SERIE A

Pioli backs Donnarumma to deliver despite distractions against Juventus

Pre-match discussion in Italy has centred around Gianluigi Donnarumma, but the AC Milan goalkeeper is in line to start against Juventus.

Pioli backs Donnarumma to deliver despite distractions against Juventus

Gianluigi Donnarumma is set to start against reported suitors Juventus in a mammoth match for Champions League chasers AC Milan on Sunday.

The 22-year-old goalkeeper has made more Serie A appearances than any other player (211) since his Rossoneri debut in 2015, but supporters unhappy with stalled contract negotiations had reportedly demanded he miss this weekend's game. An exchange between Donnarumma and a section of fans was said to have left the keeper in tears.

Talk of an offer from Juve for Donnarumma, whose existing deal expires at the end of the season, was seemingly a particular point of contention. Technical director Paolo Maldini subsequently halted discussions but insisted supporters could have no say in who represented Milan on the pitch.

Pioli defends Milan players

Speaking on Saturday, Stefano Pioli said he would act in the best interests of the club, seemingly assuring a start for the keeper who ranks second for saves (609) and penalty saves (eight) in his Serie A career.

"At the moment, certainly all of Milan, we all have only one goal here: Milan's interest, not personal interest," Pioli said. "They have always worked hard. And that's why I think it is right to support them, regardless of how it will go and the future of each of us. We are focused only on the match and finishing the championship well."

Asked if he had spoken to Donnarumma, whose save percentage has dipped to 68.9 this term, Pioli replied: "I talked to him, as with everyone. We talked about the match, what it is and about the strategy, how we have to interpret it. He and everyone is focused on giving their best."

Milan entered the weekend fourth, level on points with Juve in third, but could be fifth by the time they kick off. Since their most recent Scudetto win in 2011, no side have lost to the Bianconeri in Serie A as often as Milan (15 times).

Milan eyeing top four finish

Pioli is confident their top-four hopes are not pinned solely on the outcome of this weekend's match, however. "Whoever wins has a great chance of going to the Champions League, but it doesn't finish tomorrow night," he said. "Another nine points is a lot. We have two direct clashes from here to the end. We are masters of our destiny. If we win them, we have huge chances. The calendar is like this, it's strange to see a midweek round with two rounds to go. For now, we only think about tomorrow. We are on equal points, they have quality, but we do, too. It would be very important and exceptional to win in Turin against Juve. We will have to give our all. There will be difficulties, but we must work to resolve our mistakes."

He added: "It can be [a turning point]. I don't know if it will be so decisive for the future as well, certainly, however, [it can be] for our moment and for what we hope to achieve, to return to high levels. A positive result would give us the confidence and conviction to reach our goal. I see a mentally prepared team."