(Reuters) -AC Milan climbed to second place in Serie A with a 2-0 win over relegation-battling Benevento at San Siro on Saturday thanks to goals from Hakan Calhanoglu and Theo Hernandez.
Stefano Pioli’s side were under pressure after two straight defeats but welcomed back Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a goal in each half earned a deserved win that worsened the visitors' plight.
Milan rose to provisional second spot on 69 points before their top-four rivals Atalanta (68 points), Napoli (66) and Juventus (66) play on Sunday.
The Rossoneri's return to form came at a good time, as they travel to Juve next Sunday for a fixture that could prove crucial for their Champions League qualification hopes.
"It was very important to win. The team, although strong and relaxed, suffered a lot from the two defeats," Pioli told Sky Italia.
"We did well from a mental point of view to put in this performance. Scoring only two goals from 11 chances is not a lot. But the important thing was to win with a view to the next game."
This season's points tally is already the Milanese club's highest in a Serie A season since 2012-13, when they finished with 72 points, and they still have another four games to play.
"It was essential to win," Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli told DAZN. "In Rome (against Lazio in a 3-0 defeat on Monday) we did not do well and we knew that. Now there are four matches left and we must do more and more."
The result extended Benevento’s winless league run to six games and Filippo Inzaghi’s side remain 18th on 31 points.
Milan were boosted by the return to fitness of top scorer Ibrahimovic, who had missed their last three league games through injury and suspension, and they looked far more dangerous with the talismanic Swede on the pitch.
"We are talking about a champion, who increases the quality of the team. Not having him for a long time penalised us," Pioli told DAZN.
Calhanoglu steered a shot into the bottom corner following a well-worked passing move after six minutes, while Hernandez threatened a second but was denied by a flying Lorenzo Montipo save.
Ibrahimovic came close to scoring either side of the break but on both occasions his finishes were blocked by the legs of the impressive Benevento goalkeeper before Iago Falque drilled a fierce shot just wide for the visitors.
Montipo appeared determined to frustrate Ibrahimovic as he charged down another effort from the 39-year-old.
But Milan eventually doubled their lead when Montipo could only parry an Ibrahimovic shot into the path of Hernandez, who fired home the rebound.
Gianluca Lapadula’s glancing header was narrowly wide for Benevento, but Milan held on for an important win ahead of their visit to Juventus.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar)