AC Milan will look to get back to winning ways when they travel to Stadio Carlo Castellani to take on an Empoli side who are loving life back in the top flight.

Stefano Pioli’s AC Milan were neck to neck with SSC Napoli at the top of the Serie A table going into December. However, a slew of poor results has seen both sides fall away and surrender the summit to defending champions Inter Milan.

The Rossoneri have won just two of their last seven league games and are reeling from a toothless display at home against Napoli at the weekend. The latest setback has seen them fall to the third spot, four points off Inter Milan, who are now solidifying their lead at the top of the table.

Milan are having to deal with a loss of form and the unavailability of key players due to injury. Pioli, for one, is not expecting an easy game against Empoli, and the Milan boss is well aware of the optimism coursing through the Serie B champions’ veins at the moment.

Having earned promotion to the top flight, Empoli have enjoyed a stellar start to life in Serie A. They have won eight of their opening 18 games and are currently sitting pretty in the ninth spot. They have so far earned 27 points, two more than fellow promoted teams Venezia and Salernitana have managed to put together all season.

It promises to be an intriguing contest between two sides whose morale is at opposing ends of the compass, and which of the two teams will end the year on a high remains to be seen. The Hard Tackle now looks at how both teams could set up for the clash.

Team News & Tactics

Empoli

Experienced manager Aurelio Andreazzoli has overseen a spectacular run of form that has seen the Serie B champions take to life in the top flight like fish to water. Empoli sit pretty in the ninth spot and have an outside chance of pushing on for a European place.

Unlike Milan, the home team do not have many injuries to worry about. Nicolas Haas is the lone major absentee as the midfielder continues to recover from a cruciate ligament injury that has ruled him out for the remainder of the season. Empoli are currently on a six-game unbeaten run in all competitions. There is every reason to believe they can extend that run to seven and end the year on a high.

Andreazzoli looks set to deploy his side in a 4-3-1-2 formation that can also shift to a 4-4-2 while defending. This setup permits the Italians to overload the midfield and pressure Milan’s double pivot.

Guglielmo Vicario looks set to start in goal behind the back four of Fabiano Parisi, Sebastiano Luperto, Simone Romagnoli and Petar Stojanovic. Samuele Ricci will be the man at the centre of the Empoli midfield. He will be tasked with orchestrating the home side’s ball distribution. He will be ably assisted by Szymon Zurkowski and Liam Henderson, who will need to do the hard running.

Nedim Bajrami and Andrea Pinamonti will be expected to dovetail between the midfield and the attack to fashion chances for Patrick Cutrone, who will likely start upfront. The hosts have enough in their ammo to hurt Milan if they do not turn up.

Probable Lineup (4-3-1-2): Vicario; Stojanovic, Romagnoli, Luperto, Parisi; Henderson, Ricci, Zurkowski; Bajrami; Pinamonti, Cutrone

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AC Milan

It has been a difficult few weeks for Milan, who have been knocked out of Europe and find themselves drifting away from the Serie A summit. Another loss this week could put them within touching distance of Juventus & co., who are steadily making a punt for the top four places in the new year.

Pioli’s men have failed to make home advantage count in recent weeks, and it remains to be seen if they will show a more relaxed approach playing away from the San Siro. However, the Rossoneri boss will have to get the job done sans several key players.

Simon Kjaer, Davide Calabria, Ante Rebic, Rafael Leao and Pietro Pellegri will all miss out as they recover from injuries. Veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss out after ‘overloading’ his knee. He looks set to be replaced by Olivier Giroud in the starting XI.

One positive for Milan is the potential return of Theo Hernandez. The Frenchman missed the clash against Napoli due to an illness but appears ready to return to action. He will be a considerable upgrade over Fode Ballo-Toure, who struggled to make an impact at left-back at the weekend.

Milan look set to continue with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation on the night. Mike Maignan is a sure starter in goal and will play behind a back four of Alessandro Florenzi, Fikayo Tomori, Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez. Sandro Tonali and Franck Kessie look set to get the nod again as the visitors’ double pivot.

Alexis Saelemaekers impressed after coming off the bench against Napoli and is expected to start the game on the left flank. He will be joined in an attacking role by Brahim Diaz in the centre and the silky Junior Messias on the right. French international Olivier Giroud looks set to receive the nod up front.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Florenzi, Tomori, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Tonali, Kessie; Messias, Diaz, Saelemaekers; Giroud

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Key Stats

  • AC Milan have lost just one of their last nine Serie A games against Empoli.
  • AC Milan have lost just one of their previous 21 games against newly-promoted sides in Serie A.
  • Empoli are undefeated in their previous five matches.
  • Empoli have scored at least two goals in their last three home matches. A win over Milan will see them win three home games on the trot for the first time since 2018.
  • Should they triumph, AC Milan could become only the second team in Serie A history to achieve 17 away league wins in a calendar year.

Player to Watch

Franck Kessie

Franck Kessie is a man in demand. (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

Franck Kessie is a man in need of a big performance. (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

The Ivory Coast international has been a pale shadow of the player he was last season. This has hurt Milan as they fail to show control and imagination in midfield. Coming off a disheartening loss to Napoli, where he saw his late equalizer chalked off, Kessie should channel his frustrations in the right direction.

The 25-year-old is a key player in the Milan midfield, and how he performs on the night could determine who wins the battle in the middle of the park. Empoli have shown themselves to be astute customers and are tactically sound. The onus will be on Kessie to break their rhythm and guide Tonali into orchestrating forward passes. Kessie has been due a big performance for some time now. There is no better time than now for him to sign off for the year on a high.

Prediction

Empoli 1-1 AC Milan

The game will be a meeting of two sides who are currently at opposite ends of the morale spectrum. Empoli are riding high on a wave of optimism while Milan risk having their fine start to the season burn into ashes. The latter also have injuries to boot and will be under pressure to get a result.

If the losses to Liverpool and Napoli have shown anything, it is that Pioli’s side withers under pressure. They could be in for yet another disappointing night at Empoli, ceding further ground in the Serie A title race.

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