AC Milan came into Sunday's match against Fiorentina as the hottest team in the Serie A, having not lost a game since play resumed after the winter break. The Viola, for their part, came into the match carrying the best home record in Italy this season.
It was an important match with regards to the standings, with Milan looking to close in on second going into next week's showdown against Napoli, while Fiorentina was looking to make a late close on the Champions League qualification spots.
For a match that was so important, it's unfortunate that the man we're going to be talking about more than anyone else in this match was the referee, Paolo Tagliavento.
The veteran ref sent Nenad Tomic off for what seemed like nothing on replays, sending Fiorentina's players into a fury and prompting a quite frankly inexcusable display when five or six Viola players surrounded the official in protest. Milan had reason to be upset with the arbiter as well after he gave Fiorentina a pair of penalties while ignoring two pleas of their own.
But what of the players? Let's take a look at how the 14 men who saw action for the Rossoneri did in Sunday's crunch game.
Christian Abbiati played pretty well Sunday. The two goals that came in were both via the penalty spot, and he even guessed correctly on the second from David Pizzaro but was unable to get a hand on the shot.
When Fiorentina was in open play, he never really got a supreme test. Most of the balls Fiorentina put his way were easy saves and caught crosses.
I knocked off his grade slightly because the veteran keeper's distribution started failing him late in the game, particularly after Pizzaro's spot kick equalized the match. He gave possession to Fiorentina far too cheaply a few times late in matches, giving the 10-man viola a few opportunities to come back at him from around the halfway line.
Overall, it was a good performance for Abbiati.
The 20-year-old was a little bit shaky at times Sunday, which is unusual considering the performances he's treated fans to throughout most of the season.
For the most part he was his usual self, making three tackles and five interceptions on the day. But it was his clumsy challenge on Juan Cuadrado that sent Pizzaro to the spot for Fiorentina's second penalty of the day. Unlike the first one, it was a clear infraction, and one that cost Milan two precious points.
After he conceded the spot kick, De Sciglio looked visibly shaken for the next few minutes, allowing the Fiorentina attack to get through him and set up another chance that eventually went begging.
On the attack he had his usual day, pouring in four crosses and connecting with one of them, as well as completing 75 percent of his passes and a pair of long balls.
The penalty, though, is an unforgivable type of error in a game that was as important as this one. The moral of the story? De Sciglio is going to be great—but it's easy to forget that he's really that young.
Philippe Mexes played a great game. His stat line included a pair of tackles and a pair of interceptions to go along with 13 clearances, eight of which were effective. His distribution was good as well, completing 82 percent of his passes from the back, including a key pass, and four long balls.
Mexes has been much-maligned as part of a shaky central defense for Milan, but Sunday he showed why Adriano Galliani thinks that he can help the team win from the middle. At the Artemio Franchi, the Frenchman made sure that his goalkeeper was not given much to do.
Like Mexes, Cristian Zapata made sure Christian Abbiati didn't have a lot to do behind him on Sunday.
The Colombian made three tackles, booted four effective clearances, intercepted a pass and also got in front of a shot. The numbers were slightly off his normal averages, but it seemed like Mexes was the one doing all the work between the two of them in this game.
With Milan having a man advantage for the majority of the match, you would think that Ignazio Abate would have had a good day bombing forward and joining the attack, but it wasn't the case Sunday.
Fiorentina put up good pressure on the Rossoneri despite being a man down, which kept Abate back defending more than he probably would have liked in a game like this. Abate's only real attacking contribution of note was a single key pass, and he only completed 63 percent of his passes this game. He set up Mathieu Flamini brilliantly midway through the second half, but the Frenchman was unable to finish the opportunity.
Abate lagged off of his defensive averages as well Sunday. The Italy international made two tackles (average: 2.7) and one ineffective clearance (average: 3.2).
It was a quiet day for both Milan full-backs on a day when you would think players with their talent in joining the attack would have flourished. Milan will want better out of them if they are to make the Champions League without going through the playoff first.
The Ghanaian international was a defensive stopper in the half on Sunday, making five tackles and an interception as Milan hounded a Fiorentina side that looked sleepy to start the game. He also found the target with his only shot of the game and completed 86 percent of his passes, including a well-placed through ball.
The stain on his game today was the booking he picked up at the end of the first half. It was the last of three fouls he committed in the half, and Massimiliano Allegri pulled him off at halftime to avoid him getting a second booking and evening the odds on the field.
It was a good 45 minutes for Muntari, but he may have been a bit too aggressive. Since he's an important part of the Milan midfield, the team needs him to stay on the field.
I'm deducting half a letter grade just for the blond hairdo. Seriously, what was he thinking when he decided on that one?
Besides that, the Milan No. 10 had a mixed game. He had a wonderfully taken volleyed goal called back early in the first half when Mario Balotelli was flagged for being offside when he laid the ball off to the Ghanaian.
Without that shot in the books, Boateng didn't record a single one on Sunday. He completed 77 percent of his passes and a pair of long balls.
But he couldn't connect on any of his three crosses and lost influence on the game as Fiorentina's resolve strengthened late on. He came off the field with six minutes left as Max Allegri searched for a way to get his team back in front late on.
Flamini (No. 15 in white) pokes Montolivo's cross past Emiliano Viviano for Milan's second goal.
