Stefano Pioli believes his longevity in the AC Milan top job speaks for itself amid ceaseless speculation the boss could soon be replaced at San Siro.

Milan, who won the Serie A title under Pioli in 2022, have won six of their last eight games in an unbeaten spell but nevertheless sit eight points behind league leaders and city rivals Inter Milan ahead of Sunday’s showdown with Napoli.

Pioli took charge of the Rossoneri in October 2019 and is poised to draw level with Milan great Arrigo Sacchi – a 1988 Scudetto winner and twice a European champion with the club – on 220 matches coached this weekend.

However, reports in Italy continue to suggest the likes of Julen Lopetegui and Antonio Conte are being lined up to replace him, a situation which the 58-year-old is growing increasingly fed up with.

He told a press conference: “Sacchi was a fantastic coach of his era, an innovator. Equalling him for the number of appearances in the Rossoneri dugout can only make me proud.

“I love my work, I have great passion for it, I have been fortunate in my career as a coach and a player.

“The pleasure of coaching always trumps the pressure and criticism, the positive elements prevail, in particular having a group of special people.”

Despite Napoli being the reigning champions, they are languishing down in seventh place under Walter Mazzarri. Pioli is suitably wary of their many threats, though.

“Napoli are not doing great in the table but they have great statistics, especially in attack,” he said. “Tactics have changed with Mazzarri. Napoli have quality, we need to face them with respect and focus.

“Both sides have forwards that can change the game, we will also need to be tight in the midfield. There needs to be a high level of organisation and play.”

Mazzarri has endured his own share of negative appraisals from Naples and beyond as he looks to steer the Azzurri back towards the Champions League places following a disappointing start to the campaign under predecessor Rudi Garcia.

The former Watford manager hopes Napoli turned a corner after last weekend’s victory over Hellas Verona.

He said: “Sixteen finals remain and perhaps the curse is lifting, let’s hope this is start of a new journey for us.”

Milan’s Dutch midfielder Tijjani Reijnders is banned for the Sunday clash with Mario Rui suspended for the visitors, while Victor Osimhen is away contesting the Africa Cup of Nations final with Nigeria.

Luka Jovic made the difference for AC Milan one minute after coming on as an 80th-minute substitute with the winning strike in their 3-2 Serie A victory at Frosinone.

Olivier Giroud nodded in the opener which was cancelled out before the break by Matias Soule’s penalty, but Luca Mazzitelli fired the hosts in front after half-time.

The sides were back on level terms when Matteo Gabbia, assisted by Giroud, found the back of the net with a diving header before Serbia striker Jovic wrapped up the win.

The result sees AC Milan – in third – move to within four points of second-placed Juventus, having played one more game, while Serie A leaders Inter Milan have two games on hand over Stefano Pioli’s men.

There was a chance inside the first minute for Soule, who fired the ball over the crossbar, as the hosts piled on more pressure in the opening exchanges.

Yet it was the visitors who soon settled in and took the lead in the 17th minute, when Giroud connected with Rafael Leao’s pinpoint cross and cushioned the opener into the bottom right.

Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan had only just made his first save, tipping Demba Seck’s effort over the crossbar, when Leao was punished for a handball at the right edge of his side’s 18-yard box.

Milan protested, but the penalty was ultimately upheld after a VAR check and Soule stepped up to the spot and fired past Maignan, who moved in the right direction but could not make the stop.

The period with electric pace slowed only briefly when Giroud appeared to tweak his ankle but was deemed fit to continue and soon came painstakingly close to picking up an assist, his delivery across the face of goal from a tight angle narrowly evading both the head of Yacine Adli and a diving Leao.

The hosts wanted Christian Pulisic charged with another handball, but the penalty shout was waived off, and Tijjani Reijnders was unable to break the deadlock when he nodded straight at Stefano Turati.

The Frosinone goalkeeper was forced into a nervy save deep in first-half stoppage time, reacting quickly after Leao’s effort took a dangerous deflection off Caleb Okoli and flew dangerously toward the far corner – Turati just able to stretch his hand out for the stop.

The hosts took the lead in the 65th minute, Soule slipping the ball to Mazzitelli, who came up the middle before handing his side the advantage with a low finish.

The home support had barely finished celebrating when Adli, from a corner, sent a cross to Giroud, who nodded towards the ball in the direction of Gabbia, who drew the sides level with a diving header.

