Qualifying position for next year's European competitions will be in the balance for both AC Milan and AS Roma as the two teams meet in the last Serie A game of the season.
Date: Saturday, May 14
Time: 8:45 local time, 7:45 BST, 2:45 EDT
Venue: San Siro, Milan
TV Info: BT Sport Europe (UK), beIN Sports (US)
Live Stream: BT Sport Connect (UK), beIN Sports Connect (US)
It's crunch time for European qualifying.
As Serie A enters its final weekend, both Milan and Roma can improve their position by beating the other on Saturday night—although both need help in order to reach what they want to reach.
Roma have already locked up a place in the UEFA Champions League next season—the third successive season they've done so. However, if they want to qualify directly to the groups stage again they need a result. To sum up their situation:
|Roma finishes second if:||Roma finishes third if:|
Roma defeats Milan
Napoli fails to defeat Frosinone
Roma fails to defeat Milan
Napoli defeates Frosinone
Radja Nainggolan's 89th minute goal against Napoli on April 25 opened the door for this. After their first meeting in Naples ended goalless, Roma's 1-0 win last month gave the crucial edge in head-to-head record, Serie A's first tiebreaker. Should Napoli slip up against an already-relegated Frosinone side, a Roma win would draw them level on points and push them into second.
How important is that? Well, when you consider the fact that only three Serie A sides have qualified through the play-off round since the 2008-09 season—Fiorentina in '08-09 and '09-10 and Milan in '13-14—it could mean gaining or losing millions of Euros in prize and broadcasting money.
The possibility is there, but Roma needs to rely on Frosinone picking up at least one point in order to make it happen. If Napoli wins, nothing else matters.
For Milan, the circumstances are more dire. Currently sitting seventh, if they can't make it to sixth place they are in serious jeopardy of missing Europe—specifically the UEFA Europa League—for the third consecutive season.
In years past they wouldn't have had to worry. Having made the Coppa Italia final against a team, Juventus, that is already in the European qualification zone, they would ordinarily have been guaranteed a pass to the Europa League win or lose. But that rule was changed this year, and now that place will go to the sixth-placed team if Juve wins.
The situation facing Milan is as follows:
|Milan finishes sixth if:||Milan finishes seventh if:|
Milan defeats Roma
Sassuolo fails to defeat Inter
Milan fails to defeat Roma
Sassuolo defeats Inter
Nothing but a victory will do here for Milan. A draw won't be enough, even if Sassuolo lose on Saturday. Both teams traded victories this season, but the Neroverdi lead the second tiebreaker, head-to-head goal differential, by a count of 3-2. A tie on points would see Sassuolo on top.
Given the challenges of beating the now five-time defending champions in the Coppa final, sixth place is probably Milan's best chance at making Europe. Unfortunately the instability in the club over the last month has seen the Rossoneri go from controlling their own destiny to needing help in order to gain it.
On form, this game almost looks like a mismatch. Roma hasn't lost a Serie A match since falling 1-0 at Juventus on January 24—Luciano Spalletti's second game in charge. Since then their only setbacks were a pair of 2-0 losses to Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16—games that were much closer than those scores suggest.
Spalletti has turned Roma into a machine since taking over for Rudi Garcia. They're more solid in the back and a terror going forward when they're clicking. One of the hottest teams this side of Juventus, Roma are a formidable opponent for one of the top teams, let alone one struggling for form.
Milan, by contrast, has collapsed since the bizzare firing of Sinisa Mihajlovic. His replacement, promoted youth team coach Cristian Brocchi, won his first game, but the team has regressed since.
In three consecutive games against teams that are currently in the relegation zone, Milan drew 0-0 against Carpi, blew a lead in the last 18 minutes and lost 2-1 to bottom side Verona, and had to battle back from two two-goal deficits in order to draw 3-3 with Frosinone.
A win against Bologna last week halted the slide and built some sort of momentum, but even then the lone goal of the game came on a penalty, and Milan barely created any genuine chances from open play against a team that was playing with 10 men from the 12th minute on.
