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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Gennaro Gattuso looking over his shoulder at AC Milan as he approaches the big 50

Game 49 of the Italian's reign will come against Real Betis in the Europa League before a meeting against serial Serie A winners Juventus. Lose both, and the former Milan player could find himself out of a job, according to reports

Gennaro Gattuso will take charge of AC Milan for the 49th time when they face Real Betis in the Europa League on Thursday. Reuters
Gennaro Gattuso will take charge of AC Milan for the 49th time when they face Real Betis in the Europa League on Thursday. Reuters

Gennaro Gattuso’s 50th match as manager of AC Milan is a big one. Home, this Sunday, to Juventus, the Serie A leaders and champions, the Juve who have dropped just two league points this season. Gattuso's 49th has plenty riding on it too. In Seville on Thursday Milan’s chances of a extended European journey this season are at stake.

Defeat in San Siro two weeks ago to Real Betis, who top Europa League Group F, set back the campaign, and, if the suggestions being floated by influential media in France are to be believed, deepened concerns within a Milan boardroom where there have been many recent comings and goings about whether Gattuso, the former Milan playing hero, has the pedigree for the job. The magazine France Football reported that Arsene Wenger, free since leaving Arsenal in June, is being lined up for a return to management at Milan. Wenger called the story "fake news" while confirming he intends to be working as a coach in 2019.

Scepticism about Gattuso the manager accompanied him into the job, largely because previous roles had been either poorly chosen or not strikingly successful. And at Milan, he made an extraordinary start 11 months ago, by claiming only a point in his first Serie A match in charge following the sacking of Vincenzo Montella, because their opponents, rock-bottom Benevento, launched their goalkeeper upfield for an injury-time set-piece and the desperado tactic paid off, Alberto Brignoli achieving his moment of fame as the soaring, scoring gloveman who embarrassed Rossoneri royalty on the day of Gattuso's coronation.

Things have certainly got better since, and Milan’s current fourth place in the Serie A table is an improvement on eighth, where Gattuso picked the club up from, and the sixth-placed finish of last season, which qualified Milan for the Europa League. Steady, incremental gains, and so far, enough to have kept Gattuso in a notoriously unstable job longer than six of the eight other men who have coached Milan in the past 10 years. By making it to 49 games, he has outlasted Leonardo - now a director of football at the club - Pippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihailovic, Clarence Seedorf and a couple of caretakers who filled in during a tempestuous decade.

Gattuso’s galvanising, contagious passion is the managerial quality that does not surprise; the rigour with which he set about making a Milan a tougher team to beat persuaded sceptics, although the defensive discipline that characterised the later stages of 2017/18 has fallen away somewhat this season. Saturday’s 1-0 win against Udinese, a third successive Serie A victory, was the first clean sheet Milan have managed in the league.

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It was hard-earned. Gattuso, ever fiery, was banished to the stands as Milan chased a very late winner in Udine for a verbal confrontation with an assistant referee, although he will not be banned from the touchline against Juventus. He hopes to approach that D-Day with an even temper and armed with a healthier situation in the Europa League. Milan can undo the damage from the Betis blitz at the end of last month - the Spaniards were 2-0 up 10 minutes after half time; Milan pulled a late goal back but finished in a frayed state, Samu Castillejo sent off for a lunge at Gio Lo Celso - with a win on Thursday, but the manager is mindful that team selection needs to bear the weekend's fixture in mind.

Gonzalo Higuain, Milan’s de luxe goalscorer, is nursing a back strain, and may be left out, the better to save himself for his first meeting with Juve since leaving them, on loan, to make way for Cristiano Ronaldo. Milan have lively cover, in Patrick Cutrone, and, perhaps, the intriguing possibility of box-office reinforcements to the forward line come January. A short-term contract for 37-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of LA Galaxy, has been discussed within Milan, and the idea encouraged by the player, who spent two rewarding seasons at the club, and shared in the last Milan scudetto, in 2011.

Gattuso has distanced himself from speculation about his former teammate making a theatrical comeback to San Siro. He is focused on ensuring Milan can, by the new year, offer European football to any potential recruit. Lose in Seville, and they could slip to third in the group, behind Olympiakos, who Milan must visit on Group F’s final matchday.

Morale would also suffer ahead of Sunday. “We need wins to lift pressure and to make sure, that for the players, the ball does not feel like a 100kg weight,” Gattuso said, evocatively.