Pioli brought in Jovic for Christian Pulisic in the 80th minute, a decision that paid off instantly when the Serbia striker pounced on a loose ball that had bounced off grounded Frosinone defender Simone Romagnoli and fired home.

Defiant AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli has brushed off talk that Antonio Conte is being lined up to replace him.

Milan head into Saturday’s Serie A trip to Frosinone sitting in third place in the table but seven points adrift of Juventus in second and eight behind leaders Inter Milan, who have a game in hand on both.

The top two meet at the San Siro on Sunday evening, by which point Pioli’s men will hope to have closed the gap – although whether that would placate his critics is doubtful, with the club’s receding title hopes having been dealt a further blow by last weekend’s 2-2 home draw with Bologna.

Asked about the speculation linking former Italy boss Conte with his job, the 58-year-old told a press conference: “It doesn’t bother me at all. Maybe it bores me a little.

“What matters is that I and my players think we can do our best between now and the end of the season.

“The future doesn’t worry or bother me. We just want to demonstrate, the team and I, all our value.”

Milan will run out at the Stadio Benito Stirpe defending a seven-game unbeaten league run, with Atalanta the last side to beat them in the competition on December 9.

Wins over Monza, Sassuolo, Empoli, Roma and Udinese, coupled with draws against Salernitana and Bologna, since have helped them keep pace with Inter and Juve, if only just, but Pioli insists they simply have to concentrate on themselves as they attempt to claw back lost ground.

He said: “The season is still long and can give us further satisfaction. We have to put all our attention on the next match. Inter v Juve shouldn’t interest us.”

Frosinone will take to the field having halted a five-game losing run with a home victory over Cagliari followed by a draw at Verona, although the quality of the opposition this time around is significantly higher.

Eusebio Di Francesco’s men lost 3-1 at Milan on December 2 and have won only one of the eight league games they have played since.

Di Francesco will make late decisions on a lengthy list of injury doubts including Sergio Kalaj, Riccardo Marchizza, Anthony Oyono, Jaime Baez, Pol Lirola, Kevin Bonifazi, Mateus Lusuardi, Nadir Zortea, Marvin Cuni and Arijon Ibrahimovic.

Defiant AC Milan boss Stefano Pioli has brushed off talk that Antonio Conte is being lined up to replace him.

Milan head into Saturday’s Serie A trip to Frosinone sitting in third place in the table but seven points adrift of Juventus in second and eight behind leaders Inter Milan, who have a game in hand on both.

The top two meet at the San Siro on Sunday evening, by which point Pioli’s men will hope to have closed the gap – although whether that would placate his critics is doubtful, with the club’s receding title hopes having been dealt a further blow by last weekend’s 2-2 home draw with Bologna.

Asked about the speculation linking former Italy boss Conte with his job, the 58-year-old told a press conference: “It doesn’t bother me at all. Maybe it bores me a little.

“What matters is that I and my players think we can do our best between now and the end of the season.

“The future doesn’t worry or bother me. We just want to demonstrate, the team and I, all our value.”

Milan will run out at the Stadio Benito Stirpe defending a seven-game unbeaten league run, with Atalanta the last side to beat them in the competition on December 9.

Wins over Monza, Sassuolo, Empoli, Roma and Udinese, coupled with draws against Salernitana and Bologna, since have helped them keep pace with Inter and Juve, if only just, but Pioli insists they simply have to concentrate on themselves as they attempt to claw back lost ground.

He said: “The season is still long and can give us further satisfaction. We have to put all our attention on the next match. Inter v Juve shouldn’t interest us.”

Frosinone will take to the field having halted a five-game losing run with a home victory over Cagliari followed by a draw at Verona, although the quality of the opposition this time around is significantly higher.

Eusebio Di Francesco’s men lost 3-1 at Milan on December 2 and have won only one of the eight league games they have played since.

Di Francesco will make late decisions on a lengthy list of injury doubts including Sergio Kalaj, Riccardo Marchizza, Anthony Oyono, Jaime Baez, Pol Lirola, Kevin Bonifazi, Mateus Lusuardi, Nadir Zortea, Marvin Cuni and Arijon Ibrahimovic.

Four individuals who racially abused AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan during a Serie A match at the weekend have been given five-year stadium bans by Italian police.

