With Fiorentina winning in the afternoon and leapfrogging AC Milan, the Rossoneri entered their game on Sunday evening knowing that a win was essential to maintain course for the final Champions League position.
On the back of three league games without a win, the visit of Catania provided the ideal opportunity to begin the final push.
Allegri made six changes to the Milan side. Three were enforced with Abbiati, and Ambrosini injured whilst Zapata was suspended.
Kevin Constant, Robinho and Luca Antonini were on the bench with Marco Amelia, Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Bonera, Antonio Nocerino and Mathieu Flamini all starting. They were joined by Balotelli who was back following a suspension.
Milan lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with Montolivo used as the deepest midfielder.
Following their draw with Palermo,Catania had three suspensions to contend with meaning Castro and Rolin started along with Izco who survived a late fitness test.
There was an intensity and aggression to Milan’s early play, quick to press their opponents and win the ball back. Their objective had been set and they were determined to achieve it against a side who wanted to defend deep but could not prevent Milan finding space or having shots at goal.
Although set out as a 4-2-3-1 formation,Catania were under pressure from the start of the game and quickly fell into a 4-5-1 with lone striker Bergessio becoming isolated early on. Catania were unable to find him with passes to push higher up the pitch and so repeated clearances were collected by Milan players and the pressure was maintained.
The graphic below shows the clearances made by the Catania defence during the game:-
On the few occasions when Catania did push higher up the pitch and tried to press Milan higher, the side became stretched as the defence remained deep. The Rossazzurri could not maintain any decent possession and continually invited trouble as a consequence.
Part of the problem was that neither Lodi or Almiron are normally utilised as defensive midfielders. Asked to provide greater defensive cover than normal, the cracks were showing early as they struggled to contend with Milan attacks.
The Sicilians were far too deep for much of this game. They conceded ground too readily yet they neither controlled space not did they mark their opponents particularly well as Milan racked up 38 shots at goal over the ninety minutes. Catania simply responded by trying to hold on desperately but did so far too soon.
Having taken a surprise lead via Legrottaglie’s header in the 29th minute following a Lodi free kick, goalkeeper Frison was cautioned for time wasting in the 36th minute following a period of intense Milan pressure which had somehow failed to reap reward for the Rossoneri. Catania escaped the concession of a goal by sheer weight of numbers and throwing bodies in the way of shots.
In the context of the Legrottaglie goal, it’s worth considering that Milan have conceded 14 goals from headers this season, the highest total in Serie A.
Coach Rolando Maran did try to strike a better balance in the second half with Gomez moving from his wide left berth to become closer to Bergessio and offer him improved support. It aided the teams’ ability to push up the pitch and offer the defence some much needed respite.
The graphic above shows the interceptions that Catania made with the majority arriving on their left. This was to be expected as Milan attacked mainly down their right side.
The Milan Right
Milan made their intentions known from the outset in this game with midfielders Nocerino and especially Flamini moving forward at every opportunity and breaking into the penalty area.
Out wide both full backs moved high to offer width to Milan but especially Abate on the right. Whereas De Sciglio was slightly more conservative, Abate had no hesitation in moving high up the pitch and was available to receive passes and stretch the opponent.
Abate was aided by Boatang on the right and Flamini breaking forward when the opportunity presented itself. It enabled Milan to create overloads in certain areas which afforded Abate space. The graphic below shows the heat map for Abate:-
With Abate so high, there were opportunities for Catania. Leading 1-0, Gomez broke diagonally in off the left and charged forward unmarked but his shot went wide.
With Abate so involved, he played a major role in the equaliser, delivering the cross which Balotelli controlled for Flamini to finish. There had been earlier warnings. A similar cross from Abate in the 31st minute found El Shaarawy who set up Boatang to crash a shot off the bar.
The tempo of the game dropped around the 60th minute mark. Milan were still controlling possession but the higher positioning of Gomez and the Catania team as a whole being more attack minded had an influence too. Nocerino and Flamini were not pushing as high as they had done early in the game although tiredness may have been a contributory factor also.
Catania began to enjoy their best period of the game and regained the lead in the 64th minute following a surging run forward from left back by Izco. Gomez played the ball in behind Abate who was caught on his blind side by the run of Bergessio who dinked the ball over the oncoming Amelia.
With Catania looking relatively comfortable, Allegri made his first substitution. It’s fair to say Pazzini was not the substitute the crowd were expecting when Nocerino went off yet his impact was immediate and within ten minutes Milanwere leading 3-2.
First, Frison was unable to hold a Balotelli shot and Pazzini scored the rebound before Milan caught Catania out during a transition. The attack began on the Milan right before recycling the ball to the left where el Shaarawy’s shot was saved and Pazzini was on hand once again. The striker has 15 goals in 15 starts forMilan this season.
Leaving aside his recent suspension and his habit of collecting cautions for dissent, Balotelli has been a key player since joining Milan. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that he is the central figure in attack and arguably the team, scoring 8 goals in his 9 Serie A appearances to date.
Against Catania, Balotelli attempted nine shots at goal with the vast majority occurring from outside the penalty area. His solitary goal was the result of a controversial penalty but the finish was as impressive as ever.
The graphic below shows Balotelli’s shots at goal:-
The question needs to be considered though, whether Balotelli is too selfish at times. Every striker needs to have that trait to an extent but does the striker really need to attempt so many long range efforts when team mates maybe better positioned to receive a pass and advance the attack?
Should Balotelli not be moving into the penalty area and providing Milan with a central reference point?
Fiorentina asked a question and Allegri’s Milan answered it, probably much more emphatically than the scoreline suggests. Last ditch defending and poor finishing made this game significantly more competitive than it should have been.
As a result Milan restore their lead to one point with just four games remaining.
For Catania, a season which offered great potential is in danger of slipping away at the end. Their last eight league games have yielded just six points, ending any aspirations they had of challenging for the final European position until the end of the season.