The Rossoneri sat three points behind fifth-placed Roma at kickoff. With the scuffling capital club facing a resurgent Juventus in Turin, there was a very good chance a victory could pull them level. With Fiorentina facing a tricky task against Torino, they could very well gain ground on both of the teams directly above them as they trekked for a Champions League spot.
But to take that opportunity, they needed to beat Empoli. They had managed to beat the Azzurri in their first meeting at the San Siro in August, but only with extreme difficulty. Years ago Empoli would have been considered a fly to be swatted away, but between Milan's fall from grace and Empoli's surprising rise this game promised to be anything but simple. In the end, Milan's inability to control games led to yet another disappointing result, this time a 2-2 draw.
To control a game, a team must control the midfield. That's been a problem for Milan all season. Their midfield is short on creativity and there are periods where they don't play as a unit. That can result in periods where opposing midfields are allowed to dictate games, even when their opponents aren't as good on paper.
The majority of Empoli's midfield won't come close to commanding the transfer fees the likes of Andrea Bertolacci does, but they know each other well and play with a fluidity that enhances their play. They're also young; None of the mids that started against Milan were older than 24 years old. And they have a weapon Milan could have had for themselves: Riccardo Saponara.
Milan gave up on Saponara about this time a year ago after buying him from Empoli in the winter of 2013. Three Milan coaches consistently passed him over, and last winter he was loaned back with an option to buy—an option the Azzurri gladly exercised after he logged seven goals and three assists over the course of the season's second half.
He was a constant danger when the teams met in August, scoring a goal and causing much more trouble as that match went on.
So it was today. Saponara got himself into Milan's penalty area with distressing ease. The Rossoneri defenders were able to close down the runners coming to support him in the early going, but his play was a major catalyst for Empoli—so much so that when Carlos Bacca scored the opener after seven minutes it was very much against the run of play.
Empoli went right back to the attack, and Milan's midfield didn't deal well. Empoli pressed hard, and they found it difficult to deal with. In the 17th minute Bertolacci scuffed a clearance, allowing Manuel Pucciarelli to drive down the left wing where his cross was headed behind for a corner.
In the 27th minute an Empoli free kick bounced into the goal only to be called back after the referee judged that Massimo Maccarone had influenced the play from an offside position. Five minutes later, a rare mistake from Luca Antonelli—who had assisted on Bacca's opener with a glorious long ball—gave Piotr Zielinski a free run, and the Poland international latched on to a fantastic pass from Saponara and fired through Gianluigi Donnarumma's legs to even the score.
Empoli had the better of the rest of the half, but Milan was right back on top two minutes into the second when Lorenzo Tonelli's clearance attempt hit M'Baye Niang in the face and rebounded to Giacomo Bonaventura, who slotted past Lukasz Skorupski.
Four minutes later it perhaps should have been 3-1 when a decent appeal for hand ball was turned down by referee Carmine Russo. After that, Empoli slowly but surely built themselves back into the game, and Milan, who came hard out of the restart, started to fade.
The game turned on the hour when Riccardo Montolivo fouled Saponara hard. The Empoli man came up imploring Russo to brandish a card which infuriated the veteran Milan captain. In the tussle that followed both men were booked, but the real blow came from the ensuing free kick, which Pucciarelli took down with his chest before firing a hard shot Donnarumma could only parry into the path of Maccarone, who made no mistake.
From then on Milan couldn't get a handle; Empoli took command of the game. The numbers prove it. According to WhoScored.com, Empoli had 60.3 percent of the game's possession and outshot Milan 15-10.
Those are numbers that, in the Serie A we're used to seeing, should be reversed. It has as much to do with Empoli's impressive rise, which has unexpectedly continued under Marco Giampaolo, as it has with degradation that started at Milan at the beginning of this decade. For too long the Rossoneri have relied on cut-price options at many positions.
How would you grade AC Milan's performance against Empoli?
But the midfield has been the worst. The team has relied on the likes of Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari and Nigel de Jong to man the midfield, with sub-par results. Even Bertolacci, while talented, probably isn't worth the money that was paid for him. Only Bonaventura has displayed the quality necessary to consistently be part of the midfield on an elite team.
Winning the midfield battle used to be easy for Milan when the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso were on the field. But now the team's midfielders simply aren't up to par for an elite team. This weakness needs to be corrected if Milan is to again achieve the success they are used to. Without a strong midfield, they'll have a hard time controlling games they used to win.