AC Milan vs. Alessandria: Winners and Losers from Coppa Italia
AC Milan strode on to the field for the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal at the San Siro on Tuesday with a chance to qualify for their first final in 13 years.
The Rossoneri have been absent from the showpiece since they defeated Roma for the trophy in 2003. To give you an idea of the passage of time, the final was still a two-legged affair at that point.
Milan came in nursing a 1-0 lead on aggregate against a plucky Alessandria team that had risen from the third tier of Italian football to make a Cinderella run worthy of a place in European history as one of the biggest surprises in cup competition.
Given how skewed the Coppa is toward top teams—and the fact that Alessandria had eliminated opposition from a higher league four times, including two Serie A clubs, to reach this point—the run truly was remarkable.
This stage, however, is the one where superior teams tend to shine through. A team like Alessandria can pull surprise after surprise in a one-off game, but over two legs, talent gaps—really more like talent gulfs in this case—tend to show through, and it certainly did Tuesday, when Milan added five goals to the one they scored a month ago to run out of the San Siro 6-0 aggregate winners.
Who were the winners and losers of this one-sided affair? Let's take a closer look at the match and find out.
Winner: Jeremy Menez
It's been a lost season for Jeremy Menez in 2015-16. The Frenchman, who was the team's leading goalscorer last year with 16, has been stricken by a back injury for much of the year. He managed a substitute appearance in the Coppa Italia against Perugia in August but then was forced to sit until the beginning of February, when he came on as a substitute against Genoa.
Tuesday was his fourth game of the season and his first start—and he may have put himself in position to start much more as the season reaches the home stretch.
Menez announced his presence early, taking a back-heeled pass from Keisuke Honda and firing a wicked shot that was saved by Gianmarco Vannucci. It took his teammates a while to get him into position again, but when they did, he buried it.
With 20 minutes on the clock, it was Honda who again turned provider. Looking to make amends for missing a six-yard sitter earlier in the night, the Japan international lofted a lovely through ball over the Alessandria defense. Menez controlled with his chest and then hit the ball first time, across the 'keeper and into the net. It was his first goal since last April against Palermo.
He didn't stop, finding himself in perfect position to bang home a poacher's finish off an Andrea Poli cross.
The knock on Menez has always been his selfishness, but playing him as part of a strike pairing rather than as a winger—which is how he spent much of the season last year under Filippo Inzaghi—could actually take advantage of that and turn it into a virtue rather than a vice.
He did show some of his bad side in the 68th minute when he held the ball far too long on a run with Mario Balotelli making a great run at his right, but he certainly showed his ability to score in only one or two touches, and his mobility could be a nice complement to Carlos Bacca.
With La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting (h/t Football Italia) that M'Baye Niang will be out for at least two months following an automobile accident, the spot next to Bacca is now up for grabs—and Menez has put himself in pole position to take that spot.
Loser: Jose Mauri
Jose Mauri has been forced to wait for playing time on a crowded roster this year. Picked up as a free transfer out of the dissolution of Parma, Mauri hasn't played in the league at all this season and has only seen the field four times, all in the Coppa.
When he has played, he simply hasn't impressed. In the fourth round against second-tier Crotone, he started but was a complete non-factor, totally muscled off the ball and unable to do anything when he did get it at his feet.
After he came on at halftime, Milan seemed to lose control of the midfield. Alessandria found much more of a foothold and managed to create more than a few dangerous attacks. He didn't contribute anything to the attack either.
It's tough to figure out what exactly is wrong here. It could be that the 19-year-old simply needs playing time to develop physically and technically. A loan next year is the best way to remedy this—at this stage of the season, it's too dangerous to experiment with lineups. A loan would give him consistent playing time and allow him to readjust to opposition that may have adjusted to him after his first year with Parma.
He could also be something of a system player, fitting into former manager Roberto Donadoni's scheme better than any other. Or he was simply a flash in the pan—a one-season wonder who wasn't really all that great to begin with.
