Milan have gone from irrelevance to centre-stage in the Scudetto fight, as in the space of three days they beat both the top two and kept the title race alive. Perhaps even more importantly, they showed just what Stefano Pioli’s team are capable of, even in troubled times.
In three of their last four games, they have come up against Roma, Lazio and on Tuesday night the mighty Juventus, all teams that are much further up the standings than them. Even if two of those games were at San Siro, given the lack of the fans to cheer on their beloved club, whatever ‘home advantage’ would’ve affected proceedings were thrown out the window. Very few gave the sleeping giants a chance to garner any points facing the top two in the league, but they did better than that, they got maximum rewards. It leaves many scratching their heads as to how they needed a stoppage-time own goal versus SPAL to even get a point in Ferrara.
A major reason why the seven times European champions have come back to play with such intensity and drive during these hot summer months in Italy is down to the central midfield duo of Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer. The pair seemingly worked on their tactics while in lockdown, as they now move in unison. When one carries the ball forward, the other switches their movement and position on the field to provide an option. When they faced the Bianconeri attackers, they gave a double pivot of protection to the back four.
Ironically, both players have been linked to moves elsewhere during this period which is usually reserved for transfers, but of course play rages on. It seems both midfield generals have found a sense of calm during this time when rumours of a number of aspects of the club have been rife. They kept the away side at bay for the most part in the first half, with the only real threat when Juve had a neat interchange of play which saw former Milan player Gonzalo Higuain force Gigio Donnarumma into a comfortable enough save.
The eight-time defending champions struck twice in the space of a few minutes to at that point take command of this fixture they have dominated over their rivals for years now. Adrien Rabiot, who has almost been the forgotten man of Maurizio Sarri's outfit, rampaged through the home team's defence and unleashed an unstoppable left-footed effort, then Cristiano Ronaldo continued his phenomenal goal-scoring streak with his 21st in 17 games.
The first goal was pure quality, while the second was calamitous defending... No matter how the goals came, Juve were 2-0 up and usually that means it's game over for teams in Italy. Rossoneri fans must have been thinking, here we go again! Let's not forget they have not overcome their rivals from Turin in the league since a Manuel Locatelli screamer back in October 2016.
However, this is a Milan team that in coach Stefano Pioli's words have shown "incredible spirit." At least for now in what seems to be his final month managing the club, the Parma-born coach has improved the mentality of the squad, with them not willing to just lie down and be sacrificial lambs even when faced with the Juventus juggernaut.
On the hour mark, a strange set of events took place which allowed Milan to mount a comeback.
Theo Hernandez’s cross was deflected wide by in-form Ante Rebic, the Croatian was booked for handball, the referee was alerted by the VAR for a possible handball on Juventus captain Leonardo Bonucci. As the replays were being shown Pioli took off Alexis Saelemaekers and brought on Rafael Leao and soon after a penalty was given, which Zlatan Ibrahimovic promptly dispatched.
OK, so maybe just a consolation, right? I mean this is Juventus after all.
What was noticeable was that despite going two goals down, the home side did not panic, did not let their heads drop and most significantly, kept to their game plan that has served them well in recent matches, and it eventually paid off. A pair of quick-fire goals in under two minutes incredibly gave them the lead.
Old fashioned centre-forward play from Ibra to hold up the ball was finished off by Kessie. The Ivorian may not score many goals, but it seems to come at the most opportune time. The go-ahead goal came courtesy of the awareness of Leao to carry on the play after Rebic was fouled and he scored with a deflected effort.
It must be stated in all three goals a certain Hakan Calhanoglu was involved and the Turk's influence just continues to grow and grow on this team. He is finally starting to meet those expectations of wearing the legendary Number 10 shirt of the club.
While Milan’s substitutes provided such positive contributions, Maurizio Sarri took Alex Sandro off the bench and his awful back-pass promptly gifted a fourth goal.
Fans of both clubs and neutrals alike must have been pinching themselves. Did Juve relinquish a two-goal lead? Did Milan score four goals in under 30 minutes? Is Sarri under pressure yet again? Does Pioli deserve more respect? The answer to all those questions is yes, it really happened. Football, it’s a funny old game.
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