Without star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, AC Milan resumed their Serie A campaign today against Lecce. The first ten minutes were a drab affair as the two sides cautiously knocked off some of the rust that had built up over the previous three months, but the match quickly picked up.
The first decent chance for Milan came in the fifteenth minute, when Théo Hernandez headed a corner kick towards Jack Bonaventura, who blasted a point blank strike into Lecce goalkeeper Gabriel.
Just two minutes later, a Hernandez-led counter attack resulted in another good look for the Rossoneri, but Bonaventura found Samu Castillejo a moment too late, and Gabriel was able stop the shot.
Milan did a fantastic job of keeping pressure on the Lecce backline, essentially trapping Lecce in their defensive third for much of the first half. Castillejo, Hernandez and Ante Rebić all worked hard to maintain the pressure on the opposition, which resulted in several turnovers.
Castillejo’s efforts were rewarded in the 26th minute, when a beautiful low cross from Hakan Çalhanoğlu found him wide open just six yards from goal. The winger easily fired a one-touch shot past Gabriel, giving Milan a one goal lead.
A Lecce counter attack threatened Milan in the 36th minute, when a goal by Fillipo Falco was denied by an offside call and subsequently by VAR. As the half progressed, Lecce was able to slow down the game and build their attacks more competently, with the home side sapping momentum from the visitors. The Milanese also lost a key player when centre back Simon Kjaer was suddenly taken off in the 39th minute due to a knee injury.
Lecce almost drew the match level just before halftime, when an errant header from Ismael Bennacer allowed Gianluca Lapadula an open look on goal, which he promptly missed wide right.
Théo Hernandez was especially dominant on the left wing during the first half, which, as ESPN analyst Matteo Bonetti noted, allowed Çalhanoğlu, Bonaventura and Castillejo to overload the right wing and the centre of the pitch, which was critical to beating talented left back Marco Calderoni. Milan survived the final minutes of the half and made it to the locker room up 1-0, but the club was rather fortunate to not be locked into a draw.
Lecce took off Lapadula to begin the second half, as the striker had picked up an ankle injury earlier in the match. The 30-year-old, who has 7 goals this season and is one of Lecce’s biggest threats, was replaced by Khouma Babacar.
Babacar nearly tied the game in the 51st minute, when Riccardo Saponara found him in the box, but the Senegalese striker was unable to convert the chance.
Disaster struck in the 53rd minute when Matteo Gabbia - Kjaer’s replacement - took down Babacar in the box. Marco Mancosu scored the penalty, sending Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way. Just like that, Lecce were controlling the match... until they weren’t.
Moments after the penalty, Gabriel was unable to control a powerful strike from Hakan Çalhanoğlu, and Jack Bonaventura followed up the shot to put Milan ahead 2-1. Then, just two minutes later, Lecce left Saponara alone on their backline for a set piece, which backfired dramatically. Alessio Romagnoli intercepted a cross and played the ball to Çalhanoğlu, who sent it long to Ante Rebić. The Croatian easily evaded Lecce’s sole defender and put the ball past Gabriel in a one-on-one. This exciting 10 minute stretch saw Lecce gain and lose control of the match, and AC Milan was able to come out in front.
Rebić, who was probably the best player on the field, was taken off in the 68th minute and replaced by Rafael Leão. The forward had worked incredibly hard, constantly pressing high and contributing to most of Milan’s offensive surges.
Leão quickly made his mark on the match, when an Andrea Conti cross found the Portuguese forward’s head, and Milan was up 4-1. The rest of the match was relatively quiet, with Milan dominating possession and not allowing Lecce to even sniff at a comeback.
Hakan Çalhanoğlu was quietly one of Milan’s best players: the midfielder picked up two assists and created the second goal with his blocked shot. The Rossoneri were the better team the majority of the match, and the club will look to continue their good form against Roma on Sunday.