli concedes that city rivals Inter are unlikely to be caught by any team.

Runaway leaders Inter sit 12 points at the top of the table having won 22 of their 26 matches this season, losing just once and conceding only 12 goals.

Pioli said: “I think that the top spot in the league is decided, Inter are recording incredible numbers as Napoli did last year.

“April 21 (Milan derby) is too far away. We have a big game ahead of us and there are various goals to meet before we think about the derby.”

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