Officially, the final fixture of AC Milan’s triumphant 2021/22 season was an away game, but it didn’t feel like it.
Reggio Emilia was flooded with Rossoneri fans on Sunday. The reason? History was to be made.
A draw against Sassuolo, the actual home side, was required to end an 11-year wait for the title, and the long-suffering Milanisti were ready to do everything in their power to ensure that happened.
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Hours before the game, the area around the stadium was awash with red-and-black striped shirts. In fact, it was a novelty to spot any Sassuolo green.
Flares were lit, flags waved and songs sung in punishing 33 degree heat, but the scale of the Milanese takeover only became apparent once the turnstiles opened, as all four stands were coloured red.
Milan promptly showed no signs of nerves as they blew Sassuolo away with three first-half goals, before a second half featuring Mexican waves and a touchline dance from coach Stefano Pioli provided the prelude to a full-scale celebratory pitch invasion at full time.
“I’ve been wanting to dance with the fans all year,” a delighted Pioli said.
The outpouring of emotion was understandable. This wasn’t just about 11 years without a league title, but what those years represented.
Since 2010/11, Milan have suffered the indignity of mid-table finishes, failed to qualify for the Champions League for eight years, and then, just as they were improving, watched rivals Inter storm to the league crown last season.
The last decade has been a tough time for one of the sport’s most illustrious clubs, and their charge to the Scudetto this season was predicted by few.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was, unsurprisingly, the only member of a star-studded 2011 squad featuring the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf, to win it again this year, and he was sure to underline the scale of his latest achievement.
“It’s completely different,” he said. “That team had 22 champions who had won everything, we were the favourites.
“This team is full of youngsters, they arrived and we put pressure on them and made them understand what Milan is. This is a different story”.
Ibrahimovic’s words point to the careful way this squad was built. Unlike 11 years ago, this Milan isn’t a glittering galaxy of stars, but a functional, effective side led by an intelligent coach.
Milan weren’t pre-season favourites, and it took them more than half the season to even become league leaders.
Pioli’s side spent just one week on top of the table before mid-February, but from that point on they were unstoppable.

Players of AC Milan celebrate with the Scudetto trophy during the award ceremony after the Serie A match between US Sassuolo and AC Milan at Mapei Stadium - Citta' del Tricolore on May 22, 2022 in Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/AC Mila

Image credit: Getty Images

For a long time, it looked like there could be a three-horse battle going all the way to the wire, but Napoli lost their bottle in April by picking up one point in three games to crash out.
Inter, meanwhile, capitulated in a 2-1 defeat to Bologna at the end of April, where backup goalkeeper Ionut Radu made a dreadful error that had disastrous consequences for the Nerazzurri’s title defence.
Milan’s consistency stood in contrast to their would-be title rivals. While Inter were more spectacular, scoring the most goals in the league, they never possessed the composure of their city rivals.
The Rossoneri’s title was built on having the strongest end to the season – they went 16 games unbeaten from mid-January onwards – and their extraordinary defence.
Goalkeeper Maignan and centre-backs Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu proved an almost unbreachable obstacle to opposition attacks during the run-in, conceding twice in their final 11 games.
The form of ascending star Rafael Leao, who was named Serie A Player of the Year after sealing the title, lit up their attack, as did the big-game instincts of Olivier Giroud.
The Frenchman’s three-minute brace in a 2-1 win over Inter on 5 February proved to be the catalyst for his team’s title run while giving them the edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker, and he then scored the winner against Napoli, the equaliser in a crucial late comeback at Lazio, and a brace inside half an hour on the final day against Sassuolo.
But at the centre of it all was Pioli, an experienced coach who won the first trophy of his 19-year coaching career in the manner of a serial title winner.
All season long he was careful to temper expectations while underlining his belief in his players, an approach that helped dampen any premature hysteria.

Stefano Pioli (AC Milan) celebrates during the italian soccer Serie A match US Sassuolo vs AC Milan on May 22, 2022 at the MAPEI Stadium in Reggio Emilia, Italy (Photo by Francesco Scaccianoce/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Image credit: Getty Images

Tactically, he found a balance that worked, while produced solutions to various problems, such as a season-ending injury to Simon Kjaer in December, tensions over Franck Kessie’s expiring contract and Ibrahimovic’s fitness issues.
“Every time I spoke to the team, I saw focus and conviction. We always believed, that was our strength,” he said.
They were right to believe. The last decade hasn’t been an easy one for Milan fans, but the jubilant scenes in Reggio Emilia on Sunday might have made it all worthwhile.
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