AC Milan and U.S. Sassuolo both came into this match looking for a spot in the Europa League, and Milan emerged victorious. The Rossoneri were able to stifle their opponents’ threatening attack and overcome two injuries to key defensive players. The big win also confirmed that Milan will finish no lower than seventh place in Serie A with three matches remaining.
As the game began, Sassuolo immediately took the fight to the Rossoneri, who looked rather lackadaisical despite the match’s huge importance. Milan turned over the ball in their defensive third twice in the first three minutes, with Théo Hernandez and Ismaël Bennacer being the two guilty parties. Both giveaways were frighteningly close to the goal, but captain Alessio Romagnoli bailed out his side both times with two well-timed clearances. Milan’s fortunes became still worse in the 10th minute when left back Andrea Conti went down with an apparent muscle injury. The defender was replaced by Davide Calabria, who was looking to continue his good form after scoring against Bologna.
In the 12th minute, Sassuolo star Domenico Berardi created the first dangerous chance of the match, when he cut across the top of Milan’s 18-yard box and fired a shot on goal. However, Romagnoli did well to close down the right winger, and his shot was a weak effort, easily saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
As the 15th minute came and went, the tide started to turn in Milan’s favor, and the club began to control more and more of the posession. In the 19th minute, a dreadful turnover by Federico Peluso allowed Franck Kessié to spark a Milan attack just 30 yards from the Sassuolo goal. Hakan Çalhanoğlu took the ball and played a lovely cross into the box, launching incredibly high and then dipping down to the head of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big Swede did not miss his chance and put Milan up 1-0 with a diving header.
Minutes after the cooling break, Romagnoli was subbed off for Matteo Gabbia. The captain had sustained a muscular injury when jumping to head the ball, meaning that Milan’s backline was facing serious trouble from Sassuolo’s potent offense. Milan’s defensive situation became even worse when Théo Hernandez picked up a yellow card just before halftime for a reckless foul, meaning that he will be suspended for the next match against Atalanta.
On the ensuing free kick Sassuolo nearly equalized, but Francesco Caputo’s header was deflected wide of the goal. However, a subsequent VAR review determined that the free kick had deflected off of Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s forearm, giving Sassuolo a penalty. Caputo then converted the kick, drawing the match level minutes before halftime.
Çalhanoğlu redeemed himself in stoppage time with a beautiful assist that pulled the Rossoneri back in front. In a 3-on-4 and faced with two Sassuolo defenders, the Turk slotted an impressive through ball to Ibrahimovic, who was left completely unmarked on the opposing backline. The striker then took a soft touch around goalkeeper Andrea Consigli and finished into the open net for his second of the day.
The stoppage time drama continued with the last play before halftime. Medhi Bourabia, rushing to challenge for the ball, slid in on Ante Rebić from behind, completely blindsiding the Croation forward. It was a reckless and needless challenge, and it saw Bourabia earn his second yellow of the match, leaving Sassuolo to surmount a 2-1 deficit with just ten players.
Milan made another defensive subsitution during halftime: Théo Hernandez was removed in favor of Diego Laxalt. The timing seems odd, even if Laxalt needs to prepare for the upcoming Atalanta match. Sassuolo, albeit with ten men, is an incredibly dangerous attacking side, and removing Hernandez, who had played decently in the first half, was a risky move.
In the 61st minute, a challenge from Ismaël Bennacer resulted in a yellow card for the Algerian, suspending him for the Atalanta match. Injuries and suspensions have really piled up for the upcoming match, as Bennacer and Hernandez are suspended and Conti and Romagnoli are questionable with injuries.
Zlatan nearly secured a hat trick in the 65th minute. Following a nice move by Çalhanoğlu to avoid oncoming defenders, the striker and Kessié combined on a 1-2 inside Sassuolo’s box. Ibrahimovic was in on goal, but his touch was just too big, and it resulted in a fine save by Consigli. 10 minutes later, yet another giveaway by Sassuolo nearly resulted in a Milan goal. This time it was the fault of a poor pass from Consigli, but Bennacer was unable to make the goalkeeper pay from long range.
Milan almost grabbed the third goal with 10 minutes left, when a Franck Kessié shot was saved by Consigli and fell to the feet of Jack Bonaventura. The midfielder then missed two point blank shots on goal, both of which were saved acrobatically by the Sassuolo goalkeeper.
The match eventually came to a close, with Milan winning by a tightly contested 2-1 margin. Of course, this victory means that AC Milan have at last qualified for the Europa League, despite their chances looking dubious for much of the season. The Rossoneri will now have to go face Atalanta in a blockbuster top 6 matchup, where a potential victory will be even more difficult to reach, given the sudden rash of injuries and suspensions.