Milan 1, Atalanta 1: Referees, Rage, and Conspiracies

The referee should never be the center of attention. The calls a referee makes should support the game, not change the outcome. And VAR was created to decrease the margin of human errors, not highlight them. Yet this match, despite having some of the most experienced referees in Italy, who have worked UEFA matches and World Cup matches, was decided by poor refereeing, inappropriate use of VAR, and a referee who became the talking point instead of a team who came back from a tough Thursday night away match and played a very convincing match in front of over 70,000 fans. That this was the second match in a row against this same opponent that this happened only increases the amount of indignation and rage toward the referees. And it is impossible, given the number of times this has happened to Milan, as well as the number of favorable calls a certain rival has received, to not develop certain conspiracies. Yet the biggest crime is that none of this is about the actual football.

How did this fantastic performance only earn a point?

The actual football was brilliant. It started with Leão nutmegging and splitting the Atalanta defense, then scoring a breathtaking goal from a tight angle to put Milan up 1-0 in just the third minute. The much maligned Pioli started his best 11, and they all stepped up with great performances. Adli, for example, had a brilliant performance both technically and in terms of grinta, he was shoving players down and making NFL-style blocks, it was fabulous. Gabbia was a beast once again, even after taking a ball point blank to his groin in just the 15th minute. That man is unstoppable. Both Leão and Florenzi were putting in dangerous crosses left and right, and shots were fired – Milan took 20 shots with seven on target, more than double Atalanta's chances. Carnesecchi was very busy in goal. Milan absolutely dominated this match, which was even more impressive when you consider that they had played on Thursday night, and Atalanta had no midweek football.

Leão made a fool of Scalvini and Holm, and they fouled him the rest of the match.

But things turned bloody in the 27th minute when Ruggeri hit his own teammate, Kolašinac in the face, causing a cut near his eye that required multiple treatments and bandaging throughout the match to manage the bleeding. Not sure if this conditioned Orsato somehow to be sympathetic, but the calls definitely started favoring Atalanta. There was a VAR check for a possible handball against Atalanta in the 37th, for example, which was rightfully not given. But what happened next shows the reason for the lack of trust in Serie A referees, as well as the poor usage of VAR and the improper application of the Laws of the Game.

First, let me point out that in the 38th minute, Theo Hernández slid into a tackle on Holm, who inadvertently kicked Theo in the face with the studs side of his boot as his leg was swinging backward. The force was enough to knock Theo's head back, and though he immediately stood up, he then crumpled to the ground when the pain kicked in, and was rightfully holding his jaw and face. This was something that happens in football, it wasn't malicious, nor was it punishable by any rules for dangerous play, despite it being a very dangerous scenario in which Theo was actually hurt.

The irony of actual injuries not being protected, but simulation earning a point was not lost on me.

That is noteworthy, because one minute later, Holm, the same Atalanta player, was in the box when Giroud's high boot grazed his shoulder while the ball simultaneously hit him on the back of his neck. Holm grabbed his face, and rolled around on the ground, waiting for a call. Orsato made no call, but Irrati, in the VAR booth, notified him that he should take another look at the play. VAR is meant to be used when there is a clear and obvious error, which this was not, according to most referee experts.  On his way to the VAR screen, Orsato showed a yellow card to Pioli, who was vehemently protesting the call. That took more time than he spent reviewing the play, after which he immediately awarded the penalty to Atalanta. Koopmeiners stepped up and converted the penalty, equalizing at 1-1 all, despite Milan dominating the match.

The conversations after the match discussed this incident at length, and Pioli, Florenzi, Ambrosini, as well as so many others called the penalty "soft" or said it should never have been given. Or how it never would have been a penalty in Europe.  Even Gasperini spoke out against it, which tells you something. Others discussed the issue of Holm's simulation, which is the only reason the incident was ever even reviewed. The fact that they claimed that the ref's job was only to determine whether or not there was a foul, not whether or not there was simulation is ludicrous.

Orsato seemed to need to make it all about him.

