MILAN (Reuters) - After a year of ups and downs, and flirting with the sack on several occasions, coach Gennaro Gattuso finally appears to have found the AC Milan he was looking for.
The seven-times European champions have spent the last month in the Serie A top four, where they need to finish to qualify for the Champions League next season, and are unbeaten in eight league and cup games.
In particular, the winter signings of Polish striker Krzysztof Piatek and Brazilian midfielder Lucas Paqueta have given Milan a cutting edge they badly needed.
Piatek has scored four goals in as many appearances since his move from Genoa and Paqueta has brought some spark to a previously underperforming midfield.
Tiemoue Bakayoko has settled well after a slow start following his loan move from Chelsea, and with Lucas Biglia returning after a three-month injury layoff, Gattuso now has to decide who to leave out.
"If it’s a problem, we’ll solve it," said Gattuso, a former fiery midfielder who had never coached a Serie A team before he was handed the job in November 2017.
"Biglia needs time to find his form. Bakayoko is an unusual deep-lying playmaker... he used to choose the wrong passes but now he takes men on, can force his way past opponents and create chances."
Hakan Calhanoglu is another who has pleased Gattuso in midfield even though the Turkish free kick specialist has yet to score a Serie A goal this season.
"You have to look at what he does in the ninety minutes, I expect a lot more quality from him but he runs miles, holds the position and gives quality with Paqueta," said Gattuso.
It is all very different from December when Milan went four Serie A games without scoring and Gattuso's future was the subject of daily speculation.
But there is still a long way to go. Although they are fourth with 39 points, Atlanta, AS Roma and Lazio are lurking one point behind while Torino (34 points) and Sampdoria (33) are also in the running for a top-four finish.
On Saturday, they visit a rampant Atalanta side who, like Milan, are unbeaten in eight games and have already beaten Inter Milan 4-1 in the league and Juventus 3-0 in the Coppa Italia at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia.
"For many years we’ve reached the spring and Milan have been outside the race for the Champions League but we need to break that trend and fight hard to be in a strong position when the final weeks arrive," said Gattuso.
"At the moment, we are doing well in all phases, defence and attack."
His recipe was very much as expected from someone famed for his combative playing style.
"We need to have hunger, a will to train and be together, we need to think of 'us' without individuality," he said. "The team always has to come first and we have to keep going until the end."
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)