AC Milan 3, Stade Rennais FC 0: Emphatic

Milan's performance in this initial Europa League match was the polar opposite of their prior European experiences this season. In a match they were favored to win, Milan showed up, created twice as many shots on target as their opponent, scored three goals, kept a clean sheet, and never let anyone doubt the outcome of the match. Their 3-0 win over Rennes at San Siro may have been elementary compared to the difficult opposition they faced in their Champions League group of death, but things have shifted in the team as well. Goals are being scored consistently as injuries decrease and the time spent together as a team increases. The response to this new challenge was different, it was emphatic.

This is how we do it.

For the first 30 minutes, it seemed that Milan's European scoring curse this season would continue, as Leão's fantastic shot in the seventh minute was deflected onto the crossbar, and Reijnders' subsequent shot from distance was also deflected over. Or it seemed that Rennes may pull off a miracle goal from their top league scorer, Bourigeaud, like his winner on Sunday, from a shot like he took in the 24th minute. But everything clicked into place in the 32nd minute when Pioli's new scoring giant, Loftus-Cheek, scored a great header from a perfect Florenzi cross. 1-0 Milan.

Provider and goal scorer love.

A few minutes later, Giroud tried dribbling and taking a shot to celebrate his 700th career appearance, but it lacked the power to get past his former French national teammate, Mandanda, who easily saved it. At the other end, Maignan, who basically replaced Mandanda in the France national team and is now their number one in goal, was tested a couple of times by Désiré Doué and Bourigeaud, but he easily kept them off the scoreboard.

Giroud played his 700th career match against his former France national teammate, Steve Mandanda.

Less than two minutes into the second half, Theo took a corner kick and Kjaer headed a shot on target that Mandanda parried away, directly into the path of Loftus-Cheek, who was there diving to head it past the veteran keeper once again. 2-0 Milan. Loftus-Cheek really only stands 1" (2.5 cm) taller than Mandanda, so his NBA-inspired "too small" celebration truly is not terribly sporting, but regardless, I am sure that the French goalkeeper will be having flashbacks and/or nightmares about it after seeing it twice in about 30 minutes.

Loftus-Cheek: "What is the French word for 'devastation'?"

Five minutes later, Leão decided to free himself from the cobwebs of media hate and shake off his supposed "scoring drought" in spectacular style and in front of all of Europe. He casually backheeled the ball, laying it off to Theo Hernández, who took it and sent it straight back in to the unstoppable Leão, who took a spectacular shot to send it into the far corner of the net far out of Mandanda's reach. 3-0 Milan. And Leão just exploded with joy. Perhaps many of us fans, did, too. That is the fun of watching Rafa Leão play, he carries our hearts on his sleeve along with his own. And Pioli's reaction was proportionately restrained, as he just simply nodded to acknowledge the artistry. Certainly, as Leão's 50th Milan goal, it was memorable.

The ecstasy and the agony.

Pulisic had a nice chance in the 56th, but it was stopped by Mandanda. (Pulisic hasn't scored since December, but no one in the Italian press is talking about that, just for different reasons.) He had another nice shot later on, too, but his chances have been more limited by Pioli's change in tactics. (No one ever worried about the change in tactics with Leão, either, but hey, that's Italy for you.) He is still having a great season and has been important to Milan's attack, even when not on the score sheet.

Pioli subbed early and clearly is looking to manage playing time with another game coming so quickly on Sunday. In the 62nd, he replaced Rafa Leão and Kjaer with Okafor and Thiaw, respectively. This was Thiaw's first appearance after having been out due to injury for 79 days, and while he definitely seemed a bit rusty, he is an important player to have returning, even if for depth alone. Gabbia has been a beast since returning from Villareal, and Kjaer has done more than we could have dreamed of playing virtually every minute of every match, but we need depth in defense again. In the 75th minute, Pioli replaced Loftus-Cheek and Florenzi with Bennacer and Terracciano. And finally, in the 81st, he sent Adli on to replace an exhausted Pulisic.

Maignan put in a good shift.

Both keepers were kept fairly busy for the final 20 minutes, with Rennes desperately trying to get a goal back, and Milan not willing to simply stop the count at just 3-0, either. Just before the end of regulation, Nagida earned a yellow for a bad foul on Reijnders, but he actually seemed to injure himself in the process, and had to be carried off the pitch, leaving his team on ten men for the final few minutes as he was eventually carried off due to his injury. Ouch. A very physical manifestation of the psychological pain the 10,000 or so Rennes fans who had reportedly traveled to Milano must have felt at the end of that match.

You cannot buy a team, but after about six months or so, you may be able to build one.

Obviously, Milan faced far more difficult competition in the group of death of the Champions League, but they also were only able to score five goals in six matches, all of which came at the end of their campaign (despite taking numerous shots in every match.) In this match, against an in-form Rennes side, they scored three goals in a single match. Their massive summer overhaul of Milan's attack had its consequences during the first half of the season, but now it is paying off. In goals. 

Smiles all around, with a clean sheet for our Viking, a return after injury for Thiaw, and a brace for Loftus-Cheek

It is not a coincidence that Milan's positive run of form is coming now, at the same time as their negative spiral into the abyss last season. This is when summer reinforcements kick in. So, while it may have cost the club tens of millions or even over €100 million in revenue and television rights monies by missing out on the Champions League knockout round this year, at least all of that €134 million invested last summer is finally kicking in. It may have cost us in our first half of the season, but it is paying off in the second half of the season and has allowed our Europa League Playoff response to be emphatic.

This post inspired by the music of Cigarettes After Sex's "Truly"

Our next match is 
Serie A Week 25
Monza vs. Milan
Sunday, February 18, 2024 • 20:45 CET (2:45 EST)

AC Milan 3, Stade Rennais FC 0: Emphatic AC Milan 3, Stade Rennais FC 0: Emphatic Reviewed by Elaine on 6:59 AM Rating: 5
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