If there still was any doubt about the Scudetto taking the direction of the black-and-blue side of Milano, tonight’s 0-1 defeat to Napoli resulted in Milan basically bidding farewell to their remaining chances of battling for the title.
Matteo Politano’s lone goal made the Rossoneri sink nine points behind cross-town rivals Inter. Milan have clearly little fuel left in the tank and, all considered, they better switch their focus towards some more reachable goals: Preserving their Champions League spot for next season and – why not – attempting to win that Europa League that is still absent from their trophy cabinet.
Napoli also have to fight hard to conquer their Champions League ticket for next season but tonight’s win put them quite closer to the target as the Partenopei are now fifth in the table and two points behind fourth-placed Atalanta with one game still at hand.
Stefano Pioli’s lineup problems are not a piece of news anymore, with five starters still unavailable. Matteo Gabbia came back in the starting XI since quite some time and took his place next to Fikayo Tomori – the pair being supported by full backs Diogo Dalot and Theo Hernandez.
Franck Kessié and Sandro Tonali were deployed in the middle of the park, while Samu Castillejo, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Rade Krunic were the trequartisti. Rafael Leao “acted” as Ibrahimovic but the young Portuguese has different characteristic from Zlatan and struggled once again in the lone striker role.
For Napoli, who wore their “Argentina-style” outfit tonight, Nikola Maksimovic was the second center back next to Kalidou Koulibaly due to Manolas and Rrahmani’s absences. Diego Demme and Fabian Ruiz acted as double pivots, with Matteo Politano, Piotr Zielinski and Lorenzo Insigne acting behind lone striker Dries Mertens. Between the sticks, Gennaro Gattuso put his trust again in David Ospina instead of Alex Meret.
The first half was not what you would call a memorable show, with the most dangerous chances coming from Piotr Zielisnki’s feet.
The Pole was well served by his teammates but couldn’t make the best out of his chances. On 16 minutes, he didn’t quite connect well with the ball from a fine Giovanni Di Lorenzo cross and helped Gianluigi Donnarumma pulling out a fine save.
From the left-hand side, Lorenzo Insigne bested Diogo Dalot and offered him another fine chance: The Pole’s conclusion was deadly but just a few inches too wide.
Milan’s first shooting attempt came only after the half hour mark and it was a violent yet central conclusion from Rafael Leao, which David Ospina had no problems to defuse.
If this was a boxing match and it was down to points decision, Napoli would have had the upper hand so far as they were more aggressive than their counterparts. Milan tried to catch them by surprise on the counter but lone striker Rafael Leao was too isolated on the front line – and little he did to get more into the game. However, at half time the scorecard still read 0-0.
Napoli restarted in line with what seen in the first half and were quick to put their heads ahead. Since Zielinski couldn’t manage to score, he turned provider as he served Matteo Politano a mouthwatering chance that the Italian converted slotting the ball into the bottom right corner of Milan’s goal with a sharp right-foot shot.
Napoli almost had the second as a violent Fabian Ruiz strike was pushed back – not without difficulties – by Donnarumma. Then, it was time for some changes.
Stefano Pioli came up with a triple substitution and sent in Ante Rebic, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Brahim Diaz all together. Gennaro Gattuso, on the other hand, replaced Dries Mertens with Victor Osimhen. Pioli eventually also added Soualiho Meité, recalling Franck Kessié.
Chances started to come for Milan as Rafael Leao failed to connect with an Ante Rebic cross in the box. He should have done better. A Sandro Tonali free kick was flicked by Ante Rebic towards the goal but David Ospina showed his good reflexes by pushing the ball away with his instinct.
6+6 – Piotr #Zielinski is one of the only three midfielders to have both scored 6+ goals and provided 6+ assists in Serie A this season, alongside Mkhitaryan and Milinkovic-Savic. Archer.#MilanNapoli #SerieA pic.twitter.com/s9zOiIptUh— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) March 14, 2021
As the game approached its latest stages, Pioli’s last throw of the dice was Jens Petter Hauge for Rafael Leao, while Gattuso sent in Mario Rui and Tiemoué Bakayoko to start covering himself.
But this time, not event the penalty spot could “save” Milan as, in a dramatic coup de théâtre, referee Fabrizio Pasqua dismissed a VAR call for an alleged contact between Bakayoko and Hernandez in the box. Pasqua stuck to his decision and disallowed the penalty.
And so, there was nothing left for the Rossoneri but a chaotic final assault that saw Ante Rebic picking up a stupid red card for insulting the referee and Brahim Diaz coming close to a winning deflection. The Spaniard was, however, brilliantly anticipated by Nikola Maksimovic – one of the most criticized players among the Napoli lines these past few weeks. Perhaps it its not by chance that the Partenopei‘s redeem started right from him.
March 14, 2021 – Serie A 2020-2021 Round 27
SCORERS: 49′ Politano
|MILAN (4-2-3-1): G. Donnarumma; Diogo Dalot, Gabbia, Tomori, Hernandez; Tonali, Kessié (68′ Meité); Castillejo (59′ Saelemaekers), Calhanoglu (59′ Brahim Diaz), Krunic (59′ Rebic); Rafael Leao (78′ Hauge) (A. Donnarumma, Tatarusanu, Kalulu, Kjaer) Coach: Pioli
NAPOLI (4-2-3-1): Ospina; Di Lorenzo, Maksimovic, Koulibaly, Hysaj; Fabian Ruiz, Demme (79′ Bakayoko); Politano (80′ Mario Rui), Zielinski (75′ Elmas), Insigne; Mertens (58′ Osimhen (Contini, Meret, Cioffi, Costanzo, Lobotka, Zedadka) Coach: Gattuso
REFEREE: Mr. Pasqua from Tivoli
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Hernandez (M), Maksimovic, Di Lorenzo, Gattuso (N); Red Card: Rebic (M); Extra Time: 1st Half 1′, 2nd Half 5′