Zenit triumph a big boost, but AC Milan must beat Inter to turn the corner

The Rossoneri picked up a valuable win in Russia, but their unconvincing performance against a side in crisis does not suddenly mean they are back on track
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer

It was three points that they needed more than anything, and AC Milan got exactly that from their Champions League trip to face Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday, but the 3-2 victory must not cloud the fact that the Rossoneri still need to make massive improvements in order to turn around their slow start to the season.

After an opening 16 minutes in which they scared the living daylights out of Luciano Spalletti’s side, Milan should have gone on to win comfortably, but instead they decided to stop doing all the things that had given them an early 2-0 lead and very nearly handed a victory on a plate to the Russian side as a result.

Urby Emanuelson’s run at the heart of the Zenit side resulted in a free-kick when Viktor Fayzulin foolishly brought him down just when he appeared to be running into a cul-de-sac. The Dutchman got up and sent a free-kick goalwards, and Roman Shirokov’s deflection sent it beyond Vyacheslav Malafeev.

Within minutes, Stephan El Shaarawy was making the most of more disorganisation in the home defence, turning three players inside out before sliding home a fantastic second goal. But that was about as good as it had threatened to get for Massimiliano Allegri’s troops.

MATCH FACTS | Zenit 2-3 Milan

Shots 19 14
On Target 11 7
Possession 52% 48%
Corners 13 2
Bookings 4 3

As soon as they had scored their second, they appeared to rest on their laurels, and a Zenit side which is going through an even more uneasy spell than the Diavolo were suddenly being made to look like world-beaters. Christian Abbiati quickly became the most vital player on the pitch as he pulled off save after save as Milan were unable to stem the flow of attacks, with Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Hulk in particular looking to cause real problems. The former Porto striker hit one effort which resulted in a stunning one-handed stop from the 35-year-old worthy of any highlights reel.

When Hulk narrowed the lead on the stroke of half-time, it came as little surprise, and Shirokov’s equaliser four minutes into the second period was the least that Zenit had deserved. When the home side continued to enjoy the greater possession and territory, it appeared that there would only be one winner.

However, the one saving grace was that this remained a poor Zenit side with an extremely soft underbelly, and with a short burst of increased ball retention, Milan did enough to claim all three points. Some smart movement of the ball resulted in Riccardo Montolivo finding space on the right, from where he played a low cross which Giampaolo Pazzini met with a near-post touch which was eventually turned in by defender Tomas Hubocan.

Again Milan lived dangerously, with Aleksandr Anyukov forcing another spectacular save from Abbiati, but they just about held on until full-time to clinch three vital points. The result should – and will – be used to help inject some morale into the squad, but it must not be considered the turning point, since this was no better a performance than we have seen on many occasions already this term.

The defence still looked uncertain, another goal was shipped from a set piece – their sixth such concession this season – and there was still a lethargy about their midfield that has been evident from the end of August right through to today. El Shaarawy continues to be the one stunningly bright light in an otherwise unconvincing outfit, and there needs to be more variety and solidity on show on Sunday if the Rossoneri are to beat Inter.

As much as derbies are always key, this one is particularly vital to Allegri and Milan. Win it, and there will be every reason to believe in them being able to weather the storm and come out of the other side. Lose it, and there is a very real chance that those at Via Turati will see the result in Russia for what it was: a riding of fortune against a team going through a truly torrid period at the moment.

So well done Milan; a good result has been gained. But if the real target of a turning of the corner is to be achieved, then it is against their nearest and dearest that they will have make their greatest statement yet.

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