Is This The Year Milan Returns to UEFA Champions League Football?

After stumbling out of the gate earlier in the season, Milan have come alive in recent months, sitting in pole position to pursue a coveted top 3 finish. Can the rossoneri pull off what seemed like an unlikely feat and qualify for the UEFA Champions League?

The 2015-16 season season has been another interesting one for the Italian giants. The club saw a massive overhaul transpire this past summer when several familar faces were finally let go to make room for a revolution of fresh talent. Adriano Galliani and Silvio Berlusconi did a solid job bolstering the squad and bringing together a unit capable of competing for a European spot. Along with captain Riccardo Montolivo, Alex, Keisuke Honda and teenage sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma, new signings Carlos Bacca, Alessio Romagnoli and Juraj Kucka have helped rejuvenate a wounded – and frustrated – fanbase into now believing that a Champions League birth is a dream that could come true quicker than expected.

While things seem to be going well for new manager Siniša Mihajlović’s squad, they have work to do if they are to make this dream a reality. Let’s analyze how things line up for Siniša Mihajlović’s side in the final months of the season.

First, current league position. Milan are currently on the outside looking in at the top 5 of the Serie A table, sitting in 6th place on 43 points. But, with thirteen fixtures remaining, they have more than enough matches to cover the gap. Here is how the Serie A table looks after round 25 (table courtesy of ESPNFC.com):

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Milan are just two points behind city rival Inter for the 5th and final European spot, and only six from Fiorentina for the coveted third Champions League spot which is a play-in match. Regardless, it’s the location Milan supporters hope to occupy.

Next, we look at the remaining schedule for each of the clubs Milan will be competing with for the three hole. They include Fiorentina, Roma and Inter. Below is an assembled spreadsheet of the remaining matches on tap for each of the four clubs:

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Milan’s toughest fixtures, after playing away against Napoli next Monday, all come in the comforts of the San Siro against Lazio, Juventus and – to end the season – Roma. As you can see, each side competiting for third has it’s battles to face. However, Fiorentina (UEFA Europa League) and Roma (Champions League) still have to play in competitive matches during the week which could have some effect when those weekend fixtures come about. Regardless of this, Milan can’t afford to take any side lightly these next few months. They need to take the pitch understanding that it will take 90 minutes of work to get the desired result. Any slip ups down the stretch could prove costly to their hopes of a Champions League birth.

Third, the squad. It has taken Siniša Mihajlović quite some time to figure out which tactical setup works best for his personnel. He’s made the switch from the 4-3-1-2 earlier on in the season to now fielding -week in and week out – a more streamlined 4-4-2 formation, which has rendered solid success. It also helps when you have a striker like Carlos Bacca, who has been every bit worth the €30m Milan coughed up for his signature.

The Colombian has already 13 goals credited to his name in his first season in the Italian peninsula, tied for second with Juventus’ Paulo Dybala. In his last seven games, the ex-Sevilla hitman has bagged six goals and one assist. Bacca has been as clinical as they come and he will need to continue to find the back of the net in order to help his club obtain a top three finish.

While Bacca continues to receive most of the glory during the club’s recent run, the performance of centre-back tandem Alex and Alessio Romagnoli should not be left without praise. Mihajlović has finally found a reliable – and experienced – partner in Alex, who some would argue has been playing better of late than the ex-Sampdoria man. His veteran leadership and resume playing in Europe has given Milan supporters a bit more confidence in the defense, something that simply did not exist earlier this season.

Like the defense, the midfield has stepped up, thanks heavily to the emergence of Juraj Kucka and captain Riccardo Montolivo. The two have easily been the best central midfielders this season, complimenting each other tremendously. Kucka, who was purchased from Genoa this summer for a minuscule 3 million euros, has been a pleasant surprise. He’s given the side some needed energy, grinta and versatility. As for Montolivo, we have begun to see the captain from a few seasons return. The ex-Fiorentina star has become the key cog in the four-man midfield, controlling the tempo and linking play like we’ve all come to expect from him. ‘il Capitano” has been the brunt of harsh criticism this season, but the 31-year old azzurri international has silenced many scrutinizers by cementing his role as leader of the club.

Then, there is the excitement oozing from the 6 foot 5 frame of the teenage keeper. Gianluigi Donnarumma was given the chance back in October against Sassuolo to solidify the goal. Since then, the southern Italian hasn’t looked back, earning 6 cleansheets to go along with a goals conceeded rate of 0.76/match. Stats aside, the azzurrini goalie has given the fans – and squad – new blood, life and promise. In all, Donnarumma has given a youth presence to the club who’s been repeatedly criticized for not giving homegrown talent their fair stab at first team football.

Of course, there are many other notable players who are to be recognized for the surge up the league table, including Giacomo Bonaventura, Luca Antonelli and Keisuke Honda. But, this goes to show just how well – collectively – the club has been performing. Mihajlović’s hard-nosed philosophy has brushed off on most of the players and the positive results have come as a result of that. Months ago, the former Serbia manager’s future was in doubt with the red and black, however he is fully deserving of some credit for the success.

Currently, the European hopefuls are as hot as any club – not named Juventus – in the Italian top flight (image courtesy of @MilanData):

Finally, Milan have seemed to put it all together over the past few months. As a unit, they’ve been rewarded for it as they sit in pole position to take a stab at the competition standing in their way of Champions League qualification. They also still remain in contention for the Coppa Italia title which could be another outlet to Europe, but as most Milan supporters would agree, the Europa League feels like a consolation prize.

It will be a difficult task to maintain this run of form, however their is hope in the Milan camp that the club can reach the ultimate objective of a top three finish. Will Siniša Mihajlović pull off the inevitable and make Milan a Champions League club once again? Let’s hope.

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