Fiorentina arrived at the San Siro without having won a match away from home all season, although at least the attack seemed to have straightened itself a bit over the previous two weeks, scoring 3 goals in back-to-back matches. Stefano Pioli brought Jordan Veretout, Edimilson Fernandes, and Nikola Milenković back into the starting lineup, with Kevin Mirallas continuing on the wing.
AC Milan, on the other hand, were trending strongly downward following an unceremonious ejection from the Europa League at the hands of Olympiacos and two Serie A outings in a row in which they couldn’t find the back of the net. Furthermore, manager Gennaro Gattuso had a selection crisis on his hands, as all of Franck Kessié, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Lucas Biglia, and Giacomo Bonaventura were injured or suspended, leaving him to fill out his midfield three winger Hakan Çalhanoğlu, fullback Davide Calabria, and season debutant Josè Mauri; despite these dire circumstances, former Viola captain Riccardo Montolivo was unable to unglue himself from the bench, leading to an outburst from his agent that left the traveling fans feeling warm and fuzzy.
Riccardo Montolivo's agent blasts #ACMilan and Gennaro Gattuso for "decision beyond all logic. Do they think he has a contagious disease?" https://t.co/DUnMo9M5R9 #SerieA #MilanFiorentina pic.twitter.com/H4szYxef1P— footballitalia (@footballitalia) December 22, 2018
Things got off to a farcical start, as Cristiano Biraghi was called for a foul throw in the first minute. Moments later, a quick Milan break on his wing saw Suso cut inside and square to Çalhanoğlu, whose first-time shot was well-struck but straight at Alban Lafont, who easily smothered it. The Turk had another effort at 7’, but it was off frame. Still, though, the hosts were bossing this one, keeping the Viola pinned back in their area despite the makeshift midfield; in fact, it was the visitors who were unable to string two passes together, continually ceding possession. Biraghi and Federico Chiesa each had a poor shot on the break, but the opening quarter hour was all Milan.
After that, though, the Viola grew into the match. And by grew, I mean that they started scuffing it around as much as their hosts, leading to a genuinely dire spectacle as neither team showed any ability to produce any quality. Alessio Romagnoli strolled forward and nearly got something going at one point, but Vitor Hugo easily snuffed it out. Frankly, it was about as unwatchable a fifteen minutes as you’re likely to see in Serie A all year.
Kind of fitting that Fiorentina are wearing these green camouflage jerseys since they have been invisible with their play so far today— David Amoyal (@DavidAmoyal) December 22, 2018
Just after the half hour mark, though, Ricardo Rodríguez fired an absolute laser through a crowd following a corner that Lafont somehow tracked and parried wide for a highlight reel save. Vitor Hugo was again instrumental a few moments later, tracking Gonzalo Higuaín deep into midfield, winning the ball, and setting Giovanni Simeone away. The real excitement was at the other end, though, where Çalhanoğlu yet again found space to shoot and beat Lafont. He did not, however, beat Milenković, who swept his effort off the line to preserve the clean sheet. When the whistle blew for half time, it was scoreless. Fiorentina’s inability to control the middle against this ramshackle Rossonero midfield was simply shocking and augured a miserable 45 minutes to go.
Fiorentina came out looking, if not sharp, then at least determined, as illustrated by Marco Benassi absolutely stonewalling Samu Castillejo on the break. At 51’, he and Chiesa combined and the latter hit a low cross for Mirallas, who was unable to hold off the defense and shot very badly. Suso had a brilliant little run a couple minutes later that ended with a low strike at Lafont’s front post, but the Frenchman was alert and pushed it away. Veretout floated a lovely ball over the defense for Cholito, but the striker took his eye off it and let it run out. Back at the other end, it was Higuaín who glanced a dangerous header on frame that Lafont tracked well and saved.
Pioli signalled his happiness with a point away by bringing in Gerson for Mirallas, effectively stating that shithouse was the word of the day. At 66’, Vitor Hugo and Germán Pezzella nearly combined for the captain to slide home a goal off a free kick. Really, though, it was just hacking back and forth until the 73rd minute, when Fede suddenly dropped his shoulder, cut inside past Calabria from the left, and uncorked a tremendous shot from 30 yards that described a textbook curve to nestle just inside the far post, leaving Gianluigi Donnarumma completely helpless. Just like that, Chiesa transcended the terrible play and conjured something out of nothing. All of a sudden, it seemed like the Viola had a pretty good chance to win.