AC Milan players briefly left the pitch during their match away to Udinese on January 20 after alerting referee Fabio Maresca to the abuse being directed at their goalkeeper.

On Wednesday, the office of Udine police commissioner Alfredo D’Agostino announced that four people had been identified using security cameras from the stadium.

“There are four people, three men and one woman, aged between 32 and 45, against whom the police commissioner of Udine has issued banning orders for the duration of five years,” a statement said.

A five-year ban is the maximum penalty that can be handed to first-time offenders for racist abuse at football matches in Italy.

Udinese announced on Monday that one fan had been banned for life over the incident, and the club had said that any other offenders who were identified would face the same penalty.

On Tuesday, the club were ordered to play one match behind closed doors by Serie A’s sports judge, Gerardo Mastrandrea.

That judgement said the one-match stadium closure was the minimum sanction which could have been imposed, and was chosen to reflect Udinese’s active stance and willingness right from the start to identify those responsible.

Speaking after the game, which restarted after a delay of around 10 minutes, Maignan told Milan TV: “I heard them making monkey noises.

“After it happened a second time, I went to the dugout to inform them of what had happened behind the goal.

“This shouldn’t exist in the world of football, but unfortunately for many years this is a recurrence. We all have to react, we must do something because you can’t play like this.”

Udinese have been ordered to play one match behind closed doors after AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan was racially abused during a Serie A match on Saturday.

The sanction has been imposed by the league’s sports judge, Gerardo Mastrandrea.

The judgement states the one-match stadium closure was the minimum sanction which could have been imposed, and was chosen to reflect Udinese’s active stance and willingness right from the start to identify those responsible.

The club announced on Monday they had banned a supporter for life for racially abusing Maignan.

Udinese have banned for life a supporter found to have used discriminatory behaviour towards AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan.

The Serie A club, which are working to track down further offenders, said the sanction against the individual identified by staff and police using security cameras at the Bluenergy Stadium would take immediate effect.

An investigation was launched after France international Maignan left the pitch during the first half of Saturday’s 3-2 win in Udine, having apparently indicated to referee Fabio Maresca that he had heard racist abuse from the crowd.

A statement from Udinese said: “In a joint effort with the local police authorities and utilising the Bluenergy Stadium security cameras, Udinese Calcio has identified the first individual responsible for discriminatory behaviour towards AC Milan player Mike Maignan.

“This person will face a lifetime ban from attending any Udinese Calcio matches. This ban is effective immediately.

“We believe that such strong measures are necessary to send a clear message that racism has no place in football or society. Udinese Calcio stands firmly against any form of discrimination and we are determined to create an inclusive and respectful environment within our football community.

“We thank the authorities for their cooperation and together we will continue to work tirelessly in order to identify and punish other individuals who were involved in this incident and that tarnish the sporting ethics of the club, the region, the city of Udine and a fan base that has always been a model of integration and respect.

“We want to ensure that our stadium remains a space where everyone, regardless of their ethnicity, background, culture, and language is able to enjoy the beautiful game without fear of discrimination.

“Udinese Calcio calls on all football stakeholders to unite in the fight against racism and discrimination, fostering an environment that celebrates diversity and promotes inclusion.”

Speaking after the game, which restarted after a delay of around 10 minutes, Maignan told Milan TV: “I heard them making monkey noises. After it happened a second time, I went to the dugout to inform them of what had happened behind the goal.

“This shouldn’t exist in the world of football, but unfortunately for many years this is a recurrence. We all have to react, we must do something because you can’t play like this.”

The incident in Italy came on the same day that Coventry midfielder Kasey Palmer reported he had been abused by Sheffield Wednesday supporters in his team’s Championship fixture at Hillsborough, prompting claims from Professional Footballers’ Association chair Omar Beckles that players do not believe the football authorities have put in place strong enough deterrents to combat racism.

Beckles said: “Our members want to see real, consistent and significant consequences for racist abuse, both for the individuals who are responsible and for clubs who fail to get a grip of the issue within their stadiums.

“The reality is that players don’t believe this is happening. The responsibility for what happens next lies with the authorities.”

Beckles said the PFA had been working closely with referees’ body Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) to give insights from a player’s perspective on protocols for dealing with racist incidents.

