There could be nothing more overt to signify the dawn of a new AC Milan era. With new ownership on the horizon, a new head coach in Vincenzo Montella, a new style of football and a promising crop of exciting young players, all that remained was a symbolic result to mark the changing times.
That result came on Saturday night, as Milan defeated reigning Italian champions Juventus 1-0 at the San Siro to move within two points of their league-leading visitors in the ninth round of Serie A action.
Juventus had won their previous six fixtures in all competitions going into the clash, a sequence that saw them reassert their authority in the race for a record-breaking sixth consecutive Scudetto.
Indeed, they had dropped points on only one occasion before Saturday night, losing to Inter Milan at the San Siro on 18 September.
Their second defeat would come in the same stadium against a team enjoying a rejuvenation of their own.
Montella has not only brought more entertaining football to Milan, but he has restored a semblance of cohesion following a disjointed period that saw the club miss out on European competition for three successive years. As discussed in this previous post, his tactical choices have often been surprisingly pragmatic, and his team have been all the more effective for it.
Five wins and one draw from six league outings is tangible proof of the improvement.
Juventus threatened ominously in the early proceedings of Saturday night’s clash but were unable to break the deadlock. Milan defended well, with most of the visitors’ chances coming aerially from crosses.
After a tense opening, a game-changing event occurred on 32 minutes when Paulo Dybala slipped after attempting to lob Gianluigi Donnarumma from long-range. Having lost his footing, the lithe Argentinian forward picked up an injury and was forced to go off, being replaced by Juan Cuadrado, a player who—while equally tricky—lacks a clinical touch in the final third.
However, in spite of some stout Milan defending, Juventus had a perfectly good goal disallowed for offside. Miralem Pjanic’s curled cross from a free-kick went straight through and into the back of the net, though the officials ruled the strike out for interference from Leonardo Bonucci, who replays proved to be onside when the ball was struck.
With fortune favouring them, Milan pressed on and began to threaten themselves. M’Baye Niang was particularly impressive, tormenting Andrea Barzagli with his speed and turns, but he was unable to pick out a runner with any of his whipped, left-footed crosses into the penalty area.
At the end of a tight first half the score remained 0-0. However, any burgeoning optimism on Milan’s side was countered by harsh reminders of recent history.
The Rossoneri’s last win against Juventus came on 25 November 2012, almost four years ago. On that occasion, a Robinho penalty was enough to secure all three points, but since then, Milan had lost seven successive encounters with the Bianconeri.
This terrible run of form was broken in large part by the confidence and quality of a new group of young players. On 65 minutes, one member of this group, Manuel Locatelli, made a special contribution to the game.
After surging forward to join an attack, the 18-year-old picked up the ball in the right channel following some good work and a clever pass inside by Suso. And, having taken a touch to control and move into the Juventus penalty box, he unfurled a superb right-footed strike into the top left corner of the away side’s net. Iconic goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was left flailing as the ball cannoned in off the crossbar.
This was Locatelli’s second stunning strike in a matter of weeks. The midfielder, who has stepped in for the injured Riccardo Montolivo in recent weeks, was responsible for an exceptional equaliser in the thrilling 4-3 victory over Sassuolo earlier this month. And his second goal for the club would prove to be an all-important winner.
Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri, who was in charge of Milan the last time they won this particular fixture, was compelled into an attacking change, switching to a back four and bringing striker Mario Mandzukic on for central defender Medhi Benatia.
Montella’s side panicked defensively at times but were helped by the commanding presence of their 17-year-old goalkeeper Donnarumma.
After taking Pjanic’s studs to the head, the young shot-stopper was left requiring treatment after bravely gathering a low ball into his area. However, not only would he stay on the pitch, but he would provide a vital save in the dying embers of the match.
Just as he did on the opening day of the season, when his save from an Andrea Belotti penalty ensured Milan sealed all three points against Torino, he showed outstanding reflexes to deny Juventus in the final seconds on Saturday evening.
With anxious Milan fans jeering from the stands, referee Nicola Rizzoli allowed the away team one last attack, something they almost took advantage of through German midfielder Sami Khedira.
Gathering the ball on the edge of the box, Khedira fired off a fine shot that seemed destined to find the back of the net. Milan’s winless curse in the fixture would carry on. That was until Donnarumma moved instinctively to fingertip the strike over the bar.
Thanks to a teenage goalkeeper, Milan became the first team in Serie A to keep a clean sheet against the champions this season. And, thanks to a teenage midfield playmaker, they picked up their first win in almost four years against Juventus, moving—albeit potentially temporarily—into second place as a consequence.
The result meant a lot, especially to Montella, who told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia) after the match:
You cannot think of beating Juve without suffering at least a little bit. I really liked the courage and confidence my team showed in spells … and we must build on this.
To be honest, tonight I really was emotional. After the final whistle I saw the lads rush to celebrate under the Curva and I had memories flooding back of my adolescence, when I was a Milan supporter and dreamed of playing here.
Locatelli, who was awarded WhoScored.com’s man of the match for his goal, tackles, interceptions and passes, was equally overwhelmed. “I still haven’t quite realised what I’ve done,” he told Mediaset Premium (h/t Football Italia) in a post-game interview.
To put things into perspective, the last time Milan defeated Juventus, Locatelli was just 14 years of age. Donnarumma was 13. The former had joined the Rossoneri youth academy from Atalanta three years previously, while the latter was still playing for a local side in his hometown of Castellammare di Stabia.
That it was they who would score the goal and make the saves to finally win once more against Juventus is a poignant reminder not just of how bleak the club’s recent history has been, but of how bright the long-term future appears.
Milan and their ever-improving cast of prospects may not yet be Scudetto contenders, but Saturday night confirmed that they belong among the best in Serie A once again. Not only did their victory break a four-year winless streak against Juventus, it symbolised the dawn of an exciting new era for the club.