AC Milan’s Coppa Italia hoodoo will continue for another year as they were beaten 2-1 by Atalanta at San Siro on Wednesday night to exit at the quarter-final stage.
After a cagey opening in which Milan’s high press caused the away side problems, Stefano Pioli’s men thought they had seized control when Rafael Leao’s powerful finish made it 1-0 just before the break.
However, the lead lasted just 90 seconds before Teun Koopmeiners levelled with a low first-time finish of his own and then in the second half he converted a controversial penalty to give La Dea the lead.
They would hang on to it for the remainder of the game to book a place in the semi-finals against Fiorentina while the Rossoneri were jeered off the field with yet another trophy hope having gone up in smoke.
Here are five things we learned from the game…
1. Missing in action
Pioli started a midfield three consisting of Yunus Musah, Tijjani Reijnders, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek and out of the three only the Dutchman had a fairly good game and was trying to be creative, but seemed a bit tired in the the second half and was subbed off.
Musah and Loftus-Cheek, on the other hand, should’ve been well rested given Pioli’s rotations but both played an underwhelming game as the American was positioned very poorly on the first goal and did nothing whilst in possession, keeping his passes simple and sideways leading to nothing interesting.
Loftus-Cheek was a bit better compared to his team-mate but was also not very productive on the ball meaning that Milan had very little creativity in the midfield with all the responsibility falling on Reijnders’ shoulders.
2. Over-reliance continues
Rafael Leao has seems to have picked up his form lately and he managed to be the main threat against Atalanta too, picking up a stunning goal and also being involved in the most dangerous situations for his team.
However, even though he struggled a bit as he failed to provide great service for Luka Jovic and later on Olivier Giroud, and with Christian Pulisic and the whole midfield struggling for creativity the over-reliance on Leao is highlighted yet again.
We recently wrote a feature about how a challenge has been set for Leao while Pulisic is bagging decisive goals, and yet when two of the three forwards plus the midfield misfire it does leave the Portuguese looking isolated.
Rafael Leao Goal vs Atalanta
— Sports Eye (@SportsEye_) January 10, 2024
3. Cloak of invisiility
Jovic got the nod over Giroud to start the game but failed to follow up on the Cagliari success as he was marked well this time around and when he did have a chance to make something happen he was let down by his technique.
In all fairness, he got almost zero service from his colleagues and he is not the type of striker to create for himself so we cannot be too harsh on him, but he does need to improve his first touch in particular especially when dropping deep.
Giroud also was a disappointment off the bench as he did virtually nothing to help chase down the game. The Frenchman also rarely got quality service from the flanks with so many crosses not beating the first man or sailing over everyone.
4. Unforgettable moment in a forgettable game
Filippo Terracciano only signed two days prior, but he trained on Tuesday and got his chance off the bench, replacing Alex Jimenez in the second half. He was put in a rather unusual position despite the fact he can play virtually anywhere, but he didn’t lack confidence.
The Italian seemed calm and recovered the ball well, while he also wasn’t afraid to carry possession forward into the Atalanta half. He had a couple of chances to wind up crosses, but mostly he left it to his new team-mates to try find that final ball and it never came.
It wasn’t a blockbuster debut nor was there lots of time to assess the 20-year-old too much, but Pioli will take faith from his desire to get on the ball and there are suggestions he might use him straight away in midfield to help with his injury crisis.
5. The thin ice refuses to crack
Following the embarrassing 2-2 draw against Salernitana, Pioli’s job seemed more at risk than ever before after a boring 1-0 win against Sassuolo, Milan grabbed two more convincing wins against Cagliari and Empoli, 4-1 and 3-0 respectively.
The game against Atalanta, however, was the real first test following that game in Salerno and one that was a must-win really, considering Milan exited the Champions League and look like they won’t be anywhere near the Scudetto race.
Now the easiest route to silverware is also gone after another poor display, one would presume that Pioli is walking on the thinnest of ice, although nothing in the media suggests his exit is imminent and on the contrary the plan remains to see out the season.
Even worse than the disappointing result is the poor game management by the coach. His side got the lead in the dying minutes of the first half and gave up the lead just a minute later, which suggests a mentality/focus problem has seeped in.
#ACMilan in big games 2023-24:
➤ Roma 1-2 W
➤ Inter 5-1 L
➤ Newcastle 0-0 D
➤ Lazio 2-0 W
➤ Dortmund 0-0 D
➤ Juventus 0-1 L
➤ PSG 3-0 L
➤ Napoli 2-2 D
➤ PSG 2-1 W
➤ Dortmund 1-3 L
➤ Atalanta 3-2 L
➤ Newcastle 1-2 W
➤ Atalanta 1-2 L pic.twitter.com/VoASMP9xM1
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) January 11, 2024
Pioli then panicked and changed the formation which didn’t seem logical because the team was playing well and not giving much space for Atalanta to exploit. After the system change, though, Atalanta had 15 or so minutes where every attack seemed like it could end in a goal.
We’re not going to discuss the officiating, because the reality is that this Milan side plays dreadful football with zero creativity in the midfield and an over-reliance on individuals such as Leao and Theo, who played as a centre-back which speaks volumes.
At this point it seems that Pioli has to be out of the door, but the question is when it will happen and whether the 2023-24 campaign will be allowed to evaporate to nothing.