He added: “We’ve encouraged players, when they are aware of racial abuse, to take control of the situation by delaying restarts, free-kicks, and throw-ins.

“A stoppage in play – however long it takes – forces a response. It creates a window to alert match officials and gives the best chance of identifying those responsible.

“However, without action, the protocols are useless.”

Speaking specifically about Palmer’s experience, Beckles said: “Kasey Palmer deserves to be commended for his exemplary behaviour and measured response in an extremely challenging situation.

“Those responsible for this incident were recorded and they must be identified. They should face criminal charges and a ban from football.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has suggested clubs whose fans are guilty of such abuse be subject to automatic forfeits.

AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan said “something must be done” about racial abuse in football after walking off the pitch during a Serie A match at Udinese.

The 28-year-old France international and his team-mates walked off the pitch during the first half on Saturday, Maignan apparently indicating to referee Fabio Marescan he had heard the abuse from the crowd at the Stadio Friuli.

“I heard them making monkey noises,” Maignan told Milan TV.

“After it happened a second time, I went to the dugout to inform them of what had happened behind the goal.

“This shouldn’t exist in the world of football, but unfortunately for many years this is a recurrence.

“We all have to react, we must do something because you can’t play like this.”

He continued: “We accept the boos because that’s how it is away from home, but this issue of racism must not reach this level.

“With all the cameras present and sanctions for these things, something must be done to change things.”

Once play resumed after a short break, Milan won 3-2 with substitute Noah Okafor grabbing the winner in added time.

Maignan received support on social media after the match, Milan posting on X, formerly Twitter: “There is absolutely no place in our game for racism: we are appalled. We are with you, Mike.”

Inter, leaders of Serie A, were quick to reply to the post in support of their city rivals.

The Nerazzurri added on X: “We are brothers of the world, against all forms of discrimination. By your side.”

The official account of the league, @SerieA, added: “The league condemns all forms of racism.”

France striker Kylian Mbappe said “enough is enough” as he posted a message of support to Maignan on X.

He said: “You are very far from being alone Mike Maignan. We are all with you.

“Still the same problems and still NO solution. Enough is enough. NO TO RACISM.”

Former England and Arsenal striker Ian Wright applauded the “solidarity” in the Milan side and urged teams to “keep walking off” when they hear abuse and called for stronger sanctions.

He wrote on X: “We did ‘playing through it’ and nothing has changed. Points deductions needed, the fines are pointless.”

AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli has admitted his side must strengthen in the January transfer window if they are to chase down leading duo Inter Milan and Juventus in Serie A.

Milan head to struggling Udinese on Saturday looking to close a seven-point deficit to second-placed Juve, and with Pioli eyeing reinforcements in defence and midfield.

“Our decisions don’t change and the club are working on it. There are two weeks remaining,” he said.

Pioli pointed out the need for a “complete” defender, saying any new recruit would need to be able to help with build-up play from the back.

Milan have improved defensively since Simon Kjaer returned from injury, but the Denmark centre-half’s future is uncertain with his contract due to expire in the summer – perhaps a contributing factor in their search for a new defender.

“Simon is a leader,” Pioli said. “He knows what to say and he takes position. But for all of us, it’s too early to speak about the future.”

Udinese claimed a 1-0 win over Milan at San Siro in November, one of only two games they have won all season, and Pioli is determined to avoid a repeat.

“Only tomorrow’s game counts, not what we did in the past against them,” he said. “We are different teams now. They are in a good moment, but the same is true of us.

“We must be fearless and try to perform at our best. It’s a hard game tomorrow, but we want better results than in the first part of the season. Surely, we’ve had a good week.

“Milan must earn as many points as possible, that’s what we want from every single game. All games are worth three points and we want to take them home tomorrow.”

Reserve goalkeeper Marco Sportiello and defender Alessandro Florenzi have returned to training after injury, but Malick Thiaw, Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu all remain out while Ismael Bennacer and Samuel Chukwueze are at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Udinese sit only one point above the relegation zone, but have taken four points from their last three games to offer some hope amid a miserable run.

It could have been better, but last weekend they conceded a late penalty in a 2-2 draw with Fiorentina, the seventh time this season they have lost a lead – having dropped 14 points from winning positions.

With away games against Atalanta and Juventus to come, things will not get any easier so coach Gabriele Cioffi would love what would be a third straight win over Milan.

