Mihajlovic would have been eagerly anticipating a trip from his former team, to face a Sampdoria side who have only taken 2 points away from home this season. Club favourite Vincenzo Montella appears to have a job on his hands to turn around their poor form, after taking over from Zenga a couple of weeks ago, with Samp managing only 1 win since the start of October. He fielded two strikers in Muriel and Eder, with what was effectively a diamond in midfield. Milan shaped up in more of a 4-4-3 formation, with Niang and Bacca furthest forward – supported by Bonaventura who roamed about and Cerci who stuck to the right, mostly. Bertolacci was missing, and Montolivo was left to hold down central midfield with Kucka.
The match started with an early mistake from the home team’s young goalkeeper, taking a bad touch and playing the ball out to Soriano, but managing to get back in time to make the save. Eder was caught on the leg in the process of Donarumma’s hurried clearance, and had to leave the field temporarily. Barreto appeared to try to cover more space down the left, with the cover of Ivan and Fernando possibly allowing him to do this. However, throughout the game, the presence of effectively four Sampdoria midfielders in central roles didn’t really help them control that area of the pitch. Kucka and Montolivo did a much better job in that respect. The width of Cerci helped the home side as well, which was something that Montella seemed to leave pretty much solely to the full-backs to try and offer. Barreto and Ivan wandered into wide areas intermittently, but this was never of any great benefit or purpose to attack.
Niang drifted out to the right, and seemed to ignore Cerci on one occasion early on, deciding to whip in a low cross which went out for a goal kick. After that he was sensible enough to give Cerci some more opportunity to try and create chances from the right wing – which he certainly did. Despite not being the most consistent of performers, one thing that Cerci can do is deliver a fantastic cross – which he did on several occasions. Although these were interspersed with a couple of wild shots and bad decisions, he really did have the beating of Mesbah on that side of the pitch, and looked a likely source for the opening goal. Antonelli was getting forward from full-back on the other wing, as he does, and it was a run and cut-back to Bacca which lead to a good shot and save from Viviano. The Samp keeper pushed it back out to Cerci who pounced and had the ball in the net, only for it to be correctly ruled offside. After the last game against Juve, where Bacca looked quiet and unable to really get into the game, it was positive for Rossoneri fans to see the Colombian looking lively.
Milan appeared the much more comfortable side in the opening half hour, and space began to open at times in midfield. Barreto didn’t really stick to his position, which didn’t help this, and Kucka was the most effective player at covering space and disrupting play for the opposition. Montolivo had an effective game as well, making interceptions and trying to dictate the tempo. Sampdoria had a chance at an opening with Mesbah getting forward well on the left, receiving a crossfield pass as he came into the box unguarded, but was eventually tackled. As is quite often the case in Serie A, when Antonelli gets forward on the left, he does it much more effectively than the other team – he runs with the ball and looks dangerous going forward almost catching the defenders by surprise. Mesbah likes to get forward, but only once on this occasion did he get space to run in to, and a chance to have an impact in a forward area. As the half played out, Montella’s side were on the back foot, with Milan’s front men getting more into the game. Cerci had another cross which flashed through the 6-yard box as Bonaventura was blocked off by Silvestri as he came in.
Niang had a great game, moving in and out of space, linking up particularly well with Bacca. The first goal came about as Cerci played a nice short pass into Niang, who turned well on the ball to get free towards the byline. He played in a perfect cross along the ground for Bonaventura coming in at the back post to tap in. De Silvestri hadn’t learned from minutes before when he got wrong-side of Bonaventura in the box, and allowed the Milan player to get to the ball first and open the scoring. It might seem a lot more obvious in hindsight, but I think Milan look so much better with Niang and Bonaventura on opposite sides, or at least when Bona is not pushed back. When he has space to get forward on the left he is much more effective, as opposed to when he played behind Niang at times against Juve.
Milan looked like they had the potential to counter well, even after the first goal, and Niang got running with the ball but just shot wide from the right-hand side. Barreto was caught way up the pitch and exposed the middle, but Samp often got caught flat-footed as Mihajlovic’s side moved forward. Montolivo and Kucka continued to dominate the midfield, and the home side’s ability to keep the ball and pass it around confidently was far superior to their opponents. Soriano looked like he had the potential to create chances at the other end at times, linking up well with de Silvestre on one occasion, getting into the box towards the byline only for his cut-back to be blocked. Soriano’s influence lies predominantly behind the strikers, and he showed this briefly during the match with runs through the middle and down the left, but he was unable to really unlock doors for his side against a steady Milan defence. In contrast, Milan’s technician Bonaventura had a much better game – having most of his touches out wide and then cutting in towards the box (which was a threat that Sampdoria was pretty much devoid of). Along with Niang, Cerci and Bacca, Milan did so much more in the areas around the edge of the opposition box than the away side.
