Positive mood... AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli knows he is close to securing the Serie A title with the Italian giants. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: They are sitting at the top of the Serie A table, scoring goals for fun and playing some scintillating football. It is fair to say that AC Milan are flying. In fact, one of the world’s most famous clubs was literally airborne as coach Stefano Pioli and players Fikayo Tomori and Brahim Diaz landed in the UAE last night to meet the local fanbase in a couple of fan-centric events at Expo 2020 Dubai on Tuesday.

They arrive here on the back of another positive result having beaten Cagliari and with a set of remaining fixtures that don’t appear too daunting, AC Milan could be celebrating the title for the first time in 11 years come the end of the season.

Zlatan back

They have a real chance of winning the scudetto and Pioli’s team looks strong mentally and physically. They have talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic back for the crucial final stretch and he joins the in-form Olivier Giroud at the top of the attack. And their experience could prove to be the difference between success and failure. “AC Milan needs everyone,” says Pioli. “Zlatan and Olivier know what it means to win and the sacrifices that are required to achieve great results.”

There have already been many great results this season not least beating Inter in the derby but Pioli is isn’t getting too excited even though he has every reason to be happy. Since he became coach on 9 October 2019 there has been constant growth on the pitch. In his first season he guided the team to a respectable 6th place with 66 points and in his following campaign he got them challenging for the title. They won 16 away fixtures in the league – a record tally for the club – but had to settle for a runners-up spot. They got 79 points and look set to eclipse that total this season and finish at the top of the pile.

“I think this team has great potential,” says the 56-year-old. “We have never ruled anything out, but this is my current view: let’s pick up more points than last season, play every game as if it were absolutely decisive and then see where we end up. Not being involved in any more midweek fixtures will allow us to do targeted work and give our players more rest.”

Dubai fanbase

It will be AC Milan’s third visit to Dubai in less than six months and the trip will see the Rossoneri delegation meet the local fanbase and get involved in a series of partner activations and meetings which underlines the commitment of the club to the country. As part of their two-day stay, Pioli and the players will meet 15 children during a special training session at the Expo’s AC Milan Academy. So far, it has involved over 600 children between 6 and 14 years old in the Sports, Fitness and Wellbeing Hub of the event. Children participating in the special training session will not only create life-long memories with the coach and the players involved, but they will also receive their own AC Milan kit. The delegation will also get to witness the passion of the local fanbase for the Rossoneri colours during a special Q&A session at the Festival Garden, which will take place on Tuesday evening and is free to attend to anyone with a valid Expo 2020 Dubai entry ticket.

“Dubai is constantly evolving, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the sports industry,” continues Pioli. “We are proud to be part of Expo 2020 Dubai with an AC Milan Academy, putting our experience and the values of our club at the disposal of local children.”

Mind over matter... Pioli has overseen a real upturn in performances and results since taking over as coach of AC Milan in 2019.

The attack-minded manager who likes his team to play aggressively and on the front foot is no stranger to Dubai and says his last visit was a great experience. “I am curious to see how the city has changed over the years. The impression I had was that of being surrounded by buildings in constant transformation, and of being in places where time and space had no limits.” And there are also no limits as to what AC Milan can achieve under his guidance. In the top 5 European leagues, no team scored more away goals than them and they seem to have finally broken the stranglehold Juventus had on Serie A. But just how has Pioli had such a positive effect in so little time? “It’s been a job that has seen all of the components of our club involved,” he says. “Elliott Management has put us in a position to work as best as we can, while everyone has also benefitted from the presence of club Executive Ivan Gazidis and his international outlook.”

The former Fiorentina boss has also benefited from the support of club legend Paolo Maldini. “On a daily basis, I’m lucky enough to converse with him, he is an indispensable point of reference. I’ve always said that I’ve had the fortune to coach a great group, players who perfectly embody the values of this club. Together, we’re trying to write a new page in history.”

New deal

Pioli is doing a great job and has been rewarded with a contract extension and suffice it to say he is delighted. “After just a few days at AC Milan, I felt something I’d never experienced before anywhere else: I immediately felt at home. This is what AC Milan is for me: home.”

The club has won 18 Scudettis, 5 Coppe Italias, 7 Supercoppe Italiane, 7 Champions Leagues, 5 Supercoppe Europee, 2 Coppe delle Coppe, 3 Coppe Intercontinentali and the FIFA Club World Cup and so naturally there is a huge weight of expectation to deliver more silverware. The prestigious job as coach is also extremely demanding but the former defender who had spells with Parma and Juve is enjoying the pressure. “Pressure is part of my job, but it is also motivating because it reminds me that I can always do better. During a journey, there might be moments where you slow down, but the important thing is to go ahead and never stop.”

The fans are loving the performances of the team and the final attendance figures at the San Siro this season can surpass 1,000,000 in all competitions which would be incredible. “Our objective is to make our fans happy,” continues Pioli. “This is why we play. We are lucky enough to have extraordinary supporters, and we’ll never stop thanking them because their passion has always been contagious.”

Champions League

AC Milan were back in the Champions League after 7 years and they gave Premier League giants Liverpool a scare in the group stages. Ultimately, they fell short and failed to advance to the knockout stages but the astute Pioli knows where they went wrong and more importantly he knows how to get it right next time. “We have learnt a lot, but, above all, we are aware that we need to do more because the bar is very high. It is all about the details in the Champions League. Getting used to playing certain matches allows you to acquire vital knowledge and experience.”

They are destined to return to Europe’s biggest stage next season and should be celebrating a 19th Scudetti. Giroud continues to score important goals, Rafael Leao looks explosive, young talent Pierre Kalulu is growing with every game, and Ibrahimovic will always be a leader of men. But most important of all is Pioli pulling the strings and with his influential presence on the touchline AC Milan will continue going from strength to strength.