The audio version of this article also featured on this week’s Onside Inzaghi Podcast.
Gazzetta dello Sport diplomatically referred to it as a ‘change of roles’. As tension dissolved into a 30 man on pitch brawl at San Siro, it was no surprise to see Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso at it’s centre. However, contrasting his combative midfield enforcer persona, Gattuso was this time the peacekeeper. Following the failures of Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Vincenzo Montella in the Milan dugout since Massimiliano Allegri’s 2014 departure, Gattuso’s surprisingly steady management and a crucial win over rivals Lazio back in sight of a Champions League berth. This is assuming he can keep his players in check between now and the end of the season.
While the full time fitsy-cuffs garnered most of the attention, the game itself hinged on a trio of late penalty decisions. Firstly Milan were initially award a spot kick in the 75th minute after Hakan Calhanoglu’s stabbed cross struck Franco Acerbi on the forearm. However, after a VAR review, referee Gianluca Rocchi overturned his decision given that Acerbi's arm was tucked across his chest. Which does show some sort of consistency given the current interpretation of the handball rule as questionable decisions from the World Cup onwards have largely featured an outstretched arm, widening the so-called ‘silhouette’ of the defender. That not being the case here.
Less than two minutes later, Rocchi again pointed to the spot. Diego Laxalt’s looped cross bounced near the penalty spot and lead to a collision between Milan defender Mateo Musacchio and Lazio sub Riza Durmisi. Musacchio seems to get to the ball slightly before Durmisi who barges into Musacchio, showing intention to play the ball. Although still soft a penalty seems fair, although some complained that Rocchi was not asked by VAR officials to review the footage of the incident. Kessie stepped up to confidently side foot home what Gazzetta dello Sport called the ‘50m euro penalty.’
Lazio’s feeling of injustice was enhanced in injury time after Milan full back Ricardo Rodriguez’s challenge on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Milinkovic-Savic’s chest control had taken him away from Rodriguez, who’s desperate swing of his left foot with Milinkovic-Savic bared down on goal was ill-advised at best but he does appear to win the ball before making contact. For Rocchi, who was clearly incontact with VAR officials in the aftermath, to give a penalty would have been more than harsh. Gazzetta, based in Milan, also agreed with the referee, saying that ‘the more the images are reviewed the more Rocchi's decision seems correct.’
Deosite making the right call on all three incidents and that Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi had praised the appointment of Rocchi beforehand, as he had “refereed the biggest games with great quality and given the importance of tomorrow's game I don't think there was anything better,” Lazio sporting director Igli Tare’s tone afterwards was very different.
“Unfortunately, what we thought would happen before the game did indeed happen,” Tare told Sky Italian, “We knew after the controversy when Milan didn’t get a penalty against Juventus… we’ve got experience, we know what happens. We are a team who last season missed out on the Champions League due to many incidents that went against us.” Tare later received a ban for the rest of April as a result of his comments.
Gazzetta meanwhile praised Gattuso’s tactical switch in the second half, Laxalt introduced for Calabria and moving to a 3421 with Borini and Laxalt as wing backs with Calhanoglu and Suso playing closer to Piatek who had been isolated in the first half. The paper did however question the decision not to pair young Italian striker Patrick Cutrone with Piatek in attack ‘but as long as Milan win, Gattuso is right’ the paper said. Milan keeper Pepe Reina also drew praise from Gazzetta as their man of the match with 7/10 after an early close range reflex save from Ciro Immobile.
Gattuso meanwhile congratulated his team for “giving everything” and “winning the battle in midfield. The team did its duty. The players have to fight for the shirt. Coaches come and go but the club remains. It was our duty to put in a strong performance.” explained the Milan coach, “We have found the road lost after the derby, now the uncertainties must be replaced with enthusiasm. We must all help each other to continue like this.”
Following a breathless final quarter, the aggression boiled over into what Gazzetta called ‘an old-fashioned brawl’ at full time. The scuffle started, according to a video from the stands, after Lazio’s Luiz Felipe barged into Milan winger Suso as he exchanged words with Lucas Leiva. Both teams and both benches quickly piled in with the usual pointing and shoving mixed various attempts to hold each other back, although the footage also appeared to show one or two punches being thrown
“I gave myself a thigh strain running over to calm everyone down!” said Gattuso, “I was on the bench, I saw some words fly between the sets of players. The important thing is that it ends here. When I was a player, this sort of thing fired me up, but now I see it with different eyes and am too old for it all.” Gattuso joking that he also feared for his chances in any fight because “they’ve all been to the gym more than me.”
Tension between players had been high for some time. Lazio being without an away Serie A win against Milan since 1989, Acerbi said last week: “We’re going there to win, we are better than Milan. As individual players, there is no comparison.” Milan midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko replied via social media, saying: "Ok, we'll see you on Saturday." At full time, Acerbi and Bakayoko seemed to have made up, hugging and exchanging shirts, but Lazio fans ire was again insighted as Kessie and Bakayoko held Acerbi’s shirt up to the curva in celebration, something many saw as a mocking and unsporting act.
Later however, Acerbi attempted to de-escalate matters, posting a picture of himself and Bakayoko hugging. “No more controversy, we'll see on the field.” wrote Acerdi, “I’m sorry because I traded shirts to put an end to the issue, fomenting hatred is not sport but a sign of weakness.” Bakayoko meanwhile apologised, stating he had “the utmost respect” for Acerbi despite then admitting “it was a tease but there was no malice. We absolutely didn't want to offend you or your team”. Nevertheless, Lazio forward Ciro Immobile was wasn't so reserved via Instagram, referring to Kessie and Bakayoko as "Two small men... holding the shirt of a champion”
Although Gazzetta reported that ‘there was no trace in the referee's report of the Kessie-Bakayoko affair’, according to Football Italia, FIGC President Gabriele Gravina called for Bakayoko and Kessie to be sanctioned for their “disrespectful” actions, supposedly brandishing Acerbi’s shirt "like a scalp." The Rome based paper Corriere dello Sport meanwhile quoted controversial Italian Deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini who criticized Kessie and Bakayoko via Radio. Nevertheless Football Italia reported on Tuesday afternoon Kessie and Bakayoko would avoid bans for their actions, although several players and staff received 10,000 euro fines as a result of the brawl.
Gazzetta meanwhile discussed Kessie’s, far less apologetic than Bakayoko, longer term future at the Milanese club. Despite being a prominent part of the team since arriving from Atalanta in summer 2017 for 28m euros, his attitude has been questioned of late. The midfielder was docked 40,000 euros last month following a confrontation with fellow Milan player Lucas Biglia after being substituted during the derby loss to Inter. "It takes respect,” said Gattuso, “I built my career on certain values.”
Lost in the furore of VAR, shirt waving and fist throwing was that, with just 6 games to go, these are three pivotal points for Milan, especially after Atalanta’s goalless home draw with Empoli on Monday night. Milan now enjoy a point’s lead over Roma in 5th with a trip to Torino their only remaining game against teams in the top nine. Lazio, now 8th, will look to Wednesday’s game in hand with relegation threatened Udinese at the Olimpico to close a 4 point gap to the Europa League spots and a six point gap to the top 4.
The two club’s won’t have to wait long to resume hostilities however, their Coppa Italia semi final second leg at San Siro just a week away. For Gattuso, who continues to quietly yet successfully this beremoth club in the right direction, Serie A will remain pivotal with a return to Champions League football for the first time since 2014 in their hands.
by Adam White