To say Milan Coach Gennaro Gattuso placed a ton of stock in the latest Milan Derby would be an understatement.
In the build-up to Wednesday evening’s pivotal Coppa Italia quarter-final clash at a cold, misty San Siro, the rugged Rossoneri tactician labeled the tie “a World Cup Final” and one that could perhaps change the complexion of their season altogether.
Struggling entering the match having lost two in the league, Milan needed a strong collective effort if they were going to advance in the competition and send rivals Inter home to cap off 2017 the right way. Sure enough, that is exactly what we saw from the red and black side in an action-packed Derby della Madonnina over 120 minutes.
The first 45 minutes saw the two sides exchange differing spells of possession in an even battle. Despite some noticeable sloppiness and wasteful chances in the final third from both clubs, the latest Milan Derby played out as advertised; an intense, see-saw affair that at any moment could be decided by one individual moment of brilliance.
As the game progressed, Milan settled into a nice rhythm all over the park. Defensively, central pairing Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli grew stronger as they encountered signs of trouble, held Mauro Icardi in check and although tested on the counter, didn’t collapse in conceding a gut-wrenching goal. Franck Kessie battled in the midfield throughout, and in my opinion, was decisive in unlocking Inter.
The Ivorian’s engine enabled Milan to find consistent attacking chances in the final phase, and through his marauding runs, endurance and strength in possession, he truly made the difference. Tonight, he was everything Milan paid for last summer.
On several occasions, the efforts of third choice ‘keeper Antonio Donnarumma as the last line of defence were paramount - and unexpected, to say the least. The Italian backstop probably didn’t wake up in the morning envisioning his debut to come against Inter, but he was ready when called upon by Gattuso after brother Gianluigi and then Marco Storari pulled out through injury. Ultimately, he made the most of his opportunity by bailing out his defence with a few key saves.
Where momentum in this match swung in favour of Milan was when Gattuso opted to yank Manuel Locatelli from his mezzala role and lost the injured Nikola Kalinic, replacing the pair with Patrick Cutrone and Hakan Calhanoglu, who immediately provided sparks from the bench.
The Turkish playmaker, who has been subject of transfer rumours linking him to Galatasaray and Fenerbahce amidst a lacklustre campaign in Italy, brought life to the attack and opened up the game for the Rossoneri to apply pressure on to Luciano Spalletti’s defense. As for Cutrone, what more can be said: the kid bleeds red and black, and has a contagious personality that you can’t help but be impressed by.
For weeks, supporters have been calling for the 19-year-old to start regularly because there is just something about his unerring confidence, tenacity in the final third, and the knack for deciding matches with timely goals that simply cannot be ignored any longer.
Fittingly, the born and bred red and black bomber was rewarded for his unwavering work-rate when he decided the affair in the 104th minute with a clinical piece of finishing after Suso picked him out in the box to beat Inter’s defence.
He always seems to feed off the crowd just as much as the supporters in the Curva Sud feed of him, and in an intense 120 minutes, Milan needed every bit of that. He’s more than just grit too, as with nine goals in all competition this season, Cutrone is the Rossoneri’s top scorer.
Impressive Milan performances have been few and far between this season, and against the top seven sides in Italy, they have not a single victory to their name. However, this showing was the most inspired we’ve seen in quite some time, and given the opponent, the entire squad fought hard for not only themselves and the Coach, but also the fans that have endured their own share of hardships.
Whether this is the defining moment for Milan to forge ahead, enjoy a second half surge and make a serious run at Europe remains to be seen. However, if there was ever a time to do so, it’s now.