TO call AC Milan a sleeping giant would be something of an understatement. The Italian club have seven European Cups to their name – a tally only bettered by Real Madrid – but while their history is a proud and illustrious one, it’s fair to say the Rossoneri have fallen on hard times over the last decade or so.

They won two Champions League titles and were on the losing side during that famous night in Istanbul in the 2000s, and were one of the most successful clubs on the continent during the first decade of the new millennium. But you have to go back to the 2013/14 campaign to find the last time they took their seat at Europe’s top table and participated in the Champions League and the subsequent years have been unkind.

Until now, that is. There have been plenty of false dawns in the intervening period but following a highly successful calendar year, Milan are showing promise that they are ready to regain their status as one of the top sides in Italy ahead of their visit to Parkhead to take on Celtic on Thursday night.

“It looks a lot more like the real deal than previous incarnations of AC Milan,” says Italian football journalist Alasdair Mackenzie. “For the last few years, they’ve absolutely churned through head coaches, they’ve had various ownership groups and they’ve not been in the Champions League in a long time, let alone competing to win the league.

“Something’s really changed this calendar year. Lots of people have aligned that to the moment Zlatan Ibrahimovic came back, which I’m sure the man himself would absolutely love. In that period they’ve won more games than any other team in Italy; they’ve scored more goals, kept more clean sheets and in the calendar year, they’ve been far and away the best team in Serie A.

“The only doubt I’ve really got about them now is with the coach Stefano Pioli. He has been through periods like this with other clubs in the past. It happened at Lazio and it happened at Fiorentina, where his teams had Indian summers where they were absolutely unstoppable but then when a crisis has arrived, he’s struggled to get them out of it.

“I think there’s a lot more faith in his side at the club this year that even if it’s not mounting a serious Scudetto challenge, this might well be the year that they get back in the Champions League.”

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After years of mismanagement and disappointment, Pioli has Milan showing real signs of progress that they are back on track after years in the sporting wilderness. He hasn’t done so by reinventing the wheel – Milan aren’t especially innovative, tactically speaking – but what he has introduced is a relatively simple system where players are given clearly-defined roles that suit their skill-set, which in turn has allowed them to flourish.

“I think that’s almost the secret to their success,” Mackenzie said of the manager’s tactical blueprint. “When Pioli came in not long into last season, he basically just simplified things. Previously, some of the players that they’ve had have been bang out of form because they’ve been shoehorned into positions that aren’t their own or asked to do things that aren’t natural for them.

“Pioli came in and he plays with a 4-2-3-1. Francis Kessie fits in as a deep-lying defensive midfielder and has really got back to his best in that role. Hakan Calhanoglu [who has subsequently been ruled out of the Celtic game through injury] is playing as a number 10 which is his actual position – previously he was being shoved out onto the wing.

“Theo Hernandez, for example, is a left-back but he essentially plays as a left winger. He’s ridiculously attack-minded but quite weak defensively. Pioli has essentially set up this team to ensure that whoever is playing in the right-back position is a more defensive-minded player so that he’s not going to stop Hernandez going forward because he knows there’s no point in trying to do that. As a result, Hernandez was their top scorer for a while last season from left-back.

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“Pioli’s not doing anything particularly innovative but at the same time it’s been really intelligent coaching to simplify it and get the best out of previously underperforming players by making sure they’re really comfortable with what they’re being asked to do.

“[Hernandez] does bomb on a lot more than Calabria on the right and they do try and form those overloads in the wide areas but I wouldn’t say they’re lopsided. They do have a fairly fluid front line in terms of the options they’ve got to play in the wide positions up front. They’ve got all sorts of different players and different threats and of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the middle who can really occupy defenders better than almost anyone else.

“They really are a force to be reckoned with going forward. It’s quite a tricky one for Celtic. I don’t think they could be facing them at a worse time because Milan have just come off the back of the derby win – their first in over four years – and the confidence in this team that was already playing well is probably higher than it’s ever been in what’s already been a very good year for them.”

Hernandez, in particular, will need to be closely watched by Lennon’s men on Thursday evening. The left-back, brother of Bayern Munich and France internationalist Lucas, hasn’t quite matched the feats of his older sibling but has quickly evolved into one of the most important weapons that Pioli has available to him in his arsenal.

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His surging runs forward can occasionally create space for the opposition to exploit on the counter when in transition but as Mackenzie explains, Pioli has taken steps to rectify this issue. Sure, Celtic should be wary of the Italians when they’re in possession – but Mackenzie warned that Milan are possibly at their most dangerous when they don’t even have the ball.

