Milan dreaming big ahead of Champions League return at Anfield

Head coach AC Milan Stefano Pioli and Alexis Saelemaekers of AC Milan talk during a training session at Milanello on September 13, 2021 in Cairate, Italy.

AC Milan make their long-awaited return to the Champions League this week on one of the biggest stages the game has to offer, a trip to Liverpool on Wednesday allowing them to dream of Europe's biggest prize once again.

There will be 13 European Cups between the two teams at Anfield, but while Reds have become one of the continent's most feared sides under Jurgen Klopp, winning their most recent Champions league in 2019, the Italian side will run out for their first group fixture in the competition since 2013.

They are in confident mood after a fast start to the new Serie A season which has earned them a perfect nine points from their opening three matches.

Stefano Pioli, who has never won a major honour as a coach, has a promising team on his hands with the progress made since his arrival in 2019 crystalised by Sunday's 2-0 stroll against much-fancied Lazio at the San Siro.

Asked whether his side were dreaming of going big in Europe, Pioli said: "We should only be dreaming at night, in the day we need to work hard to realise those dreams".

The last eight years have been arid for the seven-time European champions, who haven not won Serie A in a decade and were last crowned the continent's top team way back in 2007, when they beat Liverpool in Athens.

That was the last meeting between the pair and came two years after the Reds inflicted one of the most traumatic defeats in Milan's history, coming back from three goals down at half-time against a star-studded Rossoneri line-up before eventually winning a historic final on penalties.

Since then Milan, by far Italy's most successful team in Europe, have failed to get past the quarter-finals of the Champions League and in 2019, while recovering from major financial problems brough to the fore by a disastrous Chinese ownership, even failed to get out of a Europa League group which contained Dudelange, Olympiakos and Real Betis.

- Sacchi hails Milan style -

This year's group is a much tougher proposition, with La Liga holders Atletico Madrid and Portuguese champions Porto also potentially blocking their path to the knockout stages, but legendary Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi told AFP current coach Stefano Pioli is on the right track.

"Milan have a difficult group, which will cost them a few points in the league. But the important thing is to win in this competition," Sacchi, who twice won the European Cup, said.

"I've known Pioli for a long time, because he is from Parma where I worked for a few years. Back then he was already an excellent tactical coach, but he was one who couldn't quite transmit an identity to his teams.

"He's gone onto the next level now though, as his team has a style."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic hadn't even begun his first spell at Milan when they were last crowned kings of Europe, as he was instead firing their local rivals Inter to the Serie A title.

However, approaching 40 and back in the red and black of Milan for a second time, the Swedish star will be a key figure for Pioli after scoring on Sunday, seven minutes into his return to action after four months out with a knee injury.

"He's got this passion," said Pioli.

"I believe that apart from his evident talent it's the passion, the fire that he has inside him that makes training for him a pleasure... When you're like that you don't feel the advancing years."

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