Reigning Serie A champions Milan squeezed past Salernitana 2-1 on Wednesday afternoon despite having numerous chances to take three points more comfortably. The Rossoneri have at least temporarily reduced the gap on pacesetters Napoli to five points.
The World Cup break came at an opportune time for Milan as Stefano Pioli’s men were seemingly running out of steam, as witnessed by an underwhelming consecutive away winless league matches (D1, L1). While the team’s thoroughly abysmal streak of three defeats during the mid-season break cast more doubt, the Rossoneri excelled in Salerno today.
Aware of the catch-up they have to play on runaway Serie A leaders if they’re to win back-to-back titles for the first time in the 21st century, Milan came flying out of the traps. Standout performer Rafael Leao was first to knock on Guillermo Ochoa’s goal only seven minutes into the game. However, the Mexican goalkeeper anticipated his intention and pulled off a stunning stop to deny the Portuguese ace.
There was no saving three minutes later. Sandro Tonali played a delightful through ball to Leao to set him one-on-one with Ochoa, who was helpless this time. The in-demand winger still had work to do, but he found his way past the Salernitana goalkeeper and finished with aplomb into an empty net.
Milan refused to take their foot off the gas. Instead, Pioli’s side intensified pressure on their downtrodden hosts, managing to double the lead with just 15 minutes on the clock. Tonali turned from a provider into a finisher, hitting home first time from the edge of the box on Brahim Diaz’s assist to fire the Rossoneri into a comfortable two-goal cushion.
It was all Milan in the opening stage of the first half really as Diaz came close to adding a third on the board on the stroke of the half-hour mark. An intricate build-up play from Milan saw Leao and Olivier Giroud combine well before the Frenchman laid off a fancy flick for the Spanish forward. But a last-gasp tackle from Salernitana defender Ivan Radovanovic prevented a clear-cut chance for the visitors.
Ochoa might have been the main culprit for Milan’s opening goal, but he grew into the contest, helping Davide Nicola’s side maintain a foothold in the game with a brace of outstanding saves. The 37-year-old first thwarted Giroud from point-bank following Leao’s clever backheel before keeping Theo Hernandez away from the scoresheet in another one-on-one situation.
Nicola’s lads were up the creek without a paddle in the first half, failing to put Ciprian Tatarusanu to the test once. Indeed, they should’ve considered themselves lucky for trailing by only two goals at halftime.
Nothing changed at the start of the second half. Milan launched a devastating counter-attack in the 50th minute. Leao evaded his marker and set Giroud up nicely, but the Frenchman’s finish let him down despite breaking alone against Ochoa.
You could smell it in the air that Milan’s third was coming, and the Rossoneri tripled their advantage in the 58th minute. Hernandez whipped the ball into the box from the resulting free-kick, with Fikayo Tomori scoring from a scrappy situation inside the box. However, the visitors’ celebrations were short-lived, as referee Francesco Fourneau ruled the goal out for Diaz’s offside.
VAR once again came to Salernitana’s rescue in the 75th minute. Fourneau showed Domagoj Bradaric a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Pierre Kalulu. But after consulting with the side-pitch monitor, he overruled his initial decision.
Just moments later, the Granata staged their best chance of the game. Junior Sambia received a precise pass inside the box but sent his shot a whisker wide of the far post from a promising position. It was the visitors’ turn to put Ochoa to the test again.
Giroud volleyed the ball straight into Ochoa, who stood firm to deny the Milan frontman and was quick on his feet to stop Charles De Ketelaere’s attempt from the rebound. And after the Mexican’s heroic saves helped Salernitana weather the storm, second-half substitute Federico Bonazzoli made things awkward for the Rossoneri in the 83rd minute.
He pounced on Lassana Coulibaly’s cross on the far post to equal Marco Di Vaio’s record as Salernitana’s joint-top scorer in Serie A with 12 goals. Unfortunately for the home side, they failed to produce anything meaningful for the remainder of the game, leading to their third straight Serie A defeat.
Leao’s sublime performance at the Stadio Arechi explains why Milan are desperate to tie him down to a new contract amid growing interest from top European clubs. He was too hot to handle the whole afternoon, giving Salernitana’s backline a headache from top to bottom. No doubt who was MVP today.
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