Milan continued to come forward, with good interplay between the front-men. De Silvestri was having a bit of a nightmare against Bonaventura, who again got on the end of a good cross by Niang, as he came into the box. The home side continued to press the ball, and Montolivo won it back for them, culminating in a chance for Bacca who shot wide. The second goal then came from a penalty. Abate played in a cross from the right, Niang flicked it on and de Silvestri pulled down Bonaventura in the area, who had again caused problems arriving into the area (pic below). He went down relatively easily, but there were no real arguments over the decision. Niang, after a Balotelli-esque stutter up to the ball, confidently converted the spot-kick high into the goal, and the match was looking ominously out of reach for Montella. Sampdoria tried their best to get something before half time, with Muriel winning the ball back inside the opposition half, getting it out to Eder who’s shot was deflected over. Soriano also tried to get involved with a nice ball through to Muriel into the area, but Romagnoli came in with a timely block. Before half-time a stat flicked up of 67% possession for Milan, and that was hardly surprising given the home side’s dominance.
Bacca and Niang again started the second half in lively fashion, with good link-up and a nice one-two inside the box, only for the ball to run out just beyond Bacca. Niang looked in confident mood, flicking the ball behind his leg towards the goal from a Cerci free-kick, with Viviano making a decent stop, and then almost getting in again just after. Then the third goal came from an error by the Sampdoria keeper, who passed it out to Niang, and the Frenchman made no mistake with the finish. A nothing goal really, but one that well and truly put the game out of reach for Montella. Poli then was introduced against his former club in place of Kucka, probably to protect the Slovak from another booking. He’s become an important player for Mihajlovic in central midfield, and it seems as though he can do a job that pretty much no one else can for Milan – or at least very few show his level of commitment out of possession at the moment. Sampdoria could have done with similar energy and quality in midfield, and you have to look back at last season when they had Obiang. He was often their route out of their own third with the ball, and a good link to the forward men, as well as demonstrating that cliche midfield dynamism.
Even at three goals to the good, Milan looked more hungry to win and keep the ball, with precise and composed passing, as well as ambition through Cerci down the right channel. Cerci had a good game in general, but the crowd still noticeably get on his back slightly when he fails to deliver a cross or wastes possession. Its frustrating, but he needs confidence to perform, and if he feels under pressure and can’t play with freedom then it only makes him less effectual. Cerci is a different kind of player to Bonaventura on the other side, but he still adds a good dimension to the team and has the similar potential to create chances even when his team are on the back foot. He seems like Mihajlovic’s best option on the right at the moment. Sampdoria, on the other hand, would love to have someone like Gabbiadini back in their side, offering that trickery and threat coming in from the flanks – an angle not used to support Muriel and Eder here. Samp created few chances, and only one from the left in the 90 minutes (pic below). The wing combinations of Antonelli to Bonaventura and Abate to Cerci were the most used passes between any players on the pitch. Montella decided to save Muriel and brought him off for Bonazzoli just after 60 minutes. He also introduced Pereira, thankfully back in his familiar position on the right full-back side. Soriano was still trying to create chances from behind the strikers, but got crowded out on more than one occasion by a sturdy Milan back line. His impact was limited, partly because when the Blucerchiati had a chance to start a break, or move forward out of their half, they lost the ball. Retention of possession is seemingly something Montella has to work on. He brought on Polombo, who I think may have been a better option to start the game, for Ivan.
Niang got his rest and acknowledgement from the crowd on 75 minutes, with Adriano coming on in his place. His presence up front was soon noticed after he ran in to get on the end of a cross from Antonelli, although the ball ran across his body and the chance was missed wide of the right post. However his reprieve came shortly after with great play by Cerci on the right to beat his man and deliver a cross, Adriano had found space in the middle to receive the ball on his chest and volley into the net. Viviano didn’t cover himself in glory, but it was still a great finish. Shortly after, Honda was again introduced as a sub for Cerci who had done his day’s work. Milan had one more offensive burst, with Honda winning the ball back and breaking forward, 3-on-1, squaring it to Bacca who’s attempt was saved. Samp had a rare venture into Milan’s penalty area on 86 minutes, where Eder used his tricky feet to square up Poli who blocked him off and gave away a penalty. It was little consolation for Montella, but in all fairness it was a good penalty from Eder who rolled the ball past the keeper who went the other way.
This ended a tough game for the visitors, who were dominated by Milan. You would have expected the Sampdoria players to have been more uplifted and motivated to put in good performances with Montella coming in, but it continues to look like an uphill struggle for them. Individually there weren’t many, if any, positives to take away from this encounter. Mihajlovic will be pleased to gain some momentum again, as his side head into a run of 4 ‘easy’ Serie A fixtures against teams at the bottom of the table. Positives include – the use of space and creativity of the wide men Bonaventura and Cerci – Niang’s confident performance and link-up with other front men – general command of space and possession in key areas of the pitch. They effectively did what Juve did to them last week, albeit against a very weak opposition on the day, and with added goals. Up to sixth in the table, Milan could be a rising force going into the winter break.