As the 2020/21 Serie A season paused for the Christmas break, AC Milan fans' best present was seeing their club back at the top of the Italian mountain.
The Rossoneri had found their stride in 2020, combining tactical nous with talent to create a consistent run that saw them go 27 games unbeaten in Serie A.
Stefano Pioli had found depth in a Milan side for the first time in years, getting the most out of a youthful squad headed by a veteran yet still clinical as ever in Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
That unbeaten run had to come to an end at some point, though, and it unravelled in early January as an injury-hit Milan lost 3-1 to Juventus.
While there was no immediate panic, the end of the unbeaten run cast an aura of mortality over the side and brought them back down to reality. Despite being winter champions, Milan still had city rivals Inter breathing down their neck, patiently waiting for a slip up.
Inter have since gone on to win their first Scudetto since 2010, running away atop of the table while the Rossoneri have fallen off the pace. While the season is still a much better campaign than anything that has been mustered up in recent years, the way in which Milan have fallen out of the title picture is disappointing and alarming.
From being viewed as a side with all the grit and resilience to go the stretch, Milan now look a shell of the team they were in 2020. Injuries have disrupted the side significantly, mind, with Ibrahimovic being plagued by knocks throughout 2021, but it's no excuse to now be scrapping for the top four considering the position they were in.
For all of Juventus' pitfalls this season that have seen them surrender the league title for the first time in a decade, they could still finish above the winter champions. Milan cannot let this happen, and must ensure they win in Sunday's high stakes top four clash.
Home form has proven a kryptonite for Milan in the second half of the season, with a number of poor results inside an empty San Siro exposing their vulnerability most often. Juventus chalked up their 3-1 victory away at San Siro in January, before Atalanta came knocking and dispatched of Pioli's side in a 3-0 rout at the end of the month.
Fast forward to the end of February, and Milan had the chance to redeem the poor results from decisive fixtures with a derby victory. They lost 3-0. Title charge over.
Quite simply, Pioli's young side has run out of steam. The inconsistent home form has only done more damage in shattering confidence and harmony among the squad, with their mentality monster Swede out of action so often.
Dips in form from the likes of Jens Petter Hauge and Rafael Leao have hurt the side. Injuries to Ibrahimovic, Davide Calabria, Ismael Bennacer and others have also played their part, as has the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the futures of Gianluigi Donnarumma and Hakan Calhanoglu. For all the wonderful work Pioli did in bringing the squad together, Milan now look severely disjointed.
There's no reason why they cannot pull it back together to end the season strong, however, and a fixture away to Juventus presents them the opportunity to do it in style. The squad is back to full fitness and Pioli must make it clear that every game from now until the end of the season is a cup final; players must prove their worth ahead of next season, with places up for grabs in an improving side.
Juventus are floundering, and while Cristiano Ronaldo clawed back a late win against Udinese last time out, it papered over some rather large cracks. Andrea Pirlo's side look bereft of creativity and even more down in confidence than Milan. Pioli needs a win just as much as the club does; failure to qualify for the Champions League would be disastrous.
Mentality looks to be an issue as a youthful Milan side attempts to hang on to what looked like a successful season, but there is enough talent and personality in the squad for them to better Juventus on Sunday.
The 3-1 defeat in January must be taken personally and used as fuel to ensure a victory away from home that can engineer a strong end to the season.