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'We should celebrate' - Pioli praises AC Milan maturity without Ibrahimovic

Stefano Pioli hailed the growing maturity of his AC Milan players in the absence of injured striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The Rossoneri strengthened their grip on top spot in Serie A with a gritty 2-1 victory at Sampdoria on Sunday thanks to goals from Franck Kessie and Samu Castillejo.

Milan secured the win without talisman Ibrahimovic, who is nursing a hamstring injury but expected to return soon.

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The experienced Swede has scored 10 goals in six Serie A games this season, and his presence was missed against Sampdoria, but Milan managed to get the job done in Genoa.

"I continue to be surprised by the maturity of these players," Pioli told Sky Italia.

"Even though it was probably the youngest side we've had all year. They never let themselves get downhearted by bad results or go overboard with good ones, they really impressed me.

"We all know how much Zlatan has helped us to improve and everyone wants him back as soon as possible, but every player contributed here.

"I told the lads we are a real team. This is a group that makes the most of every situation, even the most negative, to prove what they can really do.

“It's the first time we were missing Ibra, Simon Kjaer and Ismael Bennacer, who are leaders of the side, but they used this opportunity to prove they could keep the team going.

"It means we have the enthusiasm and the energy to face down every challenge.

"These lads give their all throughout the week, these are the most difficult games after the Europa League, so winning them when we are considered the target for many other clubs, that is satisfying and we should celebrate."

Milan have won eight of their first 10 Serie A games to go five points clear of Inter at the top of the table.

In the previous 86 seasons in the competition, the Rossoneri had won more games at this point of the season only in 1954-55 (nine matches).

However, Pioli admitted Milan can feel rivals for the Scudetto breathing down their neck.

"I believe this weekend’s results show the strongest teams are coming, they are closing up," said the Milan head coach.

"I am convinced Inter, Juventus and Napoli are still going to be challenging all the way to the end.

"How can you think Juve aren't favourites after they won for nine years in a row? Or Inter with their investments, or Napoli with their talent?”

Milan conceded from a corner against Sampdoria when Albin Ekdal squeezed the ball in, and Pioli acknowledged his side have a tendency to switch off at set-pieces.

"The last goal we conceded from open play was against Napoli," he added.

"We need to be more focused on set plays. It's true we’re not the tallest squad, but I think we had more chances from dead-ball situations than Sampdoria did.”