AC Milan scrambles to recover after losing their hold on a European position in the table as they travel to Bologna for their penultimate game of the Serie A season.
Date: Saturday, May 7
Time: 8:45 p.m. local time, 7:45 p.m. BST, 2:45 p.m. EDT
Venue: Stadio Renato Dall'Ara, Bologna
TV Info: beIN Sports Spanish feed (US)
Live Stream: BT Sport Connect (UK), beIN Sports Connect (US)
The nightmare scenario has come to pass for Milan.
The team has been fighting to qualify for European competition for the first time in three years, and they have two ways to get there.
Beating Juventus in the Coppa Italia final will see them enter the UEFA Europa League. In years past, the fact that Juve would finish in the top five got them to Europe's second competition regardless of whether they won or lost, but a rule change this year now gives the Coppa's place in the competition to the sixth-placed team in the league in that scenario.
That's where the Rossoneri were until Sunday, when they were nearly embarrassed by a team in the relegation zone for the second consecutive week. Not that their come-from-behind 3-3 draw with Frosinone was something to be proud of, but it was better than the alternative.
Regardless, that result—combined with Sassuolo's 1-0 win over Hellas Verona—saw Milan relinquish the all-important sixth place in the standings. They now trail the Neroverdi by a point with only two matches to go.
This is a major problem. The prospect of beating the five-time defending champions of Italy in the Coppa final is a daunting one—the Bianconeri have already beaten Milan twice this year.
Now they have two rounds to regain sixth place. That quest starts in Bologna.
In one way, Milan have found a soft landing. The Rossoblu are not mathematically out of the running for relegation, but in all practical terms they're safe. That didn't look like it would be the case as late as November, when they were 18th.
Replacing manager Delio Rossi with former Milan star Roberto Donadoni improved their form and lifted them out of the relegation zone, but it's not like the team is in stellar form. In fact, Bologna has only won twice since the beginning of February, along with six draws and six losses.
Much of their struggles come from a lack of punch in attack. Bologna are tied with Udinese with the second-worst scoring record in the league. They've only managed to score 33 times this season. During that February-to-May period, they were shut out nine times in 14 games and only scored multiple goals once.
With a defense that is actually in the top half of the league—they're ninth, having conceded 44 times—a bigger scoring punch would make this a dangerous team. As they are, without striker Mattia Destro, scoring will be their biggest problem.
The question in this match is whether Milan will be able to take advantage of that. They started brightly in the wake of the dismissal of coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, winning newly promoted Cristian Brocchi's first game 1-0 over Sampdoria.
But since then they've played three relegation strugglers and only picked up two points. They followed that with a limp scoreless draw against Carpi that cost them more than just two points. Giacomo Bonaventura suffered leg and hip injuries during the match, depriving the Rossoneri of their only real creative outlet.
That's had the effect you would expect. Milan only managed a penalty in their embarrassing 2-1 loss to Verona two weeks ago, and it took a spectacular overhead kick from Luca Antonelli and a controversial late spot-kick to draw level with Frosinone.
Brocchi said in his post-match press conference (h/t Football Italia) that he didn't consider the 4-3-1-2 system he switched the team to upon his promotion from the primavera team viable while Bonaventura is out, so he may return to the 4-4-2 that was the fixture under Mihajlovic. That would require tweaks itself, but his statements indicate he's leaning in that direction.
Whatever he does, he needs to claim all three points. With red-hot AS Roma looming and Sassuolo facing a run-in of Verona and Inter Milan, the possibility of losing out on that sixth position is very real.
|Last 5 results, most recent first|
|D 0-0 @ Empoli||D 3-3 vs. Frosinone|
|W 2-0 vs. Genoa||L 2-1 @ Verona|
|L 6-0 @ Napoli||D 0-0 Capri|
|L 1-0 vs. Torino||W 1-0 @ Sampdoria|
|D 1-1 @ Roma||L 2-1 vs. Juventus|
|Bologna (4-2-3-1)||AC Milan (4-4-2)|
|Rossettini Gastaldello Olkonomou Masina||Abate Romagnoli Alex De Sciglio|
|Diawara Taider||Honda Montolivo Kucka Menez|
|Mounier Brienza Giaccherini||Bacca Balotelli|
Bologna: OUT: ST Mattia Destro (fractured finger), LB Archimede Morelo (thigh), M Luca Rizzo (muscle injury). DOUBTFUL: MF Godfred Donsah (muscle injury), CB Domenico Maietta (thigh).
AC Milan: OUT: FW M'Baye Niang (ankle), MF Giacomo Bonaventura (hip), LB Luca Antonelli (calf)
Scoring goals is Bologna's major weakness. Only 10 players have netted this year for the Rossoblu, and only two have scored more than four. Without leading scorer Destro, much of their effort to get to goal will hinge on Emanuele Giaccherini.
The former Juventus man is on loan at Bologna from Sunderland, and he's been a huge part of their season. He's scored seven times, and, according to WhoScored.com he's completed 80 percent of his passes and made 1.4 key passes per match.
The Italy international played a decisive role in the first meeting between Bologna and Milan in the first game back from the winter break in January. In the 82nd minute, Giaccherini controlled a cross and fired the ball through the legs of Gianluigi Donnarumma to score the only goal of the game.
It was a jarring opening to 2016 for Milan, who were left scrambling for answers after a negative result right out of the holidays.
With Destro sidelined and replaced by Sergio Floccari, Giaccherini will be a major part of their efforts to get the ball past Donnarumma. If he can win his battle with Ignazio Abate on the attacking left, he could prove to be decisive.
For Milan, they key will be Jeremy Menez—in a different position than you might think.
If Brocchi's statements from the Frosinone game are truly an indication that he's going to abandon the trequartista, Mihajlovic's 4-4-2 is the obvious alternative.
But Bonaventura's absence will require a tweak to that formation as well. He manned the left side of the midfield in that system and there aren't many players on the roster who can replace him there.
Indeed, Menez may be the only one. He started last year as a false nine in Filippo Inzaghi's 4-3-3, but after Destro was acquired on loan from Roma to be a more traditional striker, he was moved to the wing, where he remained for the rest of the season.
Menez's ability to play wide could be a key for Brocchi. He would essentially be adding a third attacker to his lineup and covering Bonaventura's absence at the same time.
It's a move Brocchi can afford to make because Luiz Adriano gives him the tactical flexibility to change things up up front later in the game.
It remains to be seen just how Brocchi will deploy his team on Saturday, and who he will play where if he does. Even though Menez usually plays far further forward, he would be an able deputy in a 4-4-2. If he ends up there and does well, Milan could be primed for a high-scoring day.
Alessio Romagnoli had a bad day against Frosinone, and he'll look to bounce back here against Frosinone. He'll have to show a short memory when he deals with wily veteran striker Floccari.
The 34-year-old started the year at Sassuolo, where he scored four goals in seven matches. He was caught behind several younger players, though, and he made the move to Bologna in January. He has since started eight games and come on as a sub for eight more.
Romagnoli is more of a denier than a tackler. He uses his intelligence and positional sense in order to deny attackers the ball in good spots. He'll look to do that here, but he must beware—Floccari has a good long shot, and if he doesn't have a man in his face, he can unleash a bomb.
If Romagnoli is able to shut Floccari down, the offensively challenged Rossoblu will be hard-pressed to find another major to break down Milan's defense.
If Floccari can get some shots in, though, it could end up being a long night for Donnarumma in goal.
Odds (via Odds Shark)
Bologna win: 23-10
Milan win: 23-20