The AC Milan Women made history last Saturday when they secured qualification for next season’s Champions League.
The game ended in a stalemate and despite being scoreless, it gave Milan just what they needed to secure passage to Europe next season. Here’s a breakdown of how the match happened…
Milan lined up in their usual 3-5-2 formation. The biggest change between this match and the previous ones was the inclusion of Christy Grimshaw in the lineup. Grimshaw played as a false-nine and was fielded to provide both offensive mobility and defensive stability.
Selena Babb was also fielded in place of Mária Korenčiová, who was suspended for the match after receiving a red card in the previous match against Fiorentina.
Milan XI: Babb; Vitale, Agard, Fusetti; Bergamaschi, Vero, Jane, Hasegawa, Tucceri Cimini; Giacinti, Grimshaw.
Sassuolo, on the other hand, started the match in a 4-3-1-2 formation. They then switched to a 4-3-3 to see the match out. The most notable thing about their lineup was the inclusion of teen phenomenon Haley Bugeja. Before this match, Bugeja had mainly started games on the bench and would be deployed as a super sub. Sassuolo fielded her from the start in hopes that she could make an immediate impact and trouble Milan’s goal.
Sassuolo XI: Lemey; Lenzini, Filangeri, Orsi (58′ Monterubbiano), Philtjens; Santoro (87′ Battelani), Mihashi, Tomaselli; Cambiaghi (58′ Pondini); Pirone, Bugeja.
The first half
The game started pretty off pretty slowly, with both teams being calculated and not taking any risks. Both sides knew what was at stake during this game, so the opening few minutes were cagey as neither side wanted to concede an early goal. Sassuolo tried to take control of the game and stretch Milan in the first minutes with both of their wing-backs, Philtjens and Lenzini, pushing up high. However, the Rossonere avoided being pulled apart as they remained compact in a 5-3-2 formation.
In particular, Valentina Bergamaschi and Linda Tucceri Cimini would drop in from the wings to help keep the defense compact. Sassuolo also made life easier for Milan as they played with two strikers in the middle which, therefore, allowed Milan to outnumber them defensively. Bugeja and Pirone found themselves being defended by the trio Vitale, Agard, and Fusseti, who all snuffed out their attacks.
Piovani (Sassuolo’s coach) moved both Lenzini and Santoro higher up the pitch and on the right flank to put more pressure on the left side of Milan’s defense. The Neroverde, however, couldn’t find a smooth rhythm or an easy path to goal as Milan anticipated their moves and defended together in numbers.
Sassuolo had the first chance of the game in the 10th minute. The Neroverde managed to threaten Milan’s goal with an 18-meter shoot from Erika Santoro. Santoro’s chance was created after a good combination of six passes from Lenzini, Santoro, Pirone, and Cambiaghi.
Another interesting move from Sassuolo was to put defender Maria Filangeri in the middle and have her function as a makeshift defensive midfielder. The purpose of this was to have an extra player in the centre of the pitch and to try to regain control of possession. The idea was good in theory but it did not work out, as Milan were pretty aggressive with their pressing as they won duels and second balls.
They then forced Sassuolo to give the ball back to the keeper who would then launch a series of long balls in response to Milan’s relentless pressure. When Filangeri stayed in her position, which was right centre-back, it was Mana Mihashi or Martina Tomaselli who would receive the defender’s passes and start with an attack after beating Milan’s first line of pressing.
Milan gradually started to get into the game. Their opening salvo came from Yui Hasegawa, who tested Diede Lemey with an outside shot. The diminutive player was the most active in the Rossonere’s midfield during the first half, as she the line that connected Milan’s defense. She both created chances and fired off a few shots herself. Both teams eventually began to show more courage and started to take more risks and that led to the game becoming more open.
The fact that Hasegawa was given full range to circle in the final third and find to find free spaces behind opposition lines was a big factor in Milan gradually gaining control of the match.
The Rossonere were a bit more pragmatic in defense, as they tried to avoid letting Sassuolo press them by also lobbing long balls to their two attackers. The two forwards would then held the ball and wait for the midfield players to join them in attack. The pair had mixed success, as Giacinti did a better job with build-up play than Grimshaw did. Grimshaw, in particular, had a tough start, as she lost duels and was not able to secure the ball and win duels against the likes of Lenzini and Filangeri. However, things did begin to change for Milan around the 25-minute mark.
Sassuolo also implemented a high-press and they would use their two forwards, Valeria Pirone and Haley Bugeja, to work in tandem to press Milan’s back three. The Neroverde’s Mihashi and Tomaselli put in a shift to contain the Rossonere’s midfield, as whenever they tried to get the ball from Milan’s defensive line and start attacks through the middle, the two players were there to stop them. Fortunately for Milan, they would not maintain this momentum throughout the game, as they were more successful in doing this during the first half than the second.
