When Milan’s sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli said last week that one of the reasons the club decided to change manager was to give the players a “shock”, he did not have a 2-2 draw with lowly Benevento in mind.
Just when you thought Milan had hit rock bottom relative to their own great expectations, they plumbed new depths by becoming the first team to drop points to the hitherto pointless Benevento. To add insult to injury - "we must lick our wounds," says new boss Gennaro Gattuso - a fake account claiming to be second division side Carpi sent a sarcastic grazie Milan's way for ensuring they’d no longer be known as the last team to fail to win against Serie A’s bottom club.
Milan couldn’t just sweep this one under the carpet. A concatenation of events drew everybody’s attention to the Sannio.
First of all, it was Gattuso’s debut on the Milan bench. Down the sideline from Ringhio was Roberto De Zerbi, the Benevento manager who he's had a run-in with in the past. The last time they met was a third division play-off between Foggia and Pisa, which lives long in the memory for the slightly absurd sight of Gattuso applying an ice pack to his head after being struck by a projectile thrown from the crowd. A combustible character at the best of times, there was great anticipation around how Gattuso might react if De Zerbi provoked him.
Then, of course, came the small matter of Benevento’s infamy as the worst team Serie A has ever known. Fourteen defeats in 14 league games has made them a byword for being terrible at something. Not even this Milan could stuff this up. Vincenzo Montella was sacked, in part, because the team kept losing the big games - not the little ones. Milan had dropped just two points from a possible 18 against sides in Serie A’s bottom half. Until Sunday, that is.
To enrich the already potent gunpowder mix of this particular cluster bomb and make sure the explosion would be felt not just in Italy, but around the world, a very special ingredient was required. Something mindblowing. Like a goalkeeper equalising in the 95th minute with a diving header. “I dreamt a lot about this game,” Gattuso said afterwards. “But a goalkeeper scoring a goal wasn’t in any of them.” It will now figure in his nightmares.
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Judging by what Gattuso then said in the heat of the moment, maybe an ice pack applied to the head would have been advisable at the final whistle. “[Conceding a goal like that in the 95th minute] definitely burns. It hurts,” he grimaced. “A stabbing would have been better.” It was a distasteful and insensitive thing to say. Gattuso meant no offence but he should choose his words more carefully in future.
In truth, it did not come as a surprise. The language used was entirely in keeping with the blood and thunder communication strategy Gattuso employs as a manager. At his unveiling he spoke about players putting their foot in and throwing themselves into the fire for each other. You expect more of managers these days and frankly the amount of time spent talking in those terms rather than about tactics and organisation left you questioning whether Milan can seriously improve under Gattuso.
Just how much substance there is behind his hard man style will become clear between now and the end of the season. Sunday’s performance didn’t exactly inspire confidence, particularly the last 15 minutes. Alessio Romagnoli was sent off and rather than alleviate the situation, Gattuso’s reaction only exacerbated it.
Rather than keeping in mind who they were up against - “Lads, it’s Benevento” - Gattuso made a negative substitute, replacing Suso, their most dangerous player, with Cristian Zapata, another centre-back. He decided Milan would see the game out, defending inside their own penalty. They dared Benevento to score and, guess what, score they did.
As news of Milan’s 2-2 draw reached San Siro, Ivan Perisic and the rest of the Inter players all had a good laugh at their expense. They then smashed Chievo, leapfrogging Napoli and Juventus to the top of the table. Eighteen points better off than at this stage last season, Inter are Serie A’s most improved team. Genoa, by contrast, are the team that has regressed most, followed ignominiously by Milan (-11).
On paper the fixtures between now and Christmas are downhill. This is one of the reasons why Milan decided to make the change when they did. But the truth is Bologna, Atalanta and Fiorentina will all fancy themselves against Milan, even at San Siro. It seems things could get worse before they start getting better.