AC Milan 3 – 2 HNK Rijeka
San Siro Stadium
Above is a pretty bad photo of the San Siro. It’s such a mammoth stadium, visible from the rooftops of the Duomo in central Milan. But it’s the only credible photo I could take after my girlfriend, Saffron, and I had been ushered out of the ground at full-time due to safety concerns.
The away fans of Croatian champions HNK Rijeka were a troublesome bunch. Arrests have reportedly been made before and after the game where, during proceedings, some threw flares onto the pitch after going 2-0 down. When their team managed to get back on level terms in the last 10 minutes of the game, things got heated further until things spilled over when Milan grabbed a stoppage time winner.
Here’s what unfolded from our angle and how the match reflected our time in the city.
The San Siro
One of the biggest and most iconic venues in world football, the San Siro – officially called Stadio Giuseppe Meazza after the 1930’s Italian World Cup winner – has hosted so many significant matches in its time. Four European Cup finals have taken place there, with Real Madrid’s triumph over city rivals Atletico in 2016 being the most recent. It also hosted six World Cup matches during Italia ’90, five of which featured the West Germany side which went on to win the tournament.
Getting out of the metro station and seeing it for the first time is breathtaking. There’s a small walk which allows you to slowly ingest the scale of the ground before its giant spiral towers leave you straining your neck. It’s not the prettiest of stadiums, admittedly. Most of its exterior consists of thick, grey concrete with the red framing on the top not making much of an impact at ground level. But it’s the sheer size of it which hits you the most. And this only intensifies inside.
Never before have I actually felt dizzy in a football stadium but the San Siro had that effect on me. It’s so steep and compact that I wondered how many people had fallen down a few rows whilst celebrating a goal. Looking at the pitch felt surreal. It was almost like a giant panoramic screen was in front of us. Meanwhile, the raucous atmosphere coming from the full top-tier of Rijeka fans behind us actually shook the stand. Which was impressive initially but always left me on edge.
A strong Milan team
I had fears that this Europa League clash would be viewed as a reserve team match by AC Milan. The competiton is certainly treated that way by a lot of clubs in England. Yet, the Milan team that started against Rijeka was as good as I could have hoped for. The Rossoneri have some of the best young talent in Europe and so many were in the starting XI. As was one of the best centre-backs in world football, Leonardo Bonucci. Much to my delight.
In goal was teenager Gianluigi Donnarumma. Already capped four times by Italy and still only 18-years-old, he’s seen as the long-term replacement of namesake and legend between the sticks, Gianluigi Buffon. Whilst in midfield there was Hakan Calhanoglu, a 23-year-old who wishes to be, in his own words, “Turkey’s Mesut Ozil”.
However, it was the front pairing which attracted the most intrigue, from my perspective anyways. Andre Silva and Patrick Cutrone are considered future stars of Portugal and Italy, respectively. It could be argued that Silva is already a star, having scored nine goals in 15 games for his national team at the age of 21. If it weren’t for Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m sure more would be made of his prowess.
Seeing him open the scoring really pleased me, especially the way he did it. Fabio Borini – relegated with Sunderland in the Premier League last year – played Silva in and the young Portuguese took the ball into the box and curled a beautiful effort past Simon Sluga in the Rijeka goal.
For the rest of his time on the pitch, Silva produced some really classy centre-forward play. He had the strength to hold the ball, skill to go past defenders and had proven how lethal his finishing was when given a chance. Unfortunately for him though, he wasn’t given many more chances due to how woeful Milan were playing.
For that reason, it was hard for me to judge Patrick Cutrone. He’s a 19-year-old who’s only played a handful of senior games but has made a mark in that time. Especially in the Europa League, where he scored two goals during Milan’s qualification rounds. Several times he cried out for a through ball or just a simple pass but several of his teammates held onto possession or went backwards. However, his growing reputation was further enhanced in the end…
Cutrone managed to score with a cool finish in the dying minutes of added time to save Milan and their manager Vincenzo Montella. He’s faced much criticism for Milan’s inconsistent start to Serie A, having been given heavy financial backing in the summer by Milan’s new Chinese owners.
You could feel the fans’ frustrations even after the team went 2-0 up, which was a fortunate turn of events for the home side as Rijeka had been creating more chances and looked the most threatening in the final third. Things soon got even worse though, as Bonucci made a mistake to let in Maxwell Acosty on 84 minutes and then Alessio Romagnoli gave away a penalty for the away side just five minutes later.
Josep Eliz stepped up and, despite Donnarumma getting a hand to the ball, the Croatians equalised. All the fans behind us went crazy and a game that had felt more like a goalless draw at times had dramatically turned around.
Milan fans began to leave, maybe because they were being pelted by popcorn and drinks from the rowdy away following but probably because their team had just capitulated in the most unthinkable of ways.
They missed a priceless moment. Milan pressed forward with the impressive Suso adding some much-needed spark, before Borini played a ball over the Rijeka defence that Cutrone ran perfectly onto and calmly touched into the back of the net. The remaining Milan fans in the stadium rejoiced. As did I, to be fair. It felt like justice had been done for the way those Rijeka fans had acted through the contest.
Angry away fans
Tempers boiled over at the final whistle. Home fans taunted the away following having been in the firing line for much of the second half. Which only made things worse.
