Controversy ultimately shrouded yet another instalment of this classic rivalry in Italian football, as it seems Milan and Juventus cannot go head-to-head without some debate about refereeing. It is a pity to see the Rossoneri’s impressive performance pushed off the headlines by debate on officiating, but the signs of improvement are definitely there.
Since the start of the new year, both Milan and Juventus have relied on two main proponents for their goals, in the form of Ante Rebic and Cristiano Ronaldo. At San Siro in the first leg of the Coppa semi-final, both men were on the scoresheet yet again. However, the manner in which each put the ball in the back of the net was vastly different.
Both teams had suffered defeats at the weekend in the league and the Cup tie presented the opportunity to rebound quickly. The Rossoneri stuck by the same side that played so impressively, at least in the first half in the Derby Della Madonnina, with Davide Calabria replacing the suspended Andrea Conti. The Bianconeri on the other hand under manager Maurizio Sarri have yet to play his infamous "Sarri-ball" and significantly he pushed Juan Cuadrado into a more attacking role after months as a right-back.
As on Sunday night in the Derby, Milan were the better team in the early exchanges, as they pressed Juve high up the pitch and did not allow the Piedmont side to just play the ball around as easily as they would have liked. Even when Juve did beat the press and had possession, they did not do much with it and it was the hosts who created the best chances.
Rebic was of course heavily involved, as the Croatian twice forced Gigi Buffon into saves. A sign of things to come later. Ronaldo could not get a sniff at goal, but was still involved in the build-up play. Colombian Cuadrado revelled in his favoured right-wing role and created a chance of his own with a run and drive that Gianluigi Donnarumma did well enough to parry away.
In a slightly more open second half, Milan did take the deserved lead. Samu Castillejo crossed into the box from his right sided position, the ball went over everyone in the box including 6ft 4in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and all the Juve defenders, fell at the feet of Rebic and he calmly volleyed the ball into the net. Even with all his heroics at the ripe old age of 42, Buffon could not reach that one.
Intriguingly, Sarri wasted no time in responding to his team going behind, by bringing on Rodrigo Bentancur for the out of sorts Aaron Ramsey. Say what you will about his rigid and maniacal tactics and formation, the coach did not waste time over-thinking when his team needed a change.
Say what you will about the refereeing, but Milan’s cards were all needless and avoidable. There were several players one yellow card away from suspension and they knew to be careful. Instead, Zlatan Ibrahimovic jumped elbow raised, Samu Castillejo punched the ball away in a show of petulance and Theo Hernandez managed to not only get booked, but also a second yellow for a futile lunge on Paulo Dybala. Paolo Valeri was being heavy handed when it came to passing out yellow cards, either as a way to assert his authority or to make a name for himself, but the players have to take their own share of the blame.
Then the big talking point occurred in stoppage time. Ronaldo attempted a scissor kick, it hit Calabria's arm with the defender's back to goal and not looking at the ball and initially no penalty was given. Valeri was alerted to the incident by the VAR officials, he went and had a look and pointed to the spot. The Milan players were incredulous with rage, largely because this was far from a new experience when it came to Juve games.
The award of the penalty has and will continue to cause major debate in Calcio circles and already references to other similar incidents have been mentioned. Just this season in a match between Cagliari and Brescia, the Rondinelle were given a penalty for a similar incident as the Calabria one. In the aftermath of that match, Italian refereeing designator Nicola Rizzoli, himself, not ever far from controversy, clearly stated that the decision to award Brescia that penalty was wrong, yet here we are almost five months later and it was given yet again.
There were some differences, as in the Cagliari incident Alberto Cerri’s arm was flush with his body, whereas Calabria’s was more detached. But then it was far from an unnatural movement, as Calabria had jumped to intercept the cross and was just a fraction of a second too late. When the rules are so open to interpretation, with so many caveats, it becomes nigh-on impossible to define precisely what is or isn’t handball.
VAR has made it easier to pore over and consider penalty incidents, but at the end of the day, we are back to the old adage: we’ve seen them given. Unless there is greater clarity in the rules, no amount of technology will quell the controversy.