Friday, February 23, 2024

AC Milan 3-1 AS Roma: Talking points as Milan strengthen Serie A top-four hold at struggling Roma expense

Veselin Trajkovic in Editorial, Serie A 15 Jan 2024

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On Sunday evening at San Siro, AC Milan triumphed 3-1 over AS Roma in the 20th round of the Serie A campaign.

Yacine Adli (11′), Olivier Giroud (56′) and Theo Hernandez (84′) were on target for the Rossoneri, while a lone penalty strike from Leandro Paredes (69′) slightly eased the pain of another defeat for the visitors.

The teams

Milan head coach Stefano Pioli deployed his team in his usual 4-3-3 shape, with Mike Maignan in goal, fullbacks Davide Calabria and Hernandez flanking the centre-back duo of Simon Kjaer and Matteo Gabbia, Adli anchoring the midfield with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders close by, and Giroud upfront supported by Christian Pulisic and Rafael Leao.

Interestingly enough, Pioli has four centre-backs unavailable for selection through various injury problems, namely Pier Kalulu, Malick Thiaw, Fikayo Tomori and Mattia Caldara, as well as right-back Alessandro Florenzi and midfielder Tommaso Pobega. Midfielder Ismael Bennacer and winger Samuel Ckuwueze are away representing Algeria and Nigeria, respectively, at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Roma’s most notable absentee was head coach Jose Mourinho. The controversial Portuguese was forced to watch the game from the stands, having received two yellow cards and a consequent red in his team’s 1-1 draw against Atalanta the week before. His assistant Salvatore Foti was therefore in command in the away dugout.

In a rather curious move by the Roma staff, Rui Patricio, usually the first-choice goalkeeper, was left on the bench to make way between the posts for Mile Svilar. Diego Llorente, Gianluca Mancini and Rasmus Kristensen formed the back line of three. Edoardo Bove and Bryan Cristante kept close to Paredes in the middle of the park, while Leonardo Spinazzola and Zeki Celik held the flanks as wing-backs. Ufront, former Milan forward Stephan El Shaarawy paired up with Romelu Lukaku.

Like Milan, Roma also had a number of absentees for this game. Defenders Chris Smalling and Marash Kumbulla, midfielder Renato Sanches, and forwards Paulo Dybala and Tammy Abraham, missed out through injury. Defender Evan Ndicka (Ivory Coast) and midfielder Houssem Aouar (Algeria) are at the AFCON, and Sardar Azmound is representing Iran at the Asian Cup.

The game

Even though Roma actually had the greater possession percentage at the end of the match (52%), there can be no real discussion over Milan deserving their victory. Unlike the visitors from the capital, the Rossoneri actually played football, created chances and showed not only quality on the ball, but also a lot more desire to attack and score than their opponents. Once Adli broke the deadlock, Roma never really looked like getting back level.

Without Dybala, Roma’s attacking line was uncharacteristically blunt, and even though Milan’s back line didn’t exactly shine on several occasions, they simply couldn’t hurt the hosts properly. And if they did find a way to hit the target, there was still the brilliance of Maignan to beat.

Pioli’s men were very patient in their attacking approach. Minute 10 was expiring when Calabria won the ball in Roma’s half, wide on the right. Pulisic took in on charged into the middle, before involving Leao on the edge of the box. The Portugal international made a poor first touch but his teammates corrected his mistake immediately, and he was given another chance to attack from the left. His cross was briefly cleared but Milan picked the ball up again, and Reijnders eventually gave it to Adli who sold a dummy to Kristensen, before firing low into the bottom corner.

As Roma tried to rally and go for an equalizer, space opened up for Milan’s pacey attackers to exploit, and in the 27th minute, Pulisic broke through the middle and blasted from around 20 yards, forcing a good save from Svilar. Roma’s only real chance of the first half happened three minutes later, when some good attacking play from Lukaku and Cristante got Celik into a good position to shoot, but Maignan reacted very quickly to get down and divert the shot wide of the post.

In the 37th minute, it was Pulisic who threatened Svilar again, but his free header from a Leao cross went wide this time. A lack of attacking ideas for Roma led to Paredes trying his luck from distance straight after, but the Argentina international couldn’t keep the shot low enough as it whizzed over the bar. Spinazzola did a lot better with a low powerful effort from greater distance, but Maignan was equal to the task again.

The opening minutes of the second half saw Milan apply high pressing and repeatedly win the ball in the opposition half, and eventually, a cross by Theo Hernandez towards the back post was headed across by Kjaer, and Giroud made the most of it by nodding in from close range to set the contest, as it appeared, well beyond Roma’s reach.

Pulisic could’ve made it three soon after but he slipped at a crucial moment, and against all odds, Roma were soon back in the game. A low pass from the back was received well by Lukaku on the edge of the box, and he laid it on for the incoming substitute Lorenzo Pellegrini, who was fouled by Calabria just as he entered the penalty area. Referee Marco Guida was very decisive as he blew the whistle and pointed to the spot, and the slow-motion footage showed the call as the correct one. Paredes stepped up and scored to give his team some hope.

In the 76th minute, Lukaku and Pellegrini combined in the same way again. Lukaku’s broad shoulders held off Gabbia on the edge of the box and Pellegrini fired low, but all they contrived was to give Maignan another chance to shine.

Out of nowhere, the Giallorossi had begun believing they might yet get something from this game, but their hopes were just as suddenly extinguished with just over six of the 90 minutes left. Hernandez broke down the left, played a fantastic one-two with Giroud, and blasted the ball off the underside of the crossbar into the net. His run and Giroud’s clever back-heel flick completely bamboozled the Roma defence, and there was nothing Svilar could do.

Table rankings

These three points have taken Milan’s tally up to a total of 42 from 21 matches, which has them in third place behind Inter (51) and Juventus (46). Given the form Inter have shown this season, it’s very likely that it’s too late for Milan to get seriously involved in the Scudetto race. The Rossoneri will probably have to accept just making the Champions League places as a more realistic goal for the season, one that really shouldn’t be too hard to achieve.

As for Roma, they’ve dropped to ninth place with 29 points, but though it may seem they’re not involved in the top-four contest, they very much are. With 18 rounds left to play, only five points separate them from Fiorentina in fourth and Atalanta in fifth, while Bologna and Napoli sit in between with respective tallies of 32 and 31.

However, Mourinho and his men need to find a way to improve their form if they’re to even hope to finish inside the top four. This game marks their third defeat in the last four league games, the only point they earned in that span coming from a 1-1 draw against Atalanta.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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