In the pouring rain in Portugal, Milan somewhere and somehow managed to make it through to the group stage of the Europa League where they will meet Celtic, Sparta Praha and Lille. The Rossoneri seemed dead and buried several times in Portugal, but displayed a spirit that has become a bit of a forte under Stefano Pioli.
The coach himself alluded to that fact claiming he had a gut feeling they would make it through. Quietly confident he was...
Truth be told the match took a while to get going, as the first half was nothing to write home about.
Pioli saw the need for a change and in what has become a theme so far this campaign, Samu Castillejo stuttered yet again and in came Brahim Diaz. The livewire forward used his instinct to find his way inside the box and his deflected shot meant a corner.
From said corner, Alexis Saelemaekers celebrated his first ever call up to the Belgium national team with his first European goal for the Rossoneri. He immediately went and celebrated with Pioli, in a show of true unity and respect between player and coach. One would think having taken the lead and been in control for the most part, the away side would build on that lead, but that match was never going to be as simple as they thought.
This was after all the club's fifth match in the space of just 15 days and given all the absentees already at this embryonic stage of the season, it was going to take a toll eventually. That heaviness of the workload manifested itself with the two goals Milan conceded.
Last week against Bodo/Glimt, Milan conceded a goal from an attack on their right side and the same happened in Portugal.
The first goal arrived as the home team managed to beat the Milan press with a well worked attacking action superbly finished off with a one-time shot by Francisco Geraldes. After an inter-change of close shaves for either side, they could not be separated, and the game went into extra-time.
Before even a minute, the team based in Villa do Conde shocked the Rossoneri with a fortuitous bounce of the ball and Gelson Dala who drove home the ball into the far corner.
Milan fought and created chances, but Ismael Bennacer's free-kick and Theo Hernadez's shots were both smartly saved by Paweł Kieszek. By that point Sandro Tonali had come on just like Brahim Diaz had done earlier making moves on the pitch. They both answered Pioli's call later on.
Despite their best efforts, the equaliser was not coming from their pressing and intricate passing play, so it was time for some route one football. It worked! With the last sequence of play a seemingly innocuous ball was played into the box, Borevkovic who had been solid up until then, stuck his arm out and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
The club's main penalty takers are Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Franck Kessie and with neither of them on the pitch, it was left to Hakan Calhanoglu to assume responsibility. The Turk confirmed his growing status as Milan's number 10 with an expertly taken spot kick.
The final whistle blew and a number of players dropped to the floor. With a heavy pitch due to the rainfall and the intensity and significance of the game, this was going to be both a physical and mental battle till the end.
Penalty kicks it would be...
Despite their exhaustion and despite the weight of the occasion, players of both teams took their penalties precisely. It was 7-7 in the shoot-out and the first player to miss was 18-year old Lorenzo Colombo, who unfortunately blasted over the bar. He pulled his jersey on his face in despair, as almost as if he thought he cost his team victory, but hope sprang eternal.
With the chance to win it for Rio Ave, Nelson Monte's effort hit not just one, but both posts and went out. Were the "football spirits" smiling on Milan? The nerve racking responsibility fell to both goalkeepers, but both skied their kicks..they can be excused right? After all, they are more accustomed to clearing the ball high than placing it into the corner of a goal.
Ultimately the decisive kick fell to Simon Kjaer. The Dane has been monstrous since his arrival at the San Siro and especially since club captain Alessio Romagnoli has been injured. He was the only one to score twice in the shoot-out.
And so, we reached a match-up between Santos and Gigio. The Brazilian went high, but Donnarumma stuck out his big right hand to save it! A see-saw of a match saw four goals, Milan taking the lead and then ending up behind, a last second penalty and going up a man and 24 penalty-kicks in the shoot-out and they were through to the group stages of the Europa League!
Somewhat ironically, Donnarumma barely celebrated even while his teammates and the coaching staff barrelled down towards him. He simply smiled and gave a thumbs up, a man on a mission perhaps of the bigger picture?
Nobody knows what the future holds for this current Milan but what has become apparent is that there is an undeniable fight to the end mentality that has engulfed everyone. It could take them to the promised land.
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