 “That’s something Pioli has done quite well – to compensate for those runs forward,” he said. “Either the defence shift left to make a back three or one of the two holding midfielders, whether it’s Kessie or [Sandro] Tonali or [Ismael] Bennacer, can marshal that area and keep an eye on it.

“They do commit numbers forward in attack but they won’t push both the midfield two forward at the same time Theo Hernandez is going forward.

“That is a way of perhaps sensing some sort of weakness but Milan will like to dig in as much as anything else. They’re not really a team to do what Atalanta do for example, and just be flying at teams from the first minute to the last.

“If you look at the second goal at the weekend as an example – they started at their own corner flag, there were four passes upfield and some really quick movement for Ibrahimovic to score.

“That’s when they’re really dangerous. If anything, it’s probably when Celtic are attacking them – that’s when you need to keep an eye on them the most.”

One man that Celtic supporters will already be very familiar with is Ibrahimovic, Milan’s superstar Swede who is enjoying something of a renaissance since returning to the north of Italy after his two-year stint playing for LA Galaxy in MLS.

Having previously enjoyed successful spells at both Milan and Inter, Ibrahimovic is understandably held in high regard by the locals. But even they have been pleasantly surprised with the standard of performances he has been putting in upon his return to Serie A, with some fearing that age was finally starting to catch up on the former Juventus, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain forward. As he is wont to do, Ibrahimovic has made the naysayers look very foolish indeed.

Mackenzie said: “It’s been pretty remarkable seeing what he’s been able to do. When he came back after so long in the States at 38 years old, even his biggest fans – and there are a hell of a lot of his fans in Italy from his previous spells here – were thinking that has influence was likely to be on the younger players.

“This is one of the youngest squads in Serie A and he was coming in as a sort of mentor. They thought he could make an impact on the pitch but I don’t think anyone expected him to be as good, as sharp or as fit as he has been.

“As a result, what was supposed to be a six-month contract was extended by a year into this season and he’s scored both goals in the derby at the weekend. The physical shape he’s in – he’s now 39 – is absolutely crazy. It puts players ten years younger than him to shame.

“There’s no real reason to think that he’s going to be declining anytime soon. He is the biggest issue Celtic have to deal with. It sounds very obvious but it’s true.

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“He’s far and away their biggest threat going forward in terms of a goal threat, and he also helps get the best out of the wide players like Rafael Leao – who’s really coming on to a game now – and Alexis Saelemaekers, who’s a 21-year-old they brought in last season. There’s also Brahim Diaz who they got from Real Madrid and it sounds like he’s got a good chance of playing in Glasgow. They’ve got a fair few options there.”

There are plenty of ways that Milan can hurt their opponents, then, but Mackenzie still reckons there are one or two important factors that can give Celtic a sense of optimism heading into the game. Yes, their domestic record so far this season is clearly impressive – but, Mackenzie adds, Milan are perhaps not as quite all-conquering as a glance at the form book would lead you to believe.

He said: “Defensively, they’re very sound. Their captain, Alessio Romagnoli, has been missing since the start of the season but he’s now back. They started the season with a bit of a defensive crisis with three out of their four centre-backs injured, then Zlatan got Covid, then another one of their defenders got Covid as well. But they’re out the other side of that now and they’re almost back to full strength defensively.

“In [Gianluigi] Donnarumma they’ve got one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe. He’s been brilliant under Pioli. I always had my own doubts about him because he did continue making lots of errors and he was always very young. He’s still only 21 which is crazy considering how long he’s been in the team. He’s really matured a lot.

“The one thing I would say is that they had to come through the Europa League qualifiers and they weren’t actually all that convincing. You might say they maybe weren’t as focused as they might have been but after they beat Shamrock, they really struggled before eventually beating Bodo/Glimt in Norway. In the Rio Ave game, the play-off, they needed a 120th-minute equaliser to take it to penalties and then there was that incredible penalty shoot-out [where Milan eventually won 9-8].

“That is perhaps a reason for Celtic to be a little bit hopeful because when it’s come to the European games so far, Milan haven’t been all that impressive. It’s not a squad without its flaws by any means. There will be a little bit of rotation for this game as well. And although they’ve started the season really well with those four wins from four, their only real test on that run has been the derby. You could maybe say it sounds more impressive than it has been because they were expected to win all three of those before the Inter match.”