Martin Payero could return from the muscle problem that kept him sidleined against Fiorentina, but Gerard Deulofeu, Jaka Bijol and Enzo Ebosse remain out.

Teun Koopmeiners fired a double as Atalanta dumped AC Milan out of the Coppa Italia after a 2-1 win at the San Siro.

The Netherlands midfielder struck a superb equaliser just 90 seconds after Rafael Leao had opened the scoring for Milan at the end of the first half before converting a penalty in the second period.

Atalanta’s surprise win secured them a semi-final tie against Fiorentina and is the second time they have beaten Stefano Pioli’s side in just over a month, following their 3-2 home Serie A victory on December 9.

The Rossoneri entered the cup tie in top form, winning five and drawing one of their six matches in all competitions since their league defeat to Atalanta, but the visitors fully deserved to progress.

A first half of few chances burst into life just before the interval when Leao combined with Theo Hernandez at pace down the left and brilliantly converted the latter’s ball inside from the edge of the penalty area.

Atalanta’s response was immediate. With the clock ticking into first-half stoppage time, Emil Holm burst clear on the right edge of the area and his pin-point cut-back was expertly swept home by Koopmeiners.

The visitors then went close to snatching the lead when substitute Mario Pasalic’s effort was blocked by Milan captain Davide Calabria.

Up until a frantic finale to the first half, Milan midfielder Yunus Musah was the only player to have a shot on target, with his 19th-minute shot saved by Marco Carnesecchi.

Milan defender Matteo Gabbia and Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon had both been forced off following a heavy 38th-minute collision and replaced by Simon Kjaer and Pasalic respectively.

Koopmeiners forced Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan into a fine low save with a low effort from outside the box at the start of the second half and threatened again as he fired wide soon after.

Atalanta were awarded a penalty – confirmed by the video assistant referee – after Aleksey Miranchuk went down under Alex Jimenez’s challenge and Koopmeiners converted into the bottom corner in the 59th minute.

Carnesecchi turned away Christian Pulisic’s goalbound shot from the edge of the area as Milan chased an equaliser.

Musah’s long-range shot was also saved by Carnesecchi and Milan substitute Jan-Carlo Simic headed wide from a late corner as Atalanta held firm.

The visitors were given a scare in stoppage time when VAR checked for a possible handball moments before the final whistle, while Milan’s unused substitute Antonio Mirante was shown a red card as the players left the field.

AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan is focused on winning more silverware ahead of the Coppa Italia quarter-final against Atalanta.

Maignan’s first season at the San Siro in 2021-22 ended with Milan winning their first Scudetto for 11 years.

But there was no sequel to Serie A glory last term as Milan finished the campaign empty-handed.

France international Maignan, who arrived in the summer of 2021 from Lille to replace Gianluigi Donnarumma, is determined to savour that winning feeling again.

“The atmosphere during the parade with all the fans, when we paraded through the city on the bus, was an extraordinary and unique moment,” Maignan told GQ Italia magazine about Milan’s 2022 title celebrations.

“At Milan I found incredible team-mates and fans. A family. Here I would like to win as many titles as possible.

“I don’t feel like a spectacular goalkeeper. I try to do things in the simplest way possible.

“My philosophy, also written on my gloves and boots, is ‘foi discipline travail patiente et humilite’.

“It means ‘faith, discipline, work, patience and humility’. This is my daily mentality.”

Milan are in a rich vein of form heading into the San Siro tie with Atalanta.

The last six games in all competitions for Stefano Pioli’s side have produced five wins and a draw.

Ivorian teenage Chaka Traore has scored in the last two games, wins over Cagliari and Empoli, as the 19-year-old has stepped up with Nigeria striker Samuel Chukwueze away on Africa Cup of Nations duty and Noah Okafor sidelined by injury.

Filippo Terracciano, the 20-year-old defender who this week signed from Hellas Verona on a four-and-a-half-year deal, said: “I noticed that many youngsters have been getting opportunities.

“I’ve been pleased to see many of them play and I hope to be able to play with them too.”

Atalanta were the last side to beat Milan on December 9 when Colombia striker Luis Muriel struck a 90th-minute winner in a 3-2 victory for the Bergamo side.

“Milan are third in the standings and at the moment they are strong at home,” said Atalanta boss Gian Piero Gasperini.