Time will tell—and his late assist for Milan's last goal at least gave the team a glimpse of what his true quality could be—but Milan will need to treat him right to find out for sure.
Winner: Juraj Kucka
Considered a throw-in buy when he arrived from Genoa at the end of the transfer window this summer, Juraj Kucka has very unexpectedly become a big part of the team.
He's been the hard man that Milan has really lacked since the departure of Gennaro Gattuso in 2012, but he's shown some surprising skill on the ball as well. It doesn't come up every game, but when it does, it tends to be pretty spectacular.
He initiated several great moves on Tuesday. He set up Honda's missed sitter early and nearly got into position himself before being denied the final ball by some good Alessandria defending.
His crowning moment came five minutes after the opener, when he rose impressively to flick Giacomo Bonaventura's corner into the path of Alessio Romagnoli, who just beat the assistant's flag to tap in Milan's second goal.
His impact was really felt when he was removed at halftime. Given the fact that there was an important league game against Sassuolo looming at the weekend and they already had a 4-0 aggregate lead, the move can't really be criticized, but without him, Alessandria managed to get much more purchase in midfield.
He's becoming more and more indispensable every week.
Loser: Mario Balotelli
It was presumed that in Niang's absence, Mario Balotelli would be the biggest beneficiary in terms of playing time. But with Menez exploding, Balotelli had to equal him, and that really didn't happen.
Apart from a nice touch that turned out to be the key pass that led to Menez's first goal, Super Mario was kept quiet.
He also showed some visible frustration when he didn't get service. Granted, sometimes, like on a 33rd-minute run from Bonaventura, he had a right to be upset. Bonaventura had the striker in great position at the top of the box and elected to hold the ball instead, eventually shooting himself (that got blocked).
But Balo never really got purchase in this game. He ran in fits and starts but not continuously, and when he did get an opportunity to really actually shoot on a free kick in the 70th minute, his effort was too high—not too badly hit but enough to elicit jeers from the home crowd.
His late strike to add a fifth mark to the scoresheet looked good and was taken clinically, but over the full 90 minutes, he really was poor, and that could hurt him when it comes down to team selection the next two months.
With Menez showing something close to full form, Balotelli may not end up getting much playing time over him after a performance like this.
Winner: Sinisa Mihajlovic
Sinisa Mihajlovic has been under pressure all season, but progressing to the Coppa final probably gives him a lot more stability.
His team is now almost certain to qualify for continental competition, if not through the league then through the Coppa. While team owner and president Silvio Berlusconi is still openly talking about qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, others have been more realistic about the team, including his daughter, Barbara.
The team's vice-president told a press conference (h/t Football Italia) before Milan's January Derby meeting with Inter that the Europa League is what is most attainable for Milan, and she's correct.
That goal is practically achieved at this point. Unless Inter does something truly shocking in the second leg of Wednesday's second semifinal and overturns a 3-0 deficit against Juventus, Milan will be playing the final in Rome against a team that, barring something else really drastic, is sure to finish in the top five—really probably the top two.
That means that they will take the Coppa's entrance slot into the Europa League whether they win or lose the final. They could even make it a moot point if Inter's slide falls and they climb into the top five—they're only a point behind the Nerazzurri in sixth.
While it may not be the biggest competition, the Europa will be a useful extra revenue stream, and using it as a springboard is a totally valid step in the team's progression.
There's precedence for this. After dropping into the Europa knockout round from the Champions League group stage two years ago, Juventus used the experience they gained on their semifinal run to go all the way to the final in the Champions League the next year. Winning the then-UEFA Cup in the 1990s under Giovanni Trappatoni set the foundations for Marcello Lippi's Champions League winners in 1996.
Getting to the Europa League is an achievement that should not be looked upon with disdain. Mihajlovic's team may have struggled occasionally in the Coppa this season, but he got them through, and he should be hailed for this run—and be given the opportunity to expand on his achievement next season.