I could hear coins bouncing off the seats, while a flare was thrown into the section across from me. Understandably, safety stewards quickly signalled for us to leave as soon as the match had ended. It really made me glad that they would be leaving with no points from that game. But I did feel sorry for the fans who didn’t cause any trouble and were just there to enjoy themselves. Hopefully UEFA can act more strictly on the idiot fans who ruin football for everyone else.
Lots of empty seats
The game was attended by just over 23,000 people, which was about what I expected for a Europa League game. However, the atmosphere inside the ground made me feel like double were there. Which sounds good but left me wondering what even half of the 80,000-seater stadium would be like when filled up.
The Milan ultras in the Curva Nord opposite were hard to hear with the Croatian fans right behind us but they were clearly backing their team throughout the whole tie. It must be quite an experience during the Milan derby. With Inter fans in the Curva Sud, the passion and noise would surely be incredible.
The former Juventus player is clearly well-loved in Milan. His name was on the back of shirts in the centre of the city and also at the match. And you can understand why, with his last match for Juve being the Champions League final in Cardiff.
However, in my opinion, I think Bonucci had a pretty poor game. He made a few mistakes, including the one which let Rijeka back into the game, and didn’t look that solid in the heart of the back three. He did provide an assist for the second goal but that was more luck than judgement and the goalscorer Mateo Musacchio, for me, had a far better game in defence.
I don’t doubt he’s a world-class defender and at the age of 30, he’s still got some great years ahead of him. You could see his class in patches, heading several balls away and producing some no-nonsense clearances. But, alas, he wasn’t the Bonucci I was expecting to see.
At the beginning of the game, everything was compelling. The constant chants from behind us, along with the adjustment to our surroundings really stirred me. When Silva scored against the run of play, I thought we were going to see a really exciting match.
It didn’t quite happen like that and soon the chants from behind us became repetitive and a bit boring rather than intimidating. I even yawned a bit during the second half. Things came to life for the wrong reasons when Rijeka fans lit six flares and threw a couple onto the pitch after going 2-0 down. I began fearing for our safety, as anything could have hit us whilst we were watching the game.
Things then went to another level with the two comeback goals, as stewards began having concerned looks on their faces. Milan fans in the stand around us all moved to the front. The fact we had to do that angered me. I don’t know how flares are able to get into grounds with all the searching going on beforehand but it needs to be tightened up. Those Rijeka fans who also threw missiles should be banned. Yet after the game, nothing was mentioned about the stoppage in any match report I read. That’s a dangerous precedent. Do we need someone to be seriously injured – or worse – for this behaviour to be lambasted? Thankfully nothing of that nature occurred and we could reflect on our visit in peace as the Rijeka were kept behind.
Heading back on the tube, news emerged that Carlo Ancelotti had been sacked as head coach of Bayern Munich. I couldn’t help thinking the Rossoneri fans would love to welcome back the man who guided them through some glorious years in the previous decade. The potential is there for Milan to become a powerhouse of world football again. Both on the field and, of course, with that super stadium.
Best Of The Rest
Like the Milan game, we took a while to adjust to our surroundings when entering the city. So many people were trying to get money from us by giving us a rose or a wristband and saying it was a gift. I accepted a couple of bands off one guy to see how they managed to get money after saying it’s a present. He talked very politely and warmly before suddenly saying ‘give me some coins’. I told him no and he began shouting something I didn’t understand. In the end I gave him 45 cents because I was worried the group he was with would start causing trouble. Meanwhile, Saff had been cornered by another guy who asked for her €20, saying he’d give her change. It’s all very intimidating and I probably shouldn’t have let my curiosity get the better of me. I realise there are people doing this in most big European cities but I’d never experienced such persistence and, at times, aggression. For example, I got to the San Siro and another wristband seller grabbed my arm when I said no to them.
I feel it’s important to be aware of this before visiting Milan. For me, the best parts of the city were when we could get some tranquility. At the grounds of the castle (where there are cats in the fort!), I felt more at ease. Other favourite spots of mine for relaxing included the Cimitero Monumentale (cemetery) and the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace). You can also get away from the hustle and bustle inside and on top of the magnificent cathedral. It does require queueing even with a ticket bought in advance but for a €12 Duomo Pass – where you walk to the top instead of taking the lift (that costs €18) – it’s definitely value for money.
Elsewhere in the city, you can visit Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper fresco painting. To be honest though, I think we paid over the odds. You have to book in advance to see it and there are so many websites offering various add-ons like tour guides and Milano Cards. It’s not a simple process but it is a marvel to behold, however much it’s been exploited. Only a select number of people can visit in each 15 minute interval. I found it was more than enough time to admire it, as well as the other fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano on the other side of the room. And there’s even a model for the visually impaired, which I thought was cool.
On our last night in the city, we had an early flight so we took a walk through the streets in the wee hours of the morning. We both agreed that we appreciated the city more afterwards as the main tourist areas were devoid of people. One man also gave Saff a rose ‘as a gift’ and actually meant it, having seemingly bought a bunch from one of the sellers in the Galleria.
To be fair to Milan, it’s a balanced blend of old and modern. I wouldn’t want to live there but then, it might not be a city developed with me in mind. It’s very commercial and lively. Not really my ideal surroundings.
So like the game at the San Siro, things took time to adjust. We were overawed at first but eventually found our feet. At times, things were a little testing but ultimately, things ended on a high.