“But we won against them a month ago and this can give us confidence to do it again.

“Football is perhaps the only sport where there is also a draw, but someone will have to come out on top here.

“Taking the Scudetto and the Europa League as unlikely, the Coppa Italia is the most attainable trophy for us.”

Teenager Chaka Traore scored his second goal in six days as AC Milan beat Serie A strugglers Empoli 3-0 at the Stadio Carlo Castellani.

The 19-year-old Ivorian winger, who had opened his Milan account in Tuesday’s 4-1 Coppa Italia victory over Cagliari, came off the bench to notch a third for Stefano Pioli’s men in the 88th minute.

That added to Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s 11th-minute opener and an Olivier Giroud penalty just past the half-hour mark.

Third-placed Milan’s third win in four league games closed the gap to second-placed Juventus to four points ahead of the Turin giants’ match at Salernitana later on Sunday.

Aurelio Andreazzoli’s Empoli remain second bottom as their winless run in the league extends to a seventh match.

As the visitors sought to make an early breakthrough, Tijjani Reijnders drilled wide in the third minute and Davide Calabria produced a dangerous cross from the right that flashed across the face of goal without a finishing touch being applied.

Milan then moved in front when Rafael Leao got past Tyronne Ebuehi on the left and laid the ball to Loftus-Cheek, who slotted past Elia Caprile.

Caprile subsequently dealt with a shot from Theo Hernandez before Empoli were forced into a change, with Ebuehi having pulled up injured and replaced by Filippo Ranocchia.

Moments later, Loftus-Cheek’s acrobatic effort hit the hand of Youssef Maleh, a VAR check ensued and after referee Federico La Penna watched footage back pitchside the verdict was a penalty, which Giroud dispatched in emphatic fashion off the crossbar for his 10th club goal of the season in all competitions.

It was then Milan having to make an early substitution due to injury as Alessandro Florenzi came off for Alex Jimenez.

Empoli’s Nicolo Cambiaghi was unable to make the most of a decent chance in first-half stoppage time, shooting wide, and Tommaso Baldanzi then saw an attempt saved by Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan early in the second half.

Milan returned to the front foot with Loftus-Cheek striking wide from outside the box, Caprile tipping over a Christian Pulisic header and Leao curling into the stand.

Empoli’s continued efforts to hit back saw Cambiaghi put a couple of attempts wide, either side of Maignan blocking a Matteo Cancellieri shot and Francesco Caputo’s follow-up deflecting behind.

Milan then wrapped things up on the counter-attack in the closing stages as Pulisic burst forward and fed Traore, who sent a composed finish into the bottom corner.

A double from Serbian striker Luka Jovic helped AC Milan to a 4-1 win over Cagliari and a place in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia.

Jovic struck twice in the first half of the contest at San Siro, while 19-year-old Chaka Traore was delighted to score his first Milan goal on his full debut early in the second half.

Paulo Azzi grabbed a consolation for Cagliari in the 87th minute but there was still time for substitute Rafael Leao to score a fourth for Milan, who have not won the competition for 20 years.

Milan boss Stefano Pioli retained only two players from the starting line-up for Saturday’s Serie A win over Sassuolo – Theo Hernandez and Tijjani Reijnders.

Cagliari are sitting in the relegation zone in Serie A but it was Claudio Ranieri’s side who created the first big chance inside four minutes, with Andrea Petagna’s close-range header from a corner drawing a fine reaction save from 40-year-old Antonio Mirante.

Four minutes later Jovic was through one on one with Boris Radunovic after a perfectly-timed pass from Yacine Adli but the keeper was equal to his shot.

Antoine Makoumbou was the next to threaten the Milan goal when Petagna pulled the ball back into the middle of the box but his tame effort was straight at the keeper.

The breakthrough for Milan came in the 29th minute, with Hernandez the creator, picking out Jovic on the right of the box with a fine ball from the left.

The striker managed to evade his marker with his first touch before tucking the ball under Radunovic.

Three minutes before half-time, the summer signing from Fiorentina made it two goals in a game for Milan for the first time.

Again the architect was Hernandez, who drove down the left, cut into the middle and slid in Jovic, whose shot from a tight angle squirmed under Radunovic and into the net.