Milan gradually started to take control of the game through players like Hasegawa, who started to run the show with deft touches and smart positioning behind Sassuolo’s midfield. It resulted in the first real chance in the 25th minute when Giacinti and Hasegawa found themselves in a 2v2 situation and Giacinti slid a well-timed pass to Yui, but sadly for Rossonere, it hit the post.
The combination of controlling the run of play and smart passing resulted in two fantastic chances in the 32nd minute and the 39th minute from both Hasegawa and Grimshaw. Unfortunately, neither of them could find the back of the net. Milan controlled the final few minutes of the first half, as it seemed like Sassuolo were overwhelmed both numerically and by the rhythm that Milan’s midfield trio had produced. In the final few minutes of the half, the Rossonere had a few chances to score again but alas, their wayward shots failed to find the back of the net.
The second half was not much different from the first, as both teams continued to test each other and did not take too many risks. However, Milan once again began to gradually take control of the match. They began to trouble Sassuolo and forced the team to lose shape, lose duels and lose second balls as the Rossonere put them on the back foot. They also gave Milan’s midfield and attack some space, which allowed the former to take control of the game. This shot from Giancinti would be the Rossonere’s first chance of the half.
Gianpiero Piovani then substituted two players in at the 58th minute. With the introduction of Giada Pondini and Valeria Monterubbiano, Piovani shifted the Neroverde to a 4-3-3 formation, with Lenzini on the right, and Filangeri to the left as a centre-mid. Monterubbiano’s defensive work created more space for the forwards and Bugaje was the main beneficiary of it. The Maltese started to have more of the ball and created quality runs from behind, and as a result, Sassuolo started to create more chances.
The best chance came in the 68th minute when Bugaje played a pass and Pirone then tried a beautiful lob over Babb, but the post got in the way. Pondini was an astute substitution from Piovani as she gave made a series of smart passes and kept control of the ball. Though she did, on occasion, lose the ball in dangerous areas, her passes managed to avoid Milan’s pressing in the last 30 minutes of the game.
The tempo of the game dropped in the last 20 minutes. This was evident by how both teams being hasty with their passes and shots. The two teams were trying hard to avoid mistakes, although Lemey made one in the 63rd minute. The shot-stopper made a mistake that allowed Grimshaw to take the ball at her and then shoot on an empty goal. Fortunately for Lemey, Filangeri managed to make a goal-line clearance. This was then followed up by a shot at the opposite end by wunderkind Haley Bugega.
Fortunately for Milan, her shot bounced off the post. Milan would see the game through until the 94th minute and in the end, they gained the necessary point they needed and made history by qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Now, here are the stand-outs of the match…
A true test of character is how one rises to a challenge when they’re called upon. And Selena Babb passed that test with flying covers. Though the goalkeeper was rarely tested, she did manage to do enough to keep Sassuolo from scoring. The keeper saved all two shots that came her way and thanks to her heroics, Milan were able to maintain a clean sheet and secure qualification for next season’s Champions League.
Yui’s stand-out performance
If there was one player who stood out above the rest, it was Yui Hasegawa. The midfielder was everywhere for Milan, as she contributed to their defense and spearheaded their attack. The midfielder had a total of four interceptions as well as five shots on goal during this game (Wyscout).
Her technical ability puts her a level above the other players in the league, evident by her ability to evade defenders while still maintaining possession. The only downside to the game is the fact that she didn’t score. However, given that she did nearly everything else, she can most certainly be forgiven for this.
Laura Fusetti has had a few shaky performances as of late. Fortunately for Milan, this was not one of them. The vice-captain put on a clinic during this match as she spearheaded Milan’s defense.
Fusetti won 67% of her duels in this match and made eight clearances as well. She also showed off her juggling skills while defending.
Laura is returning to form just when the team needed her to and that will only bode well for them in the future.
In a reversal of previous trends, Milan actually had less possession during this match. They had the ball only 44% of the time, while Sassuolo maintained 56% possession. The Rossonere also outshot their opponents by a ratio of 17 to 12.
Perhaps they’re finally learning that ‘less is more’ and learning to be more efficient in possession.
The Rossonere also pressed Sassuolo relentlessly, as for every 10.3 actions they would make, Milan would press them to win the ball back. Milan were willing to sacrifice the ball and even pass accuracy to play to a thrilling nil-nil draw. In the end, it paid off.
AC Milan will play one more game this season. They’ll play Hellas Verona on Sunday at 15:00 CEST (06:00 PST / 09:00 EST). Since they’ve already qualified for the Champions League, they can use this match to experiment and prepare for their real test.
And that will be the Coppa Italia Final on May 30th against AS Roma. A lead-up to both matches will be posted in the next few days.