x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Drama plays out to the end of the Serie A season

The drama of the Serie A's final day played out to the end with AC Milan snatching third place from Fiorentina thanks to a late penalty, writes Ian Hawkey.

Philippe Mexes, right, is hugged by M'Baye as Mario Yepes, left, joines the celebration after AC Milan victory to stay third in the table at season's end.
Philippe Mexes, right, is hugged by M'Baye as Mario Yepes, left, joines the celebration after AC Milan victory to stay third in the table at season's end.

Three minutes from the end of the Serie A season, Fiorentina were occupying third place in the table.

AC Milan were seemingly heading for fourth and a spot in the Europa League, substantially lowering expectations that had grown over the preceding three months and dropping their European standard of most of the past 15 years.

Milan's captain, Massimo Ambrosini, had been sent off and they were being held 1-1 by relegated Siena.

As the clocked ticked, Milan were awarded a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Riccardo Montolivo arched it into the Siena penalty area, where Milan players had gathered in numbers, but instead passed the ball in the opposite direction, short and low, to Stephan El Shaarawy.

Montolivo then received it straight back, before launching his cross. The manoeuvre spoke of no obvious panic.

The cross was precise, picking out Philippe Mexes, who cushioned the ball on his chest so it dropped for him to volley.

The shot he struck, though, was a little cramped, and lacked power. Siena's goalkeeper, Gianluca Pegolo, who had made a number of important saves in the previous 86 minutes, blocked.

For a split-second, the distance between third and fourth place, between a Uefa Champions League invitation and exclusion from Europe's most prestigious tournament, yawned.

At Pescara, Fiorentina, who began the day two points behind Milan but with a better head-to-head record, were on their way to a 5-1 win.

Luckily for Milan, Pegolo only blocked Mexes's volley and could not gather it. The Frenchman stabbed at the loose ball with enough force to beat Pegolo at the second attempt.

Milan had their three points.

Thus ended the suspense-laden finale to a season where the main honour, Juventus' league title, had been seized with weeks to spare, and Napoli's second place was tied up before the final evening.

As ever, in Italy, the edge-of-the-seat ending came accompanied by controversy. Milan had trailed Siena for almost an hour before a penalty gave them hope.

Ironically, the offender was Felipe, on loan from Fiorentina.

The Brazilian certainly made contact with Mario Balotelli as they jostled to meet a cross, but whether it was sufficient for Balotelli to fall in the way he did left room for debate, and furious scepticism about the decision in Florence.

It put Balotelli at the centre of the drama, almost inevitably.

An excellent penalty-taker, he converted the spot-kick, taking his tally to 12 goals in 13 league matches since he returned to Italy in January. Back then, Milan were sixth in the table. They have plenty to thank Super Mario for.




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