AC Milan Shows Both Sides of the Coin in Win vs. Palermo

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2015

Carlos Bacca celebrates his game-winner against Palermo.
Carlos Bacca celebrates his game-winner against Palermo.Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

After an improved showing in last week's 1-0 loss to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina, AC Milan was looking to consolidate that improvement on Saturday when it met Palermo at home.

To that end, coach Sinisa Mihajovic played the exact same starting XI that he deployed against the Nerazzurri.  If the hope was to get some continuity, he succeeded to some degree.  The team's play, particularly in midfield, was better than at the beginning of the season.  The passing was more accurate and they were able to pin Palermo back and string passes together as they waited to find the chink in the armor.

But some of the uglier aspects that have crept into Milan's game over the last few years showed up again.  The Rossoneri allowed their opponents in for some soft goals and made the game more difficult for themselves than it should have been.

In spite of the room for improvement, the positives outweighed the negatives in the 3-2 win.  There were some particularly bright spots that should get special mention.

The first of these must be Davide Calabria.

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The 18-year-old opened eyes with some impressive performances in preseason, but with Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonelli and Mattia De Sciglio in the team he wasn't expected to get all that much playing time.  That changed abruptly 18 minutes into Saturday's game when Abate pulled up lame.

Calabria impressed in preseason (above) and continued that trend on Saturday.
Calabria impressed in preseason (above) and continued that trend on Saturday.VI-Images/Getty Images

With Antonelli already sidelined, Calabria was pressed into service to replace the injured veteran.  He rose to the occasion and more.

A quick look at his match statistics from WhoScored.com will confirm everything that was seen on the field.  Calabria made six tackles, two interceptions and three clearances.  He was a force going forward, overlapping well with midfielders and forwards who drifted inside and providing dangerous width.  It was his cross three minutes after his introduction that led led indirectly to Carlos Bacca's opening goal—the first of two key passes he provided.

His performance is going to muddy the waters when it comes to the full-back picture.  De Sciglio—as we will get to in a moment—did little to impress on Saturday.  By the time one of the other injured flank men return, Calabria, who like De Sciglio can play on either side of the defense, may end up making a strong case to jump him on the depth chart.

As wonderful as Calabria was, the man of the match was Giacomo Bonaventura.

The same WhoScored stats tell a whopping tale.  Bonaventura completed 89 percent of his passes, notched an assist, a goal and two key passes, put two of his three shots on target and on the defensive side made three tackles, two interceptions and blocked a shot.

The Atalanta product was in stunning form.  His assist to Bacca was brilliant.  After pulling down a Calabria cross that was a bit too high for the Colombian to head, he tried to work his way into position to shoot.  When that avenue was cut off, he alertly executed a perfectly weighted backheel to Bacca, who had shown great intelligence by following the play and getting into position behind him before finishing with the outside of his foot.

Bonaventura turned in a man-of-the-match performance, punctuated by his perfect free kick.
Bonaventura turned in a man-of-the-match performance, punctuated by his perfect free kick.Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

His second major contribution, Milan's second goal, was about as good a free kick as you're going to see.  He got it up and over the wall easily and spun it so hard that it was always traveling away from the fingers of Stefano Sorrentino—who even at 36 can be rated as one of the better 'keepers in Serie A.

These bright spots mostly obscured the ugly recurrence of the slipshod defending that has characterized Milan for the better part of three years.

Both of Palermo's goals were the direct fault of De Sciglio.  On the first, he allowed Oscar Hiljemark to get around him on a corner kick.  To make matters worse, he managed to get himself between the ball and goalkeeper Diego Lopez, leaving the Spaniard with no way of trying to deal with the delivery himself.

While the first mistake can maybe be chalked up to the chaotic nature of the box on a corner kick, the second was just stunning.  When the ball was played in to Palermo sub (and former Milan man) Alberto Gilardino, De Sciglio simply stopped running.  Unfortunately Hiljemark didn't, and the veteran found him with a perfect pass to put the Swede one-on-one with Lopez from short range.

There's really no way of knowing what was going through the young full-back's mind.  He might have figured that Gilardino was going to take the shot himself or move play to the other side of the field.  He may have thought Hiljemark was offside, or he was trying to catch him offside.  One way or the other, it was a serious error, and he's lucky his team responded to bail him out.

Beyond any individual performance, that last bit is key.  A year ago Filippo Inzaghi's Milan was so mentally fragile that it would shrink away from the game after conceding and gift opponents the upper hand—especially in the pressure cooker of the San Siro, where the reaction of fans would immediately turn ugly.

On Saturday neither of those things happened.  The response to each goal was immediate and emphatic.  After Palermo tied the score at 1-1 Luiz Adriano embarked on a powerful run and shot from an angle, but was denied by Sorrentino, who probably didn't know much about where the shot was going.  After the second it took all of three minutes for Juraj Kucka's cross to find Bacca for the winner.

In his post-match remarks to Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia), Mihajlovic reiterated a point he made after the match with Inter.  "The important thing," he said, "is that I have rediscovered the team, the right spirit and approach."

This is the essence of the improvement we've seen in the last two weeks.  This team isn't the timid group that Inzaghi led last year.  This squad wants to win, and Mihajlovic has finally transferred that to the field.

Some things need to be cleared up—particularly the defensive effort in the critical moments of the game—but Mihajlovic has found something.  This Milan looks like it has finally broken out of its mental doldrums, and with young players like Bonaventura and Calabria beginning to assert themselves, the future, for the first time in a long time, looks like there might be more light than dark.