AC Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic insists the fallen Serie A giants can fight for a place in next season’s Champions League after a battling 1-1 draw with Napoli that dented their opponents’ title hopes.
Napoli welcomed Milan to the San Paolo on Monday looking to capitalise on Juventus’s stalemate at Bologna on Friday with a win that would have sent them a point clear of Juve at the top.
But despite a dominant performance, Maurizio Sarri’s title challengers had to settle for a sixth draw of the campaign that left them in second place at a point behind the champions.
Adding to the hosts’ woes ahead of what should be a mouthwatering race for the title, Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain, who has 24 goals on his league account, failed to score in back-to-back Serie A games for the first time this season.
Milan remain sixth, eight points behind third-placed Fiorentina in the last possible Champions League qualifying place.
Mihajlovic, whose side remain unbeaten after seven league games in 2016, told Sky Sport: “They dominated the game but we had planned for that, otherwise it would have been impossible for us.
“After seven games so far this year we’ve picked up a lot of points. If we keep on playing with this kind of intensity and concentration, we can fight for third place.”
Milan started brightly but it was Napoli who broke the deadlock, on 39 minutes, when Lorenzo Insigne’s shot deflected off the legs of Ignazio Abate to leave teenaged goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma scrambling at his far post.
Donnarumma has been solid for Milan since pushing Diego Lopez down the pecking order, and Mihajlovic said he could not fault the 16-year-old.
“I didn’t see the goal, but I think if Gigi didn’t manage to get it, no one would have,” he added.
To their credit, Milan restored parity almost immediately.
Jose Callejon had failed to track back to pick up Giacomo Bonaventura and when Kalidou Koulibaly inadvertently nodded Keisuke Honda’s cross towards the back post, Bonaventura sent a volley past Pepe Reina.
Napoli had the lion’s share of the best chances in the second half but Donnarumma was decisive in the dying minutes.
Donnarumma, who will celebrate his 17th birthday on Thursday, did well to intercept Faouzi Ghoulam’s cross for Higuain as the Argentine ran in on goal.
Callejon was replaced by Dries Mertens just after the hour and only minutes after his arrival the Belgian international spurned a great chance when he struck Elseid Hysaj’s daisycutter off the far post.
Mihajlovic replaced a tiring Bacca with French forward Jeremy Menez.
Minutes later Higuain beat Zapata to a cross from the left to fire a deflected shot just wide of the upright.
When left-back Luca Antonelli blocked Mertens’s cross for Higuain, Milan launched a counter that saw Menez set up Niang, but the Frenchman’s angled strike curled wide of the far post.
Mihajlovic replaced Niang with on-loan Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli for the last five minutes but it was Honda who tested Reina with a curling shot that forced the Spanish keeper to save low at his near post.
Sarri, who was sent off a quarter-hour from the end for dissent, praised his players despite the disappointment.
“I can’t fault the lads’ performance, we didn’t give a lot to Milan and we created several real chances,” said the Italian.
“But it came to a certain point in the game where we were just lacking that extra ingredient.” – Agence France-Presse