A Milan victory here would really be an upset, even at the San Siro. They did go into their first game against Roma in a similar position and managed to shrug off an early goal to dominate the second half. In the end it was a game they deserved to win, and it cost Garcia his job.
|Last 5 games, most recent first|
|AC Milan||AS Roma|
|W 1-0 @ Bologna||W 3-0 vs. Chievo|
|D 3-3 vs. Frosinone||W 3-2 @ Genoa|
|L 2-1 @ Verona||W 1-0 vs. Napoli|
|D 0-0 vs. Carpi||W 3-0 vs. Torino|
|W 1-0 @ Sampdoria||D 3-3 @ Atalanta|
|AC Milan (4-3-1-2)||AS Roma (4-3-3)|
|Abate Mexes Romagonli De Sciglio||Florenzi Manolas Rudiger Digne|
|Mauri Montolivo Kucka||Nainggolan Pjanic De Rossi|
|Honda||Perotti Salah El Shaarawy|
AC Milan: OUT: LB Luca Antonelli (leg). DOUBTFUL: FW M'Baye Niang (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: M Giacomo Bonaventura (hip).
AS Roma: OUT: M William Vainqueur (contusion). DOUBTFUL: M Seydou Keita (ankle).
If AC Milan are going to win, they need to create in the attacking third. They haven't been able to do that at any level in the last few weeks. Much of that struggle has to do with the absence of Giacomo Bonaventura, who has missed the last three games with leg and hip injuries.
Bonaventura is Milan's most consistent threat as a creative force. When other players aren't on point, he is sometimes the team's only creative threat.
Unfortunately for Milan, that's been a large portion of the time. Bonaventura has returned to training, but it remains to be seen whether he will factor into the starting XI. In the three games he's missed Milan has simply looked limp going forward. They can barely create anything in attack, and when your main striker is Carlos Bacca, who relies on service from his teammates for goals, that's an inexcusable weakness.
If he's fit, Bonaventura will play in this game, considering the need to get him back to some semblance of match fitness before the Coppa Final. WhoScored.com projects him to start, but we're projecting Keisuke Honda to start and Bonaventura to come on off the bench.
Milan will be competing against a familiar face. Stephan El Shaarawy broke out with the Rossoneri in 2012, but recurring injuries forced him to the sideline for extended periods in the seasons since.
He was loaned to Monaco this summer in a deal that included a mandatory option if he reached a certain number of appearances. When he was one shy of that mark he was benched, as the French side decided they didn't want that option to kick in.
Faced with the prospect of their player rotting on a bench for half a season, Milan recalled the winger and loaned him again, this time to Roma.
He exploded out of the gate. In his first seven games he scored five times,—including a brace against Empoli at the end of February—and added two assists. He's only scored twice in the 10 games since, but he's a constant threat down the left side, averaging 2.9 shots per game according to WhoScored.com and completing 80.9 percent of his passes.
El Shaarawy wasn't at Roma when these teams met in January, but now he has the chance to prove to Milan they made a mistake in giving up on him—and could convince Roma to make the move permanent if he performs at top level in a high-stakes match.
Mohamad Salah has taken up the role of a false nine for Roma in recent games. With Edin Dzeko out of form and out of favor, Salah—the team's leading scorer with 13—is going to be the main threat against Milan.
Blessed with pace reminiscent of Barry Allen, Salah can carve a team up if given the chance. He's a decent enough creator—1.9 key passes per game according to WhoScored.com, the Egypt international is a deadly force on the counterattack. Had he cashed in a few chances in the home leg of the Champions League knockout Round of 16 with Real Madrid, that tie cold have been very different indeed.
It will be the job of Alessio Romagnoli to keep him in check. The young defender has had a positive season since arriving from Roma in August, and he has continued to improve.
Not a volume tackler, Romagnoli instead relies on his smarts and positioning in order to keep attackers in check. He especially excels at keeping strikers from getting the ball in the first place. WhoScored.com clocks him at 2.5 interceptions per game versus only 1.2 tackles.
He is a bit rash at times, as shown by the eight yellow cards—and one red—but he has proven himself to be good already—and he could be great. With the stakes so high, this game will be his supreme test.
Betting Odds (via Odds Shark)
Milan win: 21-10
Roma win: 11-10