Mathieu Flamini looked spry all game long, and his efforts to assist Milan's attack paid off in the 62nd minute, when he reached out and poked a Riccardo Montolivo cross into the net moments after spurning a golden opportunity to make it 2-0 when Abate set him up from the wing.
Flamini's influence didn't stop there. He completed 85 percent of his passes and chipped in defensively with two tackles, three interceptions, two clearances and a blocked shot.
The Frenchman was withdrawn after Fiorentina equalized to give Milan a bit more pace in the attack, but at that point the Florentine side was starting to put their collective foot on the gas and pin Milan back into their own half for much of the rest of the game.
This was the type of performance Milan wanted when they brought Flamini into the San Siro five years ago. If he keeps turning performances like this in, he won't have to take another wage cut if he wants to stay in Milan.
There was one Milan player that the 40,000-plus people in the Artemio Franchi did not want scoring a goal on Sunday. Not only did that man score a goal, he assisted on Milan's second goal and was generally the best player on the field today.
Riccardo Montolivo's acrimonious separation from Fiorentina and Bosman transfer to Milan has been well documented. Adding to the ire of the Fiorentina faithful Sunday was that Montolivo, their former captain, was wearing Milan's armband for the game.
When he misfired on several passes to start the game, the fans in Florence jeered him gleefully. He wasn't firing on all cylinders in the first 10 minutes or so, but in the 14th he pounced on a careless David Pizzaro and fired home the opener past a stranded Emiliano Viviano to put his new club up 1-0 over his old.
In the second half, Montolivo continued to haunt his former team. In the 62nd minute, he slid in a cross from the right side of the box that was redirected by Flamini for the goal that at the time looked to put the game to bed.
He ended up completing 90 percent of his passes, hit on three of four crosses and seven of eight long balls and had two key passes including the assist.
His 34th-minute booking didn't tarnish the performance in the least. Montolivo has finally settled at the San Siro and emerged as the midfield playmaker Milan has lacked since they let Andrea Pirlo go to Juventus last season.
The blatant shirt pull here by Borja Valero was telling of Mario Balotelli's day.
He held the ball up well Sunday and was generally the ideal target man. The layoff he made to Boateng in the first half was a thing of beauty and would have been on highlight reels had he not been fractionally but clearly offside when making the pass.
It seemed that Vincenzo Montella's pregame instruction to his team was to ensure that if anyone was going to beat them, it wouldn't be Balotelli, who has been Serie A's hottest player since arriving on the last day of the transfer window. Super Mario was grabbed, tugged, and just plain abused all day long, and ultimately was on the receiving end of a whopping eight fouls.
The free kicks he took as a result of those fouls—which a week ago against Chievo had all found their target—were wanting in this game, and he only ended up putting two shots out of five on target.
He did add a pair of key passes, but his frustration started showing, picking up an important booking in the 70th minute that will keep him out of next week's showdown with Napoli. Missing such an important game knocks his grade down.
Not a good day for Il farone. He missed a chance off a Montolivo cross that he really should have converted, and otherwise didn't get the ball enough to make an impact.
When he did get the ball, he looked capable of making something happen, but the Italian international wasn't fed much on the left side, especially as Fiorentina began to take more control of the game in the latter stages.
El Sha was, however, responsible for the incorrect red card that was assessed to Nenad Tomovic. Whether Tomovic was sent off for a professional foul or for an elbow to El Shaarawy's face, the fact of the matter is that neither reason would be correct. Tomovic didn't catch El Shaarawy with his elbow, nor was he by any stretch the last man in defense.
El Shaarawy definitely showed why he's so highly rated today, but Milan needs to start getting him the ball more. His excellent play cutting in from the attacking left combined with Montolivo's recent run of form would make Milan a frightening prospect for any defender.
Antonio Nocerino came on at halftime for Muntari and was not able to impose much. He had one slaloming dribble from beyond the halfway line into the Fiorentina penalty area, but was then surrounded by purple shirts with no support around him and was snuffed out.
He completed 88 percent of his passes and added two tackles and an interception in defense, but he's going to be remembered in this game for something that he really shouldn't be.
Let's get something straight: Antonio Nocerino should not have been whistled for a foul in the box on Adam Ljajic in the 66th minute. Ljajic was at the tail end of a wonderful dribble of his own but had run into a wall and hit his rear end when Nocerino tapped him on the shoulder.
It was the second big mistake Paolo Tagliavento made in this game, and I hope Ljajic gets suspended for diving this week. There was no way that was a penalty.
That being said, Nocerino failed to use that 88-percent pass completion stat to really do anything. He didn't set much up and didn't really make an attacking impact.
M'Baye Niang came on after Fiorentina equalized as Allegri tried to inject some pace into the side and snatch back a winner. In the 13 minutes he was on the field, he only saw the ball six times, and when he did, he didn't do much with it. He took one shot (off target) and only completed 67 percent of his passes.
Niang is still very young, and he looks like a good player. But his role Sunday was to add some sharpness and some pace to the Milan attack, and he was unable to do either. Part of that has to do with his team not having the ball very much when he was on the field. However, when he did get the ball, he needed to do something with it, and he was far too wasteful.
Giampaolo Pazzini came on for Boateng with six minutes remaining and didn't get a single touch. To grade him would be highly unfair—although, with Balotelli suspended, he'll likely play a major role next week against Napoli.