ROME: Gennaro Gattuso's ability to transmit his own combative spirit to his AC Milan players didn't just save his job during the Rossoneri's roughest stretch of the season, it also propelled the team into the Champions League places.
A week ago, Milan was in crisis following a last-gasp derby defeat to Inter Milan and a discouraging loss at home to Real Betis in the Champions League.
Its next two matches, however, were hard-fought victories over Sampdoria and Genoa in the Italian league.
"After the two losses I didn't pull any particular strings but a coach has to get inside the soul of his players and that comes naturally to me," Gattuso said after Wednesday's 2-1 win over Genoa, which was decided with a stoppage-time goal from Alessio Romagnoli.
"I'll continue to do this job — hopefully for a long time at this club," added Gattuso, who took over at Milan after Vincenzo Montella was fired a year ago.
A ferociously intense midfielder during his playing career with Milan and a key member of the Italy squad that won the 2006 World Cup, Gattuso's contract was extended to 2021 toward the end of last season, when he guided Milan to a sixth-place finish.
Milan is under pressure to secure a top-four finish this season and gain access to lucrative Champions League prize money.
Having overspent under its previous Chinese owners, Milan will likely be hit with UEFA financial fair play penalties by the end of the year.
The victory over Genoa placed Milan fourth, ahead of Lazio on goal difference.
"Let's enjoy this moment. We've adjusted the standings but we need to improve our play and team chemistry," Gattuso said. "We need to do well to maintain this position."
A seven-time European champion, Milan has missed the Champions League for the fifth consecutive season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Milan's appearance among the top four coincides with rival Inter's rise to second place.
Also, Inter is back in the Champions League this season after a six-season absence from the elite competition.
The last time both Milan and Inter played in the Champions League was in 2011-12.
Milan's recent turnaround was helped with some surprising decisions from Gattuso.
First, the coach paired center forwards Gonzalo Higuain and Patrick Cutrone together to great effect, especially in the win over Sampdoria. Then Gattuso fielded a three-man defense against Genoa.
"I've got to find the best option for controlling the middle of the field, and the 3-5-2 allows us to have better numbers in the middle and more passing," Gattuso said.
Still, Milan once again conceded — marking the first time it's failed to keep a clean sheet in its opening 10 matches since 1932-33. Going back to last season, the streak is at 16 games.
"We need to get back to giving off the feeling that we're controlling the match," Gattuso said.
While Genoa striker Krzysztof Piatek was kept scoreless for the third straight match — after scoring nine goals over the opening seven — Milan struggled for long stretches and wasn't helped by Romagnoli's own-goal, which made it 1-1 early in the second half.
But Romagnoli made up for his earlier mistake when he met a punched clearance from goalkeeper Andrei Radu with a lobbed volley from beyond the area in the first minute of added time.
"I was lucky but that was what I intended to do," said Romagnoli, Milan's captain. "We were criticized too much for those two defeats. Now we've got to continue to improve and play better and better to stay up here."