MILAN: AC Milan skipper Riccardo Montolivo has backed embattled coach Sinisa Mihajlovic as the struggling Serie A giants prepare for a league clash with Juventus that could define their chances of playing in Europe next season.
With Champions League qualification now virtually impossible — Milan are 14 points behind third-placed Roma with seven games left to play — the Rossoneri are left battling to qualify for the Europa League.
But they have two options, and neither look easy.
While Sunday’s defeat at Atalanta left the Rossoneri in sixth place, Milan trail city rivals Inter, who occupy fifth place and the league’s last Europa League qualifying spot, by six points.
Milan’s other possible entry is through victory in the Italian Cup, but in the May 21 final they face a formidable Juventus side that is marching towards a record-equalling fifth consecutive Serie A title.
Mihajlovic’s men will get the chance to measure the difficulty of that task when they host Juventus at the San Siro on Saturday.
In the meantime, Mihajlovic has piled the pressure on in a bid to squeeze every last drop from his players as they look to salvage something from yet another disappointing season.
Defeat at Atalanta left Milan with only two points from their last four outings, prompting the Serbian coach to force his players into ‘retreat’ — a series of punishing training sessions with little room for outside leisure.
Montolivo said he didn’t agree with the decision, saying: “I don’t think the solution is necessarily ordering us all into retreat.”
But otherwise, he gave Mihajlovic his full backing.
Speaking to Sky Sport, he added: “The team is and always will be behind Mihajlovic. I know him better than anyone else here, and when he’s under pressure that’s when you get the best out of him.
“Together, we’re working hard to get out of a sticky situation. It will be a tough game on Saturday, but we’ll be a different side when we go out on the pitch.”
With 18 titles from UEFA and FIFA competitions, Milan are among the world’s most successful clubs, having won Europe’s premier club event seven times.
But the glory days of the heady 1990s, when the millions from the club’s media tycoon president Silvio Berlusconi attracted Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and a number of world class players to the club, are long gone.
Milan’s last won the Champions League title in 2007, and they last reached the latter stages in 2012 with a quarter-final appearance against Barcelona.
The following season Barcelona again stopped Milan’s progress, winning 4-2 on aggregate in the knockout phase after suffering a 2-0 first leg reverse at the San Siro.
Milan’s last Champions League campaign was in 2013-2014, when they were ousted 5-1 on aggregate by Atletico Madrid.
Although recent reports suggest Berlusconi will sack Mihajlovic after his failure to clinch a Champions League qualifying spot, Montolivo is not so sure.
“When things are looking down we always hear the names of ‘new’ coaches in the media,” he said.
“But we know the club and the team has a lot of faith in Mihajlovic and I’m looking forward to working with him next season.”