AC Milan make their long-awaited return to the Champions League this week on one of the game’s most important stages, with a trip to Liverpool on Wednesday allowing them to dream of Europe’s top prize once more.
There will be 13 European Cups between the two teams at Anfield, but while Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have become one of the continent’s most feared sides, winning their most recent Champions League in 2019, the Italian side will be playing in their first group match since 2013.
They are upbeat after a strong start to the new Serie A season, in which they have a perfect nine points from their first three games.
Stefano Pioli, who has never won a major coaching award, has a promising squad on his hands, with the progress made since his arrival in 2019 exemplified by Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Lazio at the San Siro.
When asked if his team aspired to be big in Europe, Pioli replied, “We should only dream at night; during the day, we need to work hard to realize those dreams.”
The seven-time European champions haven’t won Serie A in a decade and were last crowned the continent’s best team in 2007, when they defeated Liverpool in Athens.
That was the pair’s final meeting, and it came two years after the Reds inflicted one of Milan’s most heinous defeats, coming back from three goals down at half-time against a star-studded Rossoneri line-up to win a historic final on penalties.
Since then, Milan, by far Italy’s most successful team in Europe, has failed to advance past the Champions League quarter-finals, and in 2019, while recovering from major financial problems exacerbated by a disastrous Chinese ownership, has also failed to advance out of a Europa League group that included Dudelange, Olympiakos, and Real Betis.
This year’s group is much tougher, with La Liga holders Atletico Madrid and Portuguese champions Porto potentially blocking their path to the knockout stages, but legendary Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi told AFP that current coach Stefano Pioli is on the right track.
“Milan has a difficult group, which will cost them a few league points. But the most important thing is to win this competition,” said Sacchi, a two-time European Cup winner.
“Pioli is someone I’ve known for a long time because he’s from Parma, where I worked for a few years. He was already an excellent tactical coach at the time, but he struggled to give his teams a sense of identity.
“However, he’s progressed to the next level now that his team has developed a distinct style.”
When Milan was last crowned European champions, Zlatan Ibrahimovic hadn’t even started his first season with the club, as he was leading local rivals Inter to the Serie A title.
However, as he approaches 40 and returns to Milan for the second time, the Swedish striker will be a key figure for Pioli after scoring seven minutes into his return from a four-month layoff due to a knee injury.
“He has this passion,” Pioli said.
“I believe that, aside from his obvious talent, it is his passion, his fire, that makes training enjoyable for him… When you’re like that, you don’t notice the passage of time.”