Stefano Pioli was satisfied with reaching the Europa League group stage following a crazy night in Portugal.
Milan arrived in Estádio dos Arcos last night knowing they have a tough match in hand, but no one could’ve predicted that the game against Rio Ave would turn out like it did, with unbelievable drama, twists and heart-attacks for the fans all around.
Stefano Pioli chose to go with an attack of Samu Castillejo, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Alexis Saelemaekers and Daniel Maldini. However, after an extremely lackluster first half, in which the Rossoneri created virtually nothing, he brought on Brahim Díaz at the break. The Spaniard made his first contribution in the 50′ minute, earning Milan a corner. Hakan took it and after a bad clearance from the Rio Ave defense, the ball landed at the feet of Saelemaekers who struck it well and made it 1-0.
Milan, who generally had their worst performance since the start of the season, were caught unprepared at the back in the 71′ minute as Francisco Geraldes was found marked in the box and comfortably beat Gigio Donnarumma. Both sides had a few chances but the game went to extra-time.
In the first minute of extra time, Gelson Dala managed to make it 2-1. Milan were trying to get back into the game but looked out of ideas also with the front four of Díaz, Hakan, Rafael Leão and Lorenzo Colombo. However, the God of football was wearing Red and Black last night: in the 121′ minute, Lollo Colombo’s header hit the hand of Toni Borevković – red card for the center back and a penalty awarded to Milan five seconds before the end of extra time. Hakan took it and scored: 2-2.
After 120 minutes were played, the real match began: the penalty shoot-outs. This shoot-out will remain in the history books forever as one of the craziest and most bizarre ones: the first seven penalties were all perfectly taken for each side. Colombo then took his shot but sent the ball over the bar; Rio Ave had an opportunity to win it but Nélson Monte’s ball unbelievably hit both posts and went out. At 8-8 on pks, it was the turn of the goalkeepers to shoot: Donnarumma took it first and sent it over the bar. But Rio Ave once again blew their chance in spectacular fashion as their ‘keeper Paweł Kieszek also missed – sending the ball wide.
The parade of bad shots continued with the second round of shooters: Ismaël Bennacer missing on his second attempt after scoring on the first round. But Rio Ave missed their shot again with Geraldes hitting the post. Simon Kjær then stepped up and scored. Aderlan Santos took the decisive penalty, but his shot was saved by Donnarumma. Milan beat Rio Ave 9-8 on penalties.
“It’s the first time something like this has happened, but that’s just how football is,” Pioli told MilanTV. “I think we managed the game well, but were caught out on their equalizer, their first real chance we conceded. Following that, the game got tougher: in part due to our opponents’ ability and in part because we weren’t lucid enough. This wasn’t our best game. However, in my career, I lost a Coppa Italia final for a double-post, while on Thursday we did get a bit lucky. And while penalties are a bit of a lottery, the guys deserve this for their efforts in trying to get back into the game and fighting until the end. For all the hard work we’ve done to make it here, I’m very satisfied although there is a lot we need to improve and we know it.
“In all honestly, for the entire match, both regular and extra time, I was confident we could turn it around and win. Then, when it came to the penalties and three times they could’ve sealed it, well… there’s always hope, and I like to believe we believed in it until the end, that we wanted it and we deserve it. Losing would have been a pity, this was our first seasonal objective as well as the end of a journey. A journey we started last season, in January, when we set up a positive streak, so it’s all good, but the guys know, even better than I do, that there are situations we need to be more effective in but it’s only the start of the season and even though we worked well, fatigue is already starting to build up so this is a great result.
“The next game? Positive results definitely help recover more quickly, and this is a very important result and I don’t think the squad will ever be a problem again… it’s a good group, they work well together. We might lose a match, we don’t think ourselves unbeatable, we don’t believe we’re the best in the world or even in Italy but the squad has its certainties: in the ways it plays, in the way they work together, but they are all aware that even in a win there are things that need to be improved because we have to aim to compete at the highest levels and we know we can do better than on Thursday evening.
“Colombo’s miss in the shoot-out? I gave Lorenzo a pat on the back and reminded him it was thanks to him we got the penalty in the dying seconds. He made the right jump, at the right time. That’s part of football. But it is good training for him, it’ll help him develop further. It will help him become stronger, especially in his mentality, he won’t have any problems…”
Speaking briefly in the post-match press conference, Pioli said (as per Milannews.it): “The shoot-out? It’s difficult to control the emotions at that moment. We went from being able to win it to being able to lose it in a moment. This is the lottery of penalties. The emotions were very strong, the joy is to have overcome a difficult opponent and to have reached the first objective of the season which is important for us.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction, you never win without knowing how to suffer and we were good mentally. We are a very young team, for some it’s the first experience in Europa. I’m very satisfied with the final result.”