You could not blame Milan fans for enjoying a moment of schadenfreude. They had endured abundant humiliations already this season, from the 4-1 mauling at Lazio through to the last-gasp draw against pointless Benevento. It was time for somebody else to suffer. Better yet that it should be their neighbours, Inter, who had begun the weekend top of the table.
The Nerazzurri were expected to extend their unbeaten start at home to 13th-placed Udinese on Saturday. There was a festive vibe at San Siro, where fans were given Santa hats before being invited to join in with a half-time rendition of this year’s Christmas smash-hit: Inter Bells. With the scores still level at 1-1, the crowd was happy to join in.
Moods turned after the interval, as Udinese struck twice more to claim an upset win. By the end of the day, Napoli had replaced Inter in first. Although Milan were nowhere close, supporters could at least look forward to a few days of teasing their neighbours for once.
All they had to do was win their own game against Verona one day later. It should have been straightforward; they had thrashed these opponents 3-0 in the Coppa Italia on Wednesday. Despite the margin of victory, that game had ended with homegrown teenage striker Patrick Cutrone tracking back to fight for possession in his own half. His efforts were lauded as evidence of Gennaro Gattuso’s hard-work ethos taking hold. The manager himself, though, warned against complacency. “It will be a different game at the Bentegodi [stadium],” he insisted. “I am sure of it.”
Milan, as Gattuso reminded us, do not have a happy history at this venue. End-of-season defeats there in 1973 and 1990 cost the Rossoneri two Scudetti, prompting journalists to coin the phrase ‘Fatal Verona’. The circumstances were very different this time around and yet, as Milan would discover, the potential for humiliation remained.
Verona sat just one spot off last place, with two wins. They lost both their starting forwards – Alessio Cerci and Mattia Valoti – to injury inside the first 32 minutes but grabbed their first goal between those two setbacks and never looked back. They went on to win 3-0: mirroring the scoreline by which they had lost just four days earlier.
How could this happen? Straightforward answers are not easy to find. By any measurable standard, Milan outplayed Verona: holding almost 68% of possession and taking 30 shots to their hosts’ six. And yet, from the moment they fell behind to Antonio Caracciolo’s header, you never really believed they would find a way back.
They never do. Milan have now fallen behind in seven Serie A matches this season, and lost on every occasion. Gattuso would speak at full-time about mental fragility and a lack of conviction, areas he intends to work on with his players. To what extent, though, is that even possible through work on the training ground alone?
Off-field distractions are threatening to engulf this club. On Friday, Uefa formally rejected Milan’s application for a voluntary agreement to meet their Financial Fair Play obligations. A framework exists for the governing body to show leniency towards clubs that have undergone recent takeovers, if they can demonstrate that a plan is in place to balance the books going forwards. Yet Uefa expressed concern regarding Milan’s ability to repay a €303m loan from Elliott Capital by October of next year, and owner Li Yonghong was unable to provide the requested financial guarantees. They will now work towards a settlement agreement, but this may entail fines and restrictions on the number of players the club can register for official competitions.
Although such events do not impact players directly, they certainly sap away at the energy and optimism that had flourished during Milan’s lavish summer. And perhaps even more damaging have been the developments surrounding Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The goalkeeper was seen crying in the changing room before the cup win over Verona, after being targeted by his own club’s fans. A giant banner in the Curva Sud invited him to “get lost”, while “piece of shit” chants rained down from the stands.
Supporters were reacting to reports that Donnarumma’s lawyers had written to the club requesting they rescind the new contract he signed in the summer. This demand was founded on the claim he had agreed the deal under duress, having been subjected to intense pressure by the club – as well as pilloried by supporters – after his agent, Mino Raiola, stated in June that no such agreement would be reached.
The term “moral violence” was cited by Corriere della Sera, and that in particular got under supporters’ skin. That phrase appeared on the Curva Sud banner, together with a reminder that Donnarumma earns €6m a year, and that his “parasite brother”, another goalkeeper, is also on the club’s books.
Without seeing the communications between the player’s lawyers and the club, it is hard to know whether any path to rescinding the contract truly exists. Certainly, the waters are muddied by the fact that an agreed release clause – set at €70m if Milan reach the Champions League, and €40m if they don’t – appears never to have been registered with the Italian Football Federation. What is evident, however, is that it can never be ideal for your starting goalkeeper to be reduced to tears by his own supporters. Milan did win on Wednesday, but it was notable that Donnarumma hung back from his team-mates as they went to acknowledge supporters aafter the final whistle.
Gattuso has offered what protection he can, but has plenty more on his plate. It was not just mental frailty that undid Milan on Sunday. They had all 11 men inside the box defending when the corner was sent over for Caracciolo’s opening goal, and yet two of four Verona players were unmarked by the time the ball reached the middle of the area. “I’m not [Catholic saint] Padre Pio, and I can’t perform miracles,” said Gattuso. “If there hadn’t been problems here, then I would never have got the job.”
This was not an excuse – he had begun by apologising and taking full responsibility for the defeat – but simply an acknowledgement of reality. That he is battling against a deeply embedded malaise can be demonstrated in a hundred different ways, including the statistic that shows they have won just one of their last six games against newly-promoted teams.
Talk of ‘Fatal Verona’ feels exaggerated, though. Who was this defeat fatal to? Milan have already changed manager, and hopes for a glorious season died off long ago. Fans would be content, in the short term, just to see the ship steadied so they can have a chance to enjoy somebody else’s failures for once. Even that, apparently, is too much to ask.
The Guardian Sport