After claiming the Scudetto in May, for the first time in over a decade, AC Milan kick off the defence of their crown against Udinese on Saturday evening.
San Siro will play host to the champions’ competitive debut for the 2022-23 campaign, with the Rossoneri under pressure to start with a win.
Making up for their failure to last the pace 12 months previously, Milan posted six straight victories at the end of last season, to keep arch-rivals Inter at arms length and lift their first league title for 11 years.
Popular coach Stefano Pioli was the architect of a largely youthful side – guided by a handful of wily veterans – that helped the former Lazio boss win his first major trophy after many years of trying.
Pioli managed to do so on a budget, too, and despite his success last term – and money banked from a long-overdue Champions League campaign – there has been no summer largesse at San Siro.
Influential midfielder Franck Kessie left to join the revolution at Barcelona, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be out of action until next year after knee surgery. In response, the Rossoneri hierarchy sanctioned the signings of Liverpool’s Divock Origi and another Belgian star, Charles De Ketelaere.
The latter arrives at Milanello for a budget-busting £30m, but Milan still have a thinner squad than possible title rivals Inter or Juventus – even Roma are building a deeper selection this year for Jose Mourinho.
Nonetheless, pre-season has progressed smoothly for the champions, as they warmed up for their title defence by winning four of five fixtures and rattling home 17 goals.
Milan have lost only one of their last 10 league matches against Udinese, too, so start as strong favourites to get the new campaign off to a successful start.
Following February’s share of the spoils at San Siro, Udinese have actually held their Rossonero rivals to consecutive 1-1 draws, but they have also won just one of their last six Serie A matches on the opening day.
The Fruilani start 2022-23 in much the same shape as most years, having seen several players agree terms elsewhere, with unheralded replacements being drawn from far and wide.
Nahuel Molina‘s impressive season saw the Argentina international secure a move to Atletico Madrid – where captain Rodrigo De Paul went last year – while Gerard Deulofeu could yet depart, despite a switch to Napoli failing to transpire. More positively, though, talented wing-back Destiny Udogie is set to sign for Tottenham Hotspur but will stay one more year in Udine on loan.
Undoubtedly, Udinese – 12th last term – remain a selling side, content to stay clear of relegation without threatening the European places. However, they are now on to their third manager in a matter of months, after Luca Gotti was sacked in December and replaced by assistant Gabriele Cioffi.
As Verona turned to Cioffi as a replacement for ex-Udinese coach Igor Tudor this summer, former Bianconeri defender Andrea Sottil takes his place in the dugout, having enjoyed a productive spell at the Friuli around the turn of the century.
On Sottil’s competitive debut last Friday, Udinese just managed to see off Serie C side Feralpisalo in the Coppa Italia, and after coming through with a 2-1 win, they will face either Monza or Frosinone in October’s second round.
As Franck Kessie has yet to be replaced and Sandro Tonali is set to sit out the season-opener through injury, Milan will have to improvise in midfield, with Rade Krunic and the returning Tommaso Pobega being the top contenders to replace the latter.
Tonali has been undertaking individual training at Milanello, alongside long-term absentee Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while new arrival Divock Origi is only just back from injury too.
Therefore, Olivier Giroud should lead the line up front, but Ante Rebic is on standby to fill in as a central striker again, having deputised there several times before. Star signing Charles De Ketelaere will hope to start in support of the frontman, but is expected to begin his Serie A career on the bench.
Although new Udinese coach Andrea Sottil has tended to prefer a four-man defence in the past, the visitors lined up in their familiar 3-5-2 formation against Feralpisalo in the Coppa Italia last week and should do so again at San Siro.
Like Milan, the Bianconeri will field an XI similar to that which ended last season, with Destiny Udogie still working the left flank and Gerard Deulofeu providing the main attacking threat after scoring 13 goals in 34 Serie A appearances in 2021-22.
Of the new arrivals, Jaka Bijol (from CSKA Moscow) and Adam Masina (Watford) are most likely to start, with Irish pair Festy Ebosele and James Abankwah both settling for a spot among the substitutes.
AC Milan possible starting lineup:
Maignan; Calabria, Kalulu, Tomori, Hernandez; Bennacer, Krunic; Messias, Diaz, Leao; Giroud
Udinese possible starting lineup:
Silvestri; Perez, Bijol, Masina; Soppy, Pereyra, Walace, Makengo, Udogie; Deulofeu, Success