Franck Kessie and Alexis Saelemaekers were the standout players as AC Milan ended the year with a hard-fought win away to Empoli.

Stefano Pioli’s AC Milan side had a lot to play for when they travelled to Empoli in their final game of 2021. The Italian giants put in an excellent performance on the night and secured a much needed three points.

The Rossoneri have endured a difficult December and have ceded ground in the Serie A title race while also being knocked out of Europe. It was imperative that they ended the year on a high, not just to keep up morale but also to stay within reach of league leaders Inter Milan.

Midfielder Franck Kessie had looked like a shadow of the player he was last season. However, the Ivorian turned on the style on the night, scoring a brace. He gave the visitors the lead in the 12th minute after Alexis Saelemaekers and Olivier Giroud combined to set him up.

The lead did not last long as Nedim Bajrami drew Empoli level in the 18th minute. Kessie, however, was having none of it and scored his second on the night in the 42nd minute to send Milan ahead at the break. Milan did not drop off in the second half, and a quickfire double from the full-back duo of Alessandro Florenzi and Theo Hernandez gave them a healthy 4-1 lead.

Andrea Pinamonti did pull one back for the home side, but it turned out to be a mere consolation. With Atalanta and Napoli dropping points, Milan are now the best-placed team to challenge defending champions Inter Milan for the Scudetto.

While it is debatable if the Rossoneri can sustain their form until the end of the season, there is little argument that the win over Empoli was one of their finer performances of the season. The Hard Tackle looks at how the Milan players fared on the night.

Mike Maignan: 6/10

The Frenchman could have reacted better to keep out Empoli’s first goal. However, it is entirely possible that his sight was clouded by the players ahead of him, and he was caught off guard. Maignan had little to do otherwise and was powerless to stop the penalty.

Alessandro Florenzi: 7/10

The veteran full-back started cautiously but grew into the game as the minutes wore on. Florenzi proved himself to be a dependable option on the right flank and scored from a well-taken free-kick in the second half.

Fikayo Tomori: 6/10

The Englishman steadily enhances his reputation and is a regular for Milan when fit. Largely anonymous in the first half, Tomori was dependable after the half-time break. It was a steady if not unspectacular performance from the former Chelsea centre-back.

Alessio Romagnoli: 7/10

Romagnoli was tasked with facing the brunt of the Empoli attack, and the experienced defender met the challenge head-on. He organised the backline well and was largely solid in possession. Romagnoli almost scored himself but saw his strike bounce off the crossbar.

Theo Hernandez: 7/10

The returning French international owned his flank and did well at both ends of the pitch. His goal in the 69th minute all but settled the game.

Sandro Tonali: 6/10

The Italian did not have to worry too much as Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie performed excellently. While he looked assured in possession, a lack of imagination prevented him from making a difference. Tonali earned himself a yellow card and was taken off in the second half.

Ismael Bennacer: 7/10

The Algerian international looked assured in possession and was available to break up Empoli’s moves in the middle of the park. Bennacer also made crucial interceptions that broke down Empoli’s attacks in their tracks.

Junior Messias: 6/10

The Brazilian enjoyed a good share of the possession but failed to make things happen. It was largely a disappointing performance where he did not drive home the opportunities he was handed.

Franck Kessie: 8/10

The Ivory Coast international was deployed in an advanced role on the night, and he thrived in it. Thanks to his first half double, he repaid Pioli’s faith in him by setting the stage for a Milan win. He was more like the Kessie of old, and the midfielder will be doing himself and Milan a favour if he continues this purple streak of form.

Alexis Saelemaekers: 8/10

Another player who appears to be rediscovering his magic touch. Kessie might have found the back of the net, but Saelemaekers pulled the strings in attack. The Belgian assisted two while also playing a big role in the build-up to the other two goals. Saelemaekers also looked good with the ball and appeared to be in the zone all through the game.

Olivier Giroud: 7/10

The Frenchman replaced the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic and did well. Giroud assisted Kessie for Milan’s opener and was a focal point up front that caused Empoli many problems. He used his physicality to open up space for other players to run into.

SUBSTITUTES

Tiemoue Bakayoko: 5/10

The midfielder struggled and did little to enhance his reputation after coming on as a substitute. He looked out of sorts, and he conceded the penalty that led to Empoli’s second goal of the night because of a clumsy handball.

Pierre Kalulu: 6/10

Kalulu looked good after coming on and did well at both ends of the pitch.

Rade Krunic: N/A

The Croat had little time to make an impact.

Brahim Diaz: N/A

The Spaniard also had little to no time to make an impact.

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