When AC Milan captain Davide Calabria hobbled from the Stadio Olimpico turf, held upright by two of the Rossoneri medical staff, as the final whistle blew in Rome, the Lazio bench rushed past the stricken full-back to join their celebrating teammates on the pitch. It was an act that reflected the current state of the Serie A champions’ attempted title defence.
The 4-0 demolition by the Biancocelesti in the capital felt somewhat self-inflicted by the visitors, as the Milan backline allowed an attack missing their most potent weapon, Ciro Immobile, to run riot, through the mediocrity that appears to have spread through the backline since returning from the World Cup-enforced break.
It took just five minutes for Lazio to expose the lack of cohesion in the Rossoneri defensive unit, as one-by-one the players allowed Mattia Zaccagni’s low cross to pass them by. Before Sergej Milinkovic-Savic swept a left-footed shot past a helpless Ciprian Tatarusanu. Makeshift left-back Sergino Dest simply watched on in horror after failing to spot the danger.
Twenty minutes later, centre-back Fikayo Tomori limped off the pitch with a serious injury to join long-term absentees Mike Maignan, Alessandro Florenzi, Fode Ballo-Toure and recent addition Theo Hernandez, but that is too easy an excuse to use for the performances of late.
En route to the 2021/22 title, Milan boasted an unbreakable defensive resolve that saw them record 17 clean sheets and that comes from coaching and collective team effort, which should be achievable once more.
Goalkeeper Tatarusanu is an easy target for criticism, having never convinced as a first-choice throughout a 20-year senior career, but he has been a permanent fixture between the posts since Maignan was injured in late September on international duty. There has been plenty of time for Milan to adjust to the veteran’s deeper starting position and work on his slowing reflexes.
It is another low-quality replacement that will sabotage their title defence from within. Dest once again showed the defensive shortcomings that forced coach Stefano Pioli to move him into an advanced wing-back role against Torino in the Coppa Italia recently. Allowing Lazio’s Adam Marusic to breeze past him and strike the post with a shot that Zaccagni bundled in from close range on 38 minutes.
As the half-time whistle sounded, there appeared little belief amongst the Milan players that they could recover from the situation they had brought upon themselves. With Lazio buoyed by the knowledge that a win would take them a point behind the champions and into third, after Juventus had dropped to 10th position because of the 15 point deduction enforced for financial irregularities.
When the usually dependable Pierre Kalulu blindly attempted to thump a low cross clear of goal on 70 minutes without his colleagues warning him of the onrushing Pedro – who he hacked down to concede a penalty converted by Luis Alberto – it was clear that communication is also an issue that needs addressing.
The thought of a struggling Sassuolo to face next will not fill any Milan fan with confidence of a first victory in four games, with memories of some recent high-profile losses to the Neroverdi, and then there is a battle with housemates Inter in the Derby della Madonnina the following weekend. If Milan don’t win at least one of those games, their Scudetto defence is over.