If not the referee, who else determines simulation? Simulation is a problem in football, and there are rules about it for a reason. This call, this conversation, lends itself to future episodes where players like Holm just grab their faces and roll around on the ground and take the gamble that VAR will come good for them. Like it did for Atalanta. And the worst of it is that Giroud's kick, while technically a high kick and dangerous play, did not injure Holm, unlike Holm's kick to Theo's face. Orsato did not use the spirit of the law, which was designed to prevent injury, but rather harshly enforced the letter of the law by the improper use of VAR to change the outcome of the match. Meanwhile, Theo got kicked in the face, and Milan lost two points, and players everywhere saw that simulation pays. It was a lose-lose-lose-lose, for Theo, for Giroud, for Milan, and for football.

But that was hardly the end of Orsato's shambolic performance. In the 48th minute, Holm shoved Leão to the ground from behind. Orsato was a little slow to pull out his yellow card, and Leão simply looked at him and held his arms out questioningly, and Orsato showed Leão a yellow card as well. Absolutely horrific reffing. Leão gets fouled repeatedly in every match, and never complains. He said nothing, did nothing inappropriate, and was fouled pretty hard, then was given a yellow to add insult to injury. And that was just the beginning.

Leão puts up with so much, never complains, but was carded anyway.

Our old friend De Ketelaere was rendered ineffective by Gabbia and the rest of Milan, and was thus subbed off at halftime for Lookman. This was noteworthy because Lookman, unlike Leão, did not keep his cool. He shoved Gabbia to the ground in the 50th, which was worrying because he looked like he might be injured. Six minutes later, he was shown a yellow card for another foul, this time on Theo, and was screaming at Orsato and threw the ball in anger. But just the yellow for all of that. Contrast that with Leão being shown a yellow for being fouled. And it was not the last time that Lookman lost his temper in the match, either.

Florenzi was getting smoked by Lookman on the right, so Pioli subbed Calabria on in the 57th, making his return from injury, and that helped neutralize that threat. Meanwhile, Milan continued to attack. Loftus-Cheek forced a save from Carnesecchi, then Calabria had a fantastic strike that forced an excellent save as well. Leão sent in a perfect cross to Pulisic, whose shot was painfully just wide in the 69th minute. Atalanta were literally under siege and actually only got one shot off in the second half, in the final minute of stoppage time, a shot that would have been called off for a foul anyway.

Adli had an incredible performance, while De Ketelaere was completely neutralized.

Speaking of fouls, Scalvini repeatedly fouled Leão with no card from Orsato. In the 76th, he shoved Leão in the back, no card. Like Scalvini could have easily been sent off after multiple yellows, but he didn't even get one card. Not that I ever want anyone injured, but Karma may have intervened when Scalvini was forced off in the 89th after going down a few minutes earlier with a shoulder injury. But that does not change Orsato's shameful performance. 

Pioli was sparing with his substitutions, and for once, I cannot argue. Although the players were tired after playing on Thursday, this group were firing on all cylinders, and making more changes would have been criminal. He brought Musah on in the 79th minute for Bennacer, then Okafor on for Pulisic in the 88th minute. Meanwhile, Carnesecchi continued to save shots, like the one he palmed from Leão in the 80th, with Giroud's rebound forcing Zappacosta into a goal line clearance immediately after. Milan threw everything they had at Carnesecchi, but were unable to put another one past him.

Carnesecchi may have worked the hardest of any Atalanta player.

Milan dropped two points because of some absurd refereeing. Not just the absurd VAR review and penalty call, but the lack of protection of our players and the inconsistency of calls that left Milan players and fans dejected and angry, while Atalanta were thrilled to get a point they clearly did not earn. Especially after Di Bello also made questionable calls which handed Atalanta the win in our Coppa Italia Quarterfinal in January. Which makes this feel more like a conspiracy. Particularly when Inter continues to get favorable referee calls that benefit them, when they do not even need the help after their longstanding financial indiscretions or other forms of cheating through the years. Chances are good that Orsato and Irrati just had a bad day. Again. But, in spite of playing a great match of football, Milan were robbed. Again. Which keeps the narratives going of referees, rage, and conspiracies.

This post inspired by the music of Rage Against the Machine

UEFA Youth League 
AC Milan Primavera vs. Atalanta
Wednesday, February 28, 2024 • 14:30 CET (8:30am EST)

Our next match is 
Serie A Week 27
Lazio vs. Milan
Friday, March 1, 2024 • 20:45 CET (2:45 EST)

Milan 1, Atalanta 1: Referees, Rage, and Conspiracies Milan 1, Atalanta 1: Referees, Rage, and Conspiracies Reviewed by Elaine on 11:58 PM Rating: 5
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