The wait is over. Milan will hear the Champions League anthem again after an eight-year drought as they beat Atalanta in the last Round of Serie to end second in the league table. Stefano Pioli collected the prize for an outstanding season where the Rossoneri took a lightning-fast start but lost momentum after the new-year turn and even risked missing a Champions League train that seemed booked only a few weeks ago.
All in all, it’s a deserved achievement for the red-and-blacks though even tonight’s game at the Gewiss Stadium was anything but a stroll in the park for the visitors. It took a double penalty from their Presidente Franck Kessié to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the shaky Rossoneri and book them a table to next season’s European Grand Ball.
Napoli’s failure to overcome Verona meant Milan would have made it even in case of Atalanta drawing level, but in the end it was a night to celebrate for the Rossoneri fans who gathered outside of the Gewiss Stadium to support their colors.
The Bergamaschi, on the other hand, ended the season on a sour note. After losing the Coppa Italia to Juventus earlier in the week, Gian Piero Gasperini was in no complacent mood and lined up his best possible XI. The Bergamaschi had a chance to end second in the league table for the first time in history. Tonight’s loss, however, make their season and their achievements only slightly less remarkable for a club that is by now part of the Italian football aristocracy.
For Milan, Ante Rebic picked up a calf injury so the central attacking spot was taken by Rafael Leao. Other than that, Stefano Pioli confirmed his usual formation from the past few weeks with Alexis Saelemaekers, Brahim Diaz, and Hakan Calhanoglu acting behind the lone striker.
Atalanta were clever and played for a draw as that was all they needed. Milan’s initial approach was tremulous just like one week ago with Cagliari. The Rossoneri‘s only strategy were long balls for Rafael Leao – who is evidently no Ibrahimovic. On a side note, Zlatan was sitting on the stands and his gloomy face said it all as his side collected zero shots on target for the full first half.
The Nerazzurri made the ball circulate – their possession peaked at 62% – and seemed happy with keeping the deadlock as Gianluigi Donnarumma suffered no threat either.
But then, just like many other times this season, a penalty came to Stefano Pioli’s rescue. Referee Maurizio Mariani’s call was not an easy one as Cristian Romero’s tackle on Theo Hernandez was a naive one, but the Frenchman seemed to crash into Atalanta’s Rafael Toloi rather than being knocked down by Romero.
The referee, however, had no hesitation. For the most important penalty of the season, Franck Kessié kept his cool and buried the spot to draw the Diavolo ahead just before the break.
After the restart, Gian Piero Gasperini deployed the heavy weaponry as Luis Muriel took Matteo Pessina’s place. It was up to the Nerazzurri to dictate the match’s tempo and chances started to come for the home side.
Duvan Zapata’s diagonal shot on 56 minutes sent a shiver down the Milanisti‘s backs. Ruslan Malinovskyi tried several times from outside of the box but didn’t seem inspired tonight. Milan’s defense somehow held but, every time the Nerazzurri got close to the area, they gave the impression they could be dangerous. Luis Muriel’s curling effort on 71 minutes ended just a few inches too wide.
Stefano Pioli started to cover up as he pulled out Ismael Bennacer and Brahim Diaz, replacing them with Soualiho Meité and Rade Krunic. Attacking options continued to lack, even when the coach gave another chance to the disappointing Mario Mandzukic – who substituted Rafael Leao.
Before leaving the pitch, however, the Portuguese starlet was involved in Milan’s clearest chance as a magnificent run from Meité finally enabled him to chip the ball past Pierluigi Gollini, only to see his challenge pushed back by the right post.
The Rossoneri thus legitimized their lead but started to hold back even more as minutes run by. Their strenuous defense was epitomized by the image of Kessié holding and defending the ball to the death around Atalanta’s corner kick with three Nerazzurri men chasing him.
In the end, the Presidente would win another penalty for his side as Robin Gosens hit the ball with his hand from the Ivorian’s shot within the box. It was the 20th penalty for Milan this season, a Serie A record since 2004-2005, and Kessié made no mistake to pull the curtains down the Rossoneri‘s season to remember.
Their last performance was anything but brilliant, but all that Milan needed were the three points tonight. Welcome back to the Champions League, Rossoneri.
May 23, 2021 – Serie A 2020-21 Round 38
SCORERS: 42′ Kessié pen., 92′ Kessié pen.
|ATALANTA (3-4-1-2): Gollini; Toloi (86′ Palomino), Romero, Djimsiti; Maehle (78′ Pasalic), De Roon, Freuler (86′ Miranchuk), Gosens; Malinovskyi; Pessina (46′ Muriel), Zapata (Sportiello, Rossi, Sutalo, Ruggeri, Caldara, Ilicic, Lammers) Coach: Gasperini
|MILAN (4-2-3-1): G. Donnarumma; Calabria, Kjaer, Tomori, Hernandez; Bennacer (60′ Krunic), Kessié; Saelemaekers (78′ Diogo Dalot), Brahim Diaz (60 Meité), Calhanoglu; Rafael Leao (78′ Mandzukic) (Tatarusanu, A. Donnarumma, Romagnoli, Kalulu, Tonali, Castillejo, Hauge, Maldini) Coach: Pioli
REFEREE: Mr. Mariani from Aprilia
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Freuler, Toloi, Mandzukic, Krunic, Diogo Dalot (M); Red Card: De Roon (A); Extra Time: 1st Half 1′, 2nd Half 4′