AC Milan showed something to their fans last week with a solid victory over second-placed Roma. If anyone harbored any illusions that that game was the prelude to a successful run-in, those were dashed when the Rossoneri visited Sassuolo.
The hallmark of last week's victory was the mental part of Milan's game. Unlike weeks past, they were locked in and focused. It showed in their performance, but that focus completely deserted them on Sunday at the Mapei Stadium.
The meltdown started 13 minutes into the match. The four matches between these two since the start of last season—three in the league and one in the Coppa Italia—had averaged four goals per game. The first quarter of an hour had given the impression that this game, however, suggested a cagey affair was on hand.
That impression, however, evaporated when Domenico Berardi fired a long-range shot that the normally reliable Diego Lopez fumbled. He clawed it back from the goal line, but the official on his side signaled to referee Marco Guida that the ball had crossed the line.
Lopez was flabbergasted, as was the entire Milan team. Goal-line technology will make its Italian debut on Wednesday in the Coppa Italia final and will be used throughout the league next season. If it were in use today, it would almost certainly have shown Guida that the ball hadn't fully crossed, but the referee relied on his assistant and awarded Berardi his 12th goal of the year.
It was here that Milan visibly started to unravel. Minutes after the goal was given, Giacomo Bonaventura was called for a foul in the Sassuolo penalty area and immediately snapped at Guida, receiving a yellow card for his trouble. Keisuke Honda looked lively on the left wing, but the rest of the Rossoneri couldn't take advantage of what he created, and on the other end were having a torrid time avoiding a second.
Eusebio Di Francesco's tactics in this match were fairly spot-on. Time and again in the first half, the Neroverdi launched long balls forward in an attempt to get one of their terrific attacking trio of Berardi, Simone Zaza and Nicola Sansone in behind Gabriel Paletta and Alex, neither of whom could hope to match one of the young attackers in a footrace.
It was thusly that Berardi was sent down the field by Simone Missiroli. Lopez had absolutely no chance this time, and Berardi—whose four goals in this fixture last season sealed the fate of then-Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri—made no mistake with a left-footed finish for his second.
This kind of scoreline has all too often seen a complete and total mental collapse from Milan. What transpired next, however, suggested that Milan might have carried some of the mentality they developed against Roma with them to Reggio Emilia. Bonaventura dribbled past a pair of lackluster tackles in the penalty area and unleashed a toe poke that caught Andrea Consigli unaware and cut the lead in half only two minutes later.
Slowly but surely, Milan found their footing. Within four minutes of getting on the scoresheet, Honda forced a good save out of Consigli. The rebound came straight at Mattia Destro, whose snap header at an open goal went barely wide. Sassuolo had a good chance after Berardi, and Davide Biondini played out a clever sequence on the right wing, but the half ended with Milan on the up, even if they were still down a goal.
At halftime, Filippo Inzaghi made a change that looked like it would change Milan's fortunes. Andrea Poli was moved from the midfield to right-back, and Ignazio Abate was withdrawn for Suso, who sat in the hole behind Destro. The move had a dramatic effect, and for the first 12 minutes of the half, Milan looked sure to add a few goals to their tally.
Indeed, six minutes in, they were level, courtesy of a mistake by Consigli, who came out for a cross following a short corner but was badly beaten to the ball by Alex, who headed home. Two more chances came in quick succession, and Milan were looking the likely winners.
Then the collapse that we thought would be in the offing after the team went 2-0 down hit the Rossoneri like a ton of bricks.
Bonaventura was sitting in midfield when the ball came at him. In a moment of madness, he reached out and handled it. His remonstration of Guida in the first half now came back to haunt him as he received his second yellow and an early shower. Just like that, the head of steam Milan had built up completely blew out.
A mere two minutes after Bonaventura took the walk, Sansone stung Lopez's palms with a powerful drive. It took about 10 more minutes for Sassuolo to grow into the man advantage and make it count, and Milan had a chance to go ahead in the meantime. But when the Neroverdi finally did grab hold of the game, they didn't let it go.
In the 71st minute, Berardi should've had his hat trick after Zaza put him clean through to Lopez, who somehow denied the youngster's low shot with a kick-save. A minute later, Berardi should've had a penalty when Nigel de Jong barged into him, but no call was made, and Honda raced the ball down the field, only to receive a caution for an ugly and obvious dive.
It finally came to a head in the 77th. Substitute Antonio Floro Flores charged down the left wing and centered for Zaza, who dummied it into the path of Berardi. This time, the Juventus prospect made no mistakes and buried it. It was his fourth hat trick in two years and his second against Milan.
It was now that the total meltdown began. With nine minutes left, they nearly let Zaza in for a fourth—the offside trap held together by mere inches.
As the minutes peeled away, so did Milan's sanity. With five minutes left, Stephan El Shaarawy—on for the first time since suffering a foot injury in January—lost out on a throw-in call and responded by picking the ball up and punting it across the pitch. Not only was he booked for this petulant display, it seemed not to be in his mind that his team was behind. He had basically done some of Sassuolo's time-wasting for them.
The rugby tackle Paletta executed on a breaking Zaza a minute later was either a sound but cynical tactical foul or a moment of madness, I know not which. Whichever it was, it added to the ever-growing pile of cards Inzaghi's team was racking up.
As stoppage time began, El Shaarawy was lucky not to be following Bonaventura to the locker room when he went down far too easily in the box. Then, in the final minute of stoppage time, Bonaventura did get some company.
Suso's playing time has been limited, but his performances when he has played have been promising. Unfortunately, Milan may not see him on the field again this season. A late, studs-up challenge prompted Guida—who was standing directly in front of the Spaniard—to show him a straight red. It was completely deserved and will likely see the youngster suspended beyond the automatic one game for a red.
As the whistle blew, Milan and their fans could hardly believe what they were seeing. Tiny Sassuolo—a team that until last year had never played in Serie A and that represented a city whose population would only fill the San Siro halfway to capacity—had beaten them for the third time in four league games. And as it had been last season, it was Berardi who sealed their fate.
This game was all the more galling because of how the team started the second half. Inzaghi has often been criticized for his in-game substitutions this season, but he got his halftime switch spot-on, and Milan was totally dominating the early stages of the second half. After Alex's equalizer, there was only one team that looked like it was going to score more goals, and that team wasn't wearing green.
But Bonaventura's red—a combination of two completely avoidable and really mindless yellows—completely changed the complexion of the game, and within 10 minutes of his dismissal, the team was clearly in panic mode. They took a game that they could have—even should have—won and threw it away by losing their heads.
It's starting to get very difficult to see how Milan is going to get back on track with any of the players they currently have on the team. They've now been given 12 red cards this season, easily the most in the league. The club's current roster simply has no players with the ability to hold it together mentally on a consistent basis.
Even Giampaolo Pazzini—who this column has previously praised for his work rate on an otherwise demoralized team and who came on for an ineffective Destro in the 68th minute—did little in this game other than give away free kicks in the offensive half and then turn to Guida in shock when the whistle blew.
This Milan team is one of the mentally weakest groups of players that this league has seen in a long time. They're not worthy of their shirts, and unless this group changes, things aren't going to be getting better for Milan anytime soon.