Roma 0-2 AC Milan: Academy kids push Milan into Champions League race

Gennaro Gattuso's rejuvenation of AC Milan continued on Sunday with a win over Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

(Photo credit: Maarten van Damme)

Serie A’s Sunday night spotlight shined brightly on the Stadio Olimpico for Milan’s visit to Roma. 

The in-form Rossoneri piled more misery on their struggling hosts, comprehensively controlling the game from start to finish. 

A pair of homegrown goalscorers gave Gennaro Gattuso’s men a 2-0 victory and put Champions League dreams into the minds of success-starved Milanisti. 

Kolby Kuwitzky has four takeaways from the night the world of Italian football had to admit that, yes, Milan might just be back.

  1. 1 Kessie wins the battle of the second half

    Sunday’s cagey first half came as little surprise as both teams hoped a mistake by their opponent would give them a lead to defend. As a result, neither manager would have been disappointed to go into the break scoreless. The two teams diverged, however, in the approach and ensuing execution of their second-half gameplans.

    Milan’s compact 4-3-3 formation held together, depriving Roma’s midfield of any time on the ball and any meaningful space in which to pass. Gattuso’s high pressing style contrasted with Roma boss Di Francesco’s decision to have his front three largely wait in attacking positions while an increasingly overmatched midfield of Kevin Strootman, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Radja Nainggolan attempted to regain possession.

    Former Atalanta man Franck Kessie once again dominated the middle of the pitch. The Ivorian’s abilities as a true box to box player were on full display at the Olimpico, with the midfielder screening the back four as a defensive midfielder and driving the ball forward during counter-attacks.

    These skills have not gone unnoticed across Europe with Manchester United rumoured to be interested in a summer move. Despite the high transfer fee he would undoubtedly fetch, Kessie is the kind of budding star Milan need to build around if they’re to regain their historic place at the commanding heights of both Italian and European football.

  2. 2 Di Francesco has a choice to make

     The Monchi-fication of Roma continued apace in January, at least until it didn’t. The Spanish technical director’s squad building strategy, the root of much success at Sevilla, involves the cold-blooded sale of highly valuable assets to better-resourced clubs. 

    The summer departures of Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger to the Premier League looked to be only the beginning, with a month of rumours last month regarding the sale of last season’s top scorer Edin Dzeko to Chelsea suggesting that summer striker purchase Patrik Schick’s future leading the Roma line was, in fact, ready now.

    In the end, Dzeko turned down the move, leaving a glut of striking options and a selection conundrum for Di Francesco. Monchi clearly prefers to build toward the future by developing Schick but the highly competitive race for the financial lucre of Champions League qualification might be better suited to the experience of the still productive Dzeko. Di Francesco does not believe the two similarly framed strikers can play together from the start and, thus, a choice has to be made.

    Schick’s selection on Sunday owed something to a no doubt tiring midweek Champions League away trip to Ukraine but the decision failed to produce results. Schick, a tall but mobile striker unusually skilled with the ball at his feet, found space hard to come by and was forced to resort to taking the ball into wide areas by a well structured Milan back four. Monchi and Di Francesco must structure the midfield in a more creative way if someone like Schick is to both produce goals now and develop for the future. 

  3. 3 You can win things with kids

    Hardworking. Gritty. Always in the right place at the right time. If cliches like these are applied with banal regularity to Milan’s emerging star striker, it's because even keen observers struggle to define exactly what it is that makes Patrick Cutrone so effective. His fifth goal in seven games broke the deadlock, an elegant finish from the at-times-puzzlingly-productive young striker. 

    Lacking in both commanding physicality and breakaway pace, the 20-year-old academy product’s tactical relentlessness serves Gattuso’s pressing style well. With more skilled flair players on both flanks, Cutrone’s passing and holdup play forces defences to cover more ground across the width of the pitch. His 48th-minute goal on Sunday night was perhaps his best yet. A delicate backheel deflection of a well-weighted Suso cross bounced past the shin of Roma goalkeeper Alisson.

    Milan put the game away with another unexpectedly beautiful finish from an academy product. Right back Davide Calabria sprung the Roma offside trap and dinked an outside-of-the-boot shot over Alisson to salt away all three points for the Rossoneri. These two, along with established star goalkeeper Gigi Donnarumma, could provide a homegrown foundation for Milan’s rebirth if only finances and results are stable enough to keep the band together.

  4. 4 Milan are back...

    With Napoli and Juventus contesting Europe’s most compelling title race, Serie A fans have for several months assumed that the battle for the other two Champions League spots would be contested by the three-team cluster of Lazio, Roma, and Inter. Now, however, into that triumvirate steps Gattuso’s red-hot Rossoneri.

    Six wins and a draw in seven Serie A games to start 2018 rocketed Milan from the bottom half of the table to only seven points off fourth place Inter. To make the prospect of an unexpected Champions League chase even more enticing, Milan host their crosstown rivals in the Derby Della Madonnina this coming weekend with a chance to cut the gap to only four points.

    In addition to Milan’s Serie A resurgence, Gattuso has guided the club to a Coppa Italia semifinal against Lazio and a high profile Europa League Round of 16 matchup with Arsenal. For the first time in years, Milan feel relevant in Italian football, getting headlines for something other than boardroom bungling. Despite his lack of top-level managerial experience, the former Rossoneri captain has steadied one of European football’s leakiest ships.

    Disagree with our assessment? Let us know by commenting below.

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