AC Milan returned to winning ways at the best possible time as they beat fellow top four challengers Roma 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday night.
In rather predictable fashion it was a penalty that gave Milan the lead, but there were once again no arguments about the decision however long it took to arrive as Davide Calabria was stamped on just inside the box, with Franck Kessie despatching from the spot.
Though the Rossoneri scored just before the break, Jordan Veretout equalised just after with a thumping finish from outside the box to level proceedings.
Ante Rebic would silence the critics – and quite literally with his celebration – by restoring Milan’s lead with an excellent low driven finish inside the far post after a turn to get away from his man.
In truth it was exactly the spectacle that fans had hoped for between two attack-minded sides, and it represents a huge three points for Stefano Pioli’s side who remain four points off first but more importantly opened up an eight-points gap on Roma in fifth.
Pioli made a number of changes to his starting XI from the team that drew against Red Star in midweek as Simon Kjaer, Theo Hernandez, Sandro Tonali, Alexis Saelemaekers, Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic came into the line-up.
Milan started as the brighter of the two sides with Ibrahimovic, Rebic and Theo Hernandez linking up brightly on multiple occasions in the opening few minutes, the best chance coming when Theo fed the Swede on the left side of the box and he forced Lopez into save at his near post.
The Rossoneri thought they had taken the lead inside the first three minutes when a free-kick caused confusion and the ball fell to Ibrahimovic who had most of the goal to aim at, but he saw his effort well blocked and though Tomori tucked the rebound in he came from an offside position giving the linesman an easy decision to make.
Ibrahimovic absolutely had to make it 1-0 a couple of minutes later when he closed Lopez down six yards from his goal-line and stole the ball back, however he inexplicably backheeled his attempt wide of the left post when he possibly had time to turn and fire in.
Milan were causing absolute havoc with their high pressing and Ibra was once again the man to blame for not making it 1-0. Having won the ball back Kessie slid a ball through for Rebic, who instead of shooting chose to square to the 39-year-old for an easy finish, but the flag went up again for offside as he failed to hold his run.
The dominance from the away side continued and there were two half-chances inside the 15th minute when Zlatan – in space inside the area – squared for Kessie who saw the ball desperately cleared off his toes while the resulting ricochet ended with Ibra seeing his first time half-volley well blocked.
Moments later a beautiful ball from Saelemaekers after he turned his man set Rebic away, and with the Croatian barrelling towards goal he fired a low shot towards the far corner that Lopez tipped wide. Ibrahimovic, moving gingerly after the latest attack, then headed over at the near post from the resulting corner.
Donnarumma was forced into his first save of the game when Veretout brought the ball down in space inside the area, but took a touch and fired straight into the arms of the Italy interntional.
Milan will have been feeling like their luck was out when Kjaer’s glancing header from Calhanoglu’s corner thudded against the crossbar, just the latest opportunity in which Milan were just inches away from taking a deserved lead.
Roma had their own goal disallowed not long after as Mkhitaryan bundled in at the far post after a corner was flicked on by Mancini, but the latter was adjudged to have had his arm in the back of Theo Hernandez.
Rebic’s tireless work down the left side continued and he tested Lopez again just after the half-hour mark with a stinging shot that was rising into the top corner at the near but the Spaniard responded with a strong hand. There was another opportunity for Milan not long after as Rebic set up Saelemaekers, who shot first time but straight at Lopez.
The end-to-end nature of the game continued as Tomori and Tonali each made a heroic block to deny Pellegrini, while Mkhitaryan – while through on goal – inexplicably dinked an effort over Donnarumma but well wide, perhaps thinking he was offside.
Milan were awarded a penalty a few minutes before the break but it took some time to be given. Calabria was stamped on just inside the area by Fazio and around two minutes later – and after a counter-attack – the referee consulted with VAR and gave the penalty. Kessie took on the responsibility, and despatched past Lopez with a precise finish inside the bottom-right corner.
Pioli was forced to make a change at the break, as Calhanoglu came off with a muscle problem, replaced by Brahim Diaz in the No.10 position.
Milan had a big chance to double their lead just after the break as Theo Hernandez’s run on the counter saw him fire wide when there were opportunities to potentially pass the ball across.
Roma would take advantage of the wastefulness as Veretout let fly from distance and his effort swirled in the air before beating Donnarumma who was at full stretch. It was an excellent leveller in truth that was a stroke of individual brilliance and just what they needed given the timing of Milan’s opener.
Ibrahimovic had been feeling his groin just before the break and continued to clutch it after the break, and his last contribution would be to shank an effort wide having let the ball drop over his should, with Rafael Leao coming on to replace him.
The Rossoneri would get back in front not long after the Swede’s departure though, as Rebic showed his clinical nature once again. Saelemaekers rolled the ball into the path of the winger, who rolled his man perfectly before firing inside the far post with a trademark low finish to restore the advantage.
Rebic was having one of those games where he looked to be in inspired form, and was so close not to have gotten on the end of a one-two after his run beat three players. He would, however, go off with a hip problem not long after in what was another worry for Pioli and Milan, with Rade Krunic his replacement.
Leao began to threaten from the left, and he produced an excellent piece of skill to shift onto his right foot after a run inside the left corner of the box, but Lopez saved fairly comfortably down low.
Mayoral provided a reminder of the hosts’ danger when he received the ball on the left side of Milan’s box before spinning and firing with his left foot, though the ball sailed just above the angle of the post and the upright.
There was no let up in the intensity, as 17 minutes from time Saelemaekers picked up possession on the edge of the box after some great hold-up play and curled an effort just past the far post with Lopez rooted.
Milan were so close to putting the game virtually to bed in the 78th minute as a free-kick from the left produced a cross into the middle, resulting in a reaction shot by Tomori and a great save by Lopez.
Donnarumma was forced into an excellent save at the other end from Mkhitaryan and Roma had aggressive penalty appeals waved away when the Armenia international tumbled as Theo protected the ball from the rebound, but no spot kick was awarded and rightly so.
Seconds later Krunic was so close to a goal of the season candidate as he let fly from 40 yards and slipped over in the process but produced an excellent fingertip save from Lopez. Saelemaekers and Tonali made way for Samu Castillejo and Soualiho Meite respectively not long after.
Donnarumma’s final save came in the final minute of added time when a scramble inside the box ended with Mkhitaryan letting fly from the edge of the box, but the No.99 was equal to the effort as Milan hung on for a colossal victory.