Gennaro Gattuso likened it to a cup final. His Milan team, fourth in the table, were facing Lazio, three points behind with a game in hand. Both were battling to occupy Italy’s last Champions League berth. Gazzetta dello Sport billed it as “a €50m match”.
Never mind the fact that, with a month and a half of the season remaining, it would be quite possible for either side to lose and finish fourth anyway (or even overtake Inter in third). Nor indeed the prospect that both could miss out at the same time. Atalanta began the weekend level on points with the Rossoneri, and Roma just one behind.
Such scenarios could be put aside for one evening. Gattuso needed to do what he could to restore his players’ focus. Milan were in the midst of their worst run all season, having earned a single point from their preceding four fixtures. Defeat to Inter in the derby undercut their confidence and two key starters, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Lucas Paquetá, had sustained injuries since.
Hyperbole, though, is a double-edged sword. Milan would achieve the win they needed against Lazio, Franck Kessié scoring the only goal from the penalty spot. But victory in a cup final demands a trophy to show off afterwards. And the midfielder found one in the form of Francesco Acerbi’s shirt.
The Lazio defender had provided Milan with some bulletin board material in the build-up to this game, telling reporters his team boasted superior talent. “We’re going there to win, we are better than Milan,” he remarked. “As individual players, there is no comparison.”
He backed up his words with a solid performance – starving Krzysztof Piatek of opportunities up front for Milan. Acerbi did have a penalty awarded against him for handball with just under a quarter of an hour to play, but the decision was overturned after a VAR review showed that his arm had been drawn in tight to his torso.
The reprieve, however, did not last long for Lazio. Riza Durmisi clattered into Mateo Musacchio in the box moments later, and this time the spot-kick stood. Kessié waited for Thomas Strakosha to reveal which way he was diving before passing the ball into the opposite corner.
Tensions boiled over at the final whistle, with Lazio’s players aggrieved at the referee Gianluca Rocchi’s failure to award them a penalty of their own for a challenge by Ricardo Rodríguez on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. A scuffle broke out, with both benches flooding on to the pitch and Gattuso wading in to try and break things up.
There was a lot to unpick in the melee, with a series of physical confrontations between different groups of players – though they appeared to begin with Lazio’s Luis Felipe clattering into Suso. Nevertheless it was the decision by Kessié and Tiemoué Bakayoko to parade Acerbi’s shirt in front of Milan’s supporters afterwards that drew the greatest attention.
Acerbi had given it to Bakayoko in the first instance as a peace gesture. It was the midfielder’s “see you Saturday” tweet, accompanied by a smiley face emoji, that had ensured that the Lazio player’s remarks were picked up by the papers in the first place.
Both Bakayoko and Kessié apologised to Acerbi before the weekend was through, insisting they had not intended to stir up further ill-feeling when they paraded his shirt. “Mine was just a playful gesture,” wrote Bakayoko on Instagram. “It’s just the game. I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone.” Kessié echoed that sentiment, adding: “I only wanted to joke around, nothing more.”
Acerbi responded graciously, posting a picture of himself and Bakayoko hugging on Twitter, together with the message: “Enough polemics. See you on the pitch.” They will indeed, and soon. Lazio return to Milan for the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final on 24 April.
The Milan pair may be disciplined before then. A review has been launched into the post-game fracas, with fines and suspensions possible. Kessié was docked €40,000 by his club last month following a physical confrontation with teammate Lucas Biglia after being substituted during the loss to Inter.
There followed reports that he might be sold in the summer. For now, though, he remains indispensable to Gattuso’s tactical plans. Kessié’s box-to-box energy is essential to a team that lacks creativity in Paquetá’s absence.
And qualifying for the Champions League remains critical. Last week it was announced that Uefa has opened an investigation into potential breaches of financial fair play at Milan during 2016-2018. The club is still in the process of appealing against the punishment it received for breaches during the previous assessment window – from 2015-2017.
The club’s current owners, Elliott Management, argue they ought not to be held accountable for decisions taken by their predecessors, but even if that point is agreed they will need to demonstrate they are moving towards a break-even point in the future. Milan posted losses of more than €100m on recent accounts.
Hence why Saturday’s game felt like a final to Gattuso. He had more than Kessié to thank for the victory. Pepe Reina, replacing Donnarumma in goal, made a brilliant reflex save to deny Ciro Immobile in the second minute, and the same striker also hit a post during a dominant first half.
Play was more balanced after the interval, though the key substitutions were forced upon Gattuso – injuries to Alessio Romagnoli and Davide Calabria prompting the introductions of Cristian Zapata and Diego Laxalt. Fabio Borini went from playing on the left of a three-man attack to the right of a four-man defence.
Milan kept their heads when it mattered. Gattuso knows himself too well to condemn his players harshly for what followed. “As a player, [moments like this] got me going,” he confessed. “Nowadays I use my head a little more. Perhaps, let’s say it, I don’t have the means [for a fight]! If I take a slap now it stays with me.”
His hope will be that Lazio find it similarly hard to shake off this blow to their top-four ambitions.
• Juventus gave senior debuts to three players and duly lost to Spal for the first time since 1957 (and only the second time ever). A small delay to their title celebrations does not matter a jot, but the result certainly made a difference to Spal and their relegation rivals. “If you are facing Juve’s starting team that’s one thing, and if you play against them and they field players who haven’t had many minutes but they’re still starting quality that’s OK,” said Bologna’s Sinisa Mihajlovic after his team drew with Fiorentina. “But if you have, with all respect, kids or young players from Serie C, well, that doesn’t seem fair to me.”
• Marco Giampaolo extended his remarkable record in the match that matters most to Sampdoria fans – guiding his team to a 2-0 win over Genoa. He is unbeaten in six derbies (four wins, two draws) since taking over as manager of the Blucerchiati.