ROME (Reuters) - It is easy to understand AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli's reluctance to make bold proclamations about his team's Serie A title chances.
The Milanese club have won 18 league titles and seven European Cups in their illustrious history, but they have finished no higher than fifth in the last seven years.
Caution has therefore laced Pioli’s words recently, despite Milan going into Saturday’s home clash with Atalanta three points clear in first place.
“On Saturday we have a very important game, we’ll only look at the league table in March or April," he said after Monday's 2-0 win at Cagliari.
If Pioli is not talking up Milan’s chances of their first Scudetto in a decade, others certainly are.
A draw against Atalanta would make them ‘winter champions’, the term used in Italy for the team that is top halfway through the season.
It is usually a good indicator of what is to come. Only twice in the last 10 years have the winter champions not won the league -- Napoli in 2015/16 and 2017/18.
In Serie A history, 68.6% of winter champions have been top at the end of the season.
Marking the achievement against Atalanta would be a symbolic moment in Milan's revival.
Saturday’s clash comes exactly 13 months after the Rossoneri were humiliated in a 5-0 thrashing by Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta side.
It was their worst league defeat since 1998 and one that left them in 10th place with the fans fuming.
But the January signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Simon Kjaer and Alexis Saelemaekers helped spark a remarkable revival. Milan have lost three of their 39 league games since.
One point will be enough for Milan to be winter champions. Inter Milan can only beat them to it on goal difference if they defeat Udinese away on Saturday and Milan lose.
Off the field, Milan have strengthened their squad as they look to repeat the success of last year’s January transfer window.
Dynamic midfielder Soualiho Meite has arrived on loan from Torino and veteran striker Mario Mandzukic signed on a free transfer, while Italian media suggest Chelsea defender Fikayo Tomori and Barcelona left back Junior Firpo could soon follow.
Beating Atalanta would make it difficult for Pioli to continue dodging the question of his team’s title-winning credentials.
The Bergamo club are unbeaten in 12 matches in all competitions and would be a major scalp. Milan then have winnable games against Bologna, Crotone and Spezia coming up ahead of a momentous derby against Inter on Feb. 21.
A little over a year since one of the darkest days in the club’s recent history, a game against Atalanta could make Milan fans more hopeful than they have been in a decade.
Juventus’ hopes of retaining the title took a major blow with their 2-0 defeat at Inter on Sunday but they responded well by beating Napoli 2-0 in Wednesday's Italian Super Cup.
Juve host mid-table Bologna on Sunday, while third-placed Napoli are at Hellas Verona and in-form Lazio welcome Sassuolo.
AS Roma coach Paulo Fonseca is under pressure to beat Spezia in the capital on Saturday after a terrible week in which his side were beaten 3-0 by rivals Lazio and knocked out of the Coppa Italia in extra time by Spezia.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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