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Milan target Champions League spot as season’s salvation

Milan players celebrate after scoring against Lazio. Photo: Isabella Bonotto/AFP

Milan bid to bounce back from exiting the Champions League at the hands of city rivals Inter by beating relegated Sampdoria on Saturday and keep alive hopes of qualifying for next season’s competition.

Milan’s blues are in stark contrast to the general mood in Serie A where Inter have led a trio of teams in qualifying for European club finals.

Roma and Fiorentina will feature in the Europa League and Europa Conference League finals in June.   

Ordinarily Milan would be heavily favoured to beat Sampdoria, a side with just three wins this term.

However, Milan’s lacklustre display against Inter — who won 3-0 on aggregate — in what was their first Champions League semi-final since 2007 reflected the crisis of confidence that has hit last year’s champions.    

Defeat to relegation-threatened Spezia last Saturday epitomised their poor form — Stefano Pioli’s team have won only three times in their last 11 league matches.

The Spezia loss was Milan’s 10th of a strange season in which their league title defence was all but over by February.

All is not lost, though, as in fifth spot they trail Lazio who are in the fourth and final Champions League place by four points with three games to play.

What would give Milan more pleasure is if they pipped Inter to the final place — their Champions League conquerors are five points better off.

Inter, however, travel to champions Napoli on Sunday whilst Lazio are away at mid-table Udinese.

Milan’s technical director Paolo Maldini is as unflappable in his administrative role as he was as a defender in the great Milan side of the 1990’s.

Now 54 Maldini is relaxed about the direction he and Pioli have decided to take the club, mixing old warhorses like Olivier Giroud with younger ones with potential like Belgian Charles De Ketelaere.

He has struggled to make an impact this term but Maldini believes he will come right. 

“Charles De Ketelaere is an example of players who need to grow, that’s normal,” Maldini told Sky Sports Italia following the loss to Inter.

“It would have been much easier and much cheaper for us to go to a player like Paulo Dybala at the beginning of the season, but would he have been the right player for our project?

“Would he have been appropriate and shared by our owners? No.

“We have an idea and want to build a young and talented team.”

Maldini says that unlike other clubs Milan’s policy — shared by the football staff and the owners RedBird Capital — is to be patient and not offload players if they fail to perform immediately.    

“It is risky to sign young players,” he said.

“But this is our idea of football, our idea of investment. It’s a shared view with the owners.

“If I wanted a stronger lineup I would have made different choices in the market. We have a project which we are developing together.

“It takes time.” 

Player to watch: Rafael Leao

The Portuguese winger’s return to fitness may not have paid off in the Champions League match this week with Inter. However, Pioli will hope the 23-year-old can spark a revival in form for the final three matches and sneak a place in Europe’s premier club competition next term. Milan value him at over 100 million euros ($107 million) but will face an almighty battle to retain his services if they miss out on Champions League football.  

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