Five minutes after half-time, the widest smile in Milan belonged to 19-year-old Traore as he bagged a first goal in red and black.

It was a scrappy goal, with Alex Jimenez’s ball in from the left half blocked, Samuel Chukwueze failing to connect with his attempted shot and then Traore turning and guiding the ball under Radunovic.

The keeper will feel he should have done better but that took nothing away from the joy of Traore, who was mobbed by his team-mates.

Pioli turned to his big guns with 20 minutes left, sending on Leao and Christian Pulisic.

The visitors found something to celebrate in the 87th minute, Azzi’s strike from 20 yards taking a deflection and beating Mirante, but Leao had the final say, curling the ball beyond Radunovic in stoppage time.

AC Milan ended the year with a much-needed win as they edged past Sassuolo 1-0 at San Siro.

Christian Pulisic scored the only goal in the second half to keep Milan just about in touch with Serie A’s top two.

The Rossoneri went into the contest having picked up only one victory from their previous three league matches, leaving them 12 points behind city rivals and table toppers Inter.

Sassuolo are the only team to have beaten Inter in the league this season but they have been in poor form, having won just one of their previous 11 matches and none of the last four.

Milan had Luka Jovic available after he picked up an ankle injury against Salernitana last time out, and the Serbian was named among the substitutes.

The hosts had the ball in the back of the net after only six minutes when Ismael Bennacer slotted it in but an obvious offside in the build-up meant it was quickly chalked off.

Tijjani Reijnders was the next to threaten with a shot well wide, while Bennacer did well to create a shooting opportunity on the edge of the box but sent his effort just past the near post.

Milan thought they had found the breakthrough 31 minutes in when Rafael Leao drilled the ball into the top corner but he was again denied by an offside flag having mistimed his run.

Sassuolo looked lively on the break and two minutes later Domenico Berardi forced Mike Maignan into the first real save of the match with a long-range effort that was tipped over the bar.

The visitors have leaked goals too readily this season but they would have been happy with their first-half display, and Milan were limited to brief glimpses in the early stages of the second half as well.

However, with 59 minutes gone, Pulisic tucked away the opener, the American timing his run perfectly to meet Bennacer’s pass into the box.

Ruan Tressoldi desperately tried to intercept but could not divert the ball away from Pulisic, and he beat Andrea Consigli in the Sassuolo net.

Armand Lauriente tried to get the visitors back on level terms but he was stretching as he hit his shot from the edge of the box and it was easily stopped by Maignan.

Milan boss Stefano Pioli sent on 18-year-old Kevin Zeroli for his senior debut, and they almost grabbed a second in the 78th minute but Alessandro Florenzi’s well-struck volley dipped just over the bar.

Substitute Samuel Chukweze had the final chance but his search for a first Serie A goal goes on after shooting narrowly wide of the far post.

AC Milan manager Stefano Pioli insists his side’s match against Sassuolo is not do-or-die, but demanded a return to winning ways in Serie A.

The Rossoneri have picked up just one victory from their last three league appearances to slip 11 points behind rivals Inter Milan at the summit of the table.

But speaking ahead of Milan’s home clash against Sassuolo on Saturday, Pioli said: “We need a win and I expect a convincing performance.

“Tomorrow’s game isn’t about me, nor is it do or die, and there’s still a long way to go in the season.

“We’ve studied Sassuolo. They are a side that builds from the back and creates chances. But they also concede a lot, too, so we’ll have to take advantage of their frailties, especially in defence.”

Sassuolo sit in 15th, just three points above the relegation zone, and head to the San Siro with only one point from a possible 12.

But Pioli will be aware that they have claimed high-profile victims in Juventus and Inter so far this season.

He continued: “The players have no fear and they want to overcome difficulties. We must always give our all.

“We have made some mistakes so far that we’ve paid for. We can’t find that consistency, even within the same game. But we are united and continuously looking to get better. We’re creating a lot, but we need to be more clinical and concede less.”

Pioli will hope to have Luka Jovic available. The former Real Madrid and Fiorentina forward, who has scored three times in his previous three league matches, sustained an ankle injury in his side’s 2-2 draw against Salernitana last Friday.

However, he trained with his team-mates this week and could feature.

Olivier Giroud, leading scorer for AC Milan in 2023, is set to lead the line, but the Frenchman has netted just three league goals at the San Siro this season.

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