The Viola now focused on parking the bus, which was not perhaps what the neutral would have wanted but made pretty good sense considering that Milan lacked anyone to unlock a defense. The game began to get a bit chippy as the seconds ticked down and the cards began to fly, but it was Lafont who yet again came up huge by tipping a Rodríguez header over the bar 6 minutes from time, and from there on out, Fiorentina comfortably saw the match out for their first win away from home this season.
It was ugly and hard to watch and required some heroics from a teenage goalkeeper and a bit of genius from Chiesa, but this is the sort of gritty away win that good teams achieve. I’m not saying that Fiorentina is a good team right now, but that they’re trending in the right direction, which is at least positive after two abject months. Yes, there are plenty of qualifiers—Milan are bad right now and didn’t have a midfield—but all you can do is play the other team, and the Viola did that.
While this is a good result in hindsight, there still have to be some questions about Pioli’s strategy. While it made some sense to sit deep at times and make this cobbled-together Milan midfield beat you, it would have made just as much sense to impose some control on the match, as the Viola surely had more passing quality on the pitch. This win could impact what kind of approach to the transfer window Pantaleo Corvino takes; let’s hope that he opts for a positive approach rather than bringing in more dudes who bring grinta and nothing else.
Lafont: 8.5—Man of the match. Made a succession of brilliant saves to keep the clean sheet and is the only reason Fiorentina got a point, much less three, from this one. Made no mistakes in possession or on crosses. Finally looked like the sensational future France number one we’ve been waiting for.
Milenković: 7.5—Erased pacy trickster Samu Castillejo from the match entirely. Occasionally overloaded by Çalhanoğlu on the wing and struggled, but there’s not a defender in the world who doesn’t struggle when faced with a 2-v-1. Also made that brilliant goal line clearance just before halftime to keep the sheet nice and clean.
Pezzella: 6.5—The captain seemed slightly off in the first half, as evidenced by two badly-sliced clearances. Earned a booking he didn’t deserve when the ref stepped into the play, blocking a Viola pass that fell right to Milan and forced the Argentine to foul to break up the counter. Settled down in the second half and organized his defense well thereafter.
Vitor Hugo: 7.5—The best we’ve seen him since last year’s astonishing 0-2 win over AS Roma. Won everything in the air and stuck to Higuaín like a burr, completely eliminating the striker from the match. Turned back every attack that came near him.
Biraghi: 5.5—Struggled at times to cope with Suso’s darting runs inside as Milan tried to funnel everything down his wing. Didn’t do anything constructive going forward, either. Not his finest outing, but was bailed out by Vitor Hugo on several occasions. Just an off day.
Benassi: 4.5—Scrapped gamely and sometimes tried to pass the ball around, but just didn’t do a whole lot of interest. Looked about as comfortable in midfield as Calabria on the other side, which isn’t exactly great.
Veretout: 5—Not great, Bob. This was the sort of match that desperately needed someone to put his foot on the ball, and the Frenchman was the likeliest candidate. Alas, he fell well short, rarely providing anything like an incisive pass and getting drawn into the scruffiness too easily. Still not convincing in the holding role. The assist had nothing to do with him.
Fernandes: 4—Oof. The main culprit for the struggles in midfield misplaced passes and dribbled himself into corners time and again. He’s fairly large, but that seems to be the only remarkable thing about him. Perhaps he’s being played out of position or needs a different set of tactics, but he looked utterly overmatched by Calabria and Mauri.
Mirallas: 4—Quite anonymous. Didn’t ever find any space to run into and didn’t provide any service to his fellow forwards. Guess it’s a bit unreasonable to expect him to star in every match, particularly when the midfield is so incapable of providing him with even a modicum of service. Onwards.
Simeone: 5—Again, I think it was the service to blame more than Cholito’s play for him not registering a shot. Followed Pioli’s instructions to a tee, harassing the defense and making things as unpleasant for Milan as possible. Just not the type of player who’s going to make things happen on his own too often.
Chiesa: 7—The goal was almost unspeakably magnificent, but Fede was not good outside of it. He never found a rhythm (again, no service) and went on a lot of runs that ended with him dribbling into tackles. But holy crow was that a strike.
Gerson: 4.5—Not sure that he even touched the ball, but at least he didn’t lose it.
Laurini: n/a—Won a foul on the wing that let the Viola run some more time off the clock, only came on in the 87th minute.
Pjaca: n/a—Came on at 88’ as a time-wasting sub and didn’t have a touch. However, this may mean that the rumors about his loan being terminated aren’t true. Or maybe it means the opposite. Hooray for illegible subtext!