Stefano Pioli did not need a history lesson before Milan’s visit to Verona. The tales of how these opponents twice derailed Rossoneri title runs at the Stadio Bentegodi, earning the moniker “Fatal Verona” by beating them on the final day of the 1972-73 season, then the penultimate round of 1989-90, are retold almost every time they meet.
Still, this weekend was different. Eleven years on from their last Serie A title, Milan had finally clambered back to the top of the pile, only to quickly find themselves back at the scene of two of their most infamous defeats. Omens could be found even in the fine details. This time there were three games left in the season, as if Milan had climbed one more rung down the ladder that forms part of Verona’s club crest.
Pioli, who played for the Scaligeri between 1987 and 1989, had no time for any of it. “We are starting to write our own history,” said Milan’s manager. “And that is written in the present.”
For the longest time, Pioli had sought to deflect talk of a title, reminding journalists his side was never a pre-season favourite, insisting the objective was simply to improve on the 79 points earned last year. There is no more hiding, though, when you occupy first place after 35 games. Ever since Internazionale lost to Bologna at the end of last month, Milan have held their fate in their hands.
To use that expression makes it sound straightforward. For the teams battling atop of Serie A, fate has felt forever fluid, slipping between fingers every time they try to squeeze it in their grasp. Milan, Inter and Napoli have taken turns throwing away opportunities: a defeat by Spezia here, a goalkeeping calamity there. From 10 January until the end of April there was not a single weekend when all three sides won.
Within Milan’s squad, however, there has always been at least one true believer. Sandro Tonali told Corriere della Sera in November that he and his teammates felt capable of winning the Scudetto, even discussing the tattoo he planned to get if they managed it. An extraordinary show of confidence from a then-21-year-old who ended the previous campaign on the bench.
Tonali has always been clear in his ambitions, writing a letter to Saint Lucy at 10 years old asking for a complete Milan kit – shirt, shorts, and socks – and whether he would get to fulfil his dream of being a professional footballer someday. He got his break with Brescia, from where he almost joined Inter, only to turn his back on them the moment his childhood club showed an interest.
His first season at Milan was a mixed bag, occasional flashes of magic not enough to offset the times when he seemed overwhelmed. He was a victim of unhelpful comparisons – he had been billed as the next Andrea Pirlo, though he himself said the similarities ended with their floppy hair – but he was also just going through something normal: the growing pains of a young footballer adjusting to a new level.
This season was different from the start, Tonali catching the eye with his confident physicality in Milan’s opener against Sampdoria and scoring in the next match, a 4-1 win over Cagliari. Competition for places ought to have been tough in a midfield featuring Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer but he has played more than either of them.
Pioli explained such development as the natural consequence of commitment. In January he defined Tonali as the best young talent he had ever coached, saying “his secret is the work he puts in every day”.
Tonali has likewise shown devotion to his club, volunteering to take a lower wage in the summer as Milan wrestled with the finances required to make his loan from Brescia into a permanent move. He has since said he hopes to stay for ever. “I know what I did to get this shirt,” Tonali told Corriere della Sera when his interviewer dangled the prospect of a lucrative Premier League move. “I would never make the mistake of leaving.”
Careers are long and unpredictable, but in the here and now it is hard to imagine either side wanting to break up a fruitful union. Milan’s title push has been a collective effort, from the centre-back play of Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu that, together with Mike Maignan’s brilliance in goal, helped Milan to keep seven clean sheets in eight games, through to Olivier Giroud’s big-game deciders up front.
Lately, though, it has been Tonali who has provided the magic when his team needs it most. It was he who scored the 91st-minute winner away to Lazio on 24 April, just when it appeared that Milan were about to cede top spot to Inter. And it was Tonali again who took centre-stage in Verona on Sunday night.
Once again Milan were playing catch-up, with Inter having recovered from two goals behind to beat Empoli 4-2 on Saturday night. That result temporarily moved the Nerazzurri into top spot.
Tonali, celebrating his 22nd birthday on Sunday, thought he had given Milan an early lead when he outmuscled Ivan Ilic and finished smartly after a long ball forward from Maignan. A VAR review showed he had been marginally offside at the start of the move.
Milan had dominated the opening exchanges, seeking to overwhelm Igor Tudor’s Verona by pressing high against a team that is known to take risks putting its players in one-on-one situations. But after Tonali’s goal was disallowed, it was the hosts who instead made the breakthrough: Davide Faraoni heading home at the end of a well-constructed team move.
Fatalism could so easily have taken hold in a city that has doomed Milan before. Instead, Tonali equalised in first-half injury time, fighting for the position to convert a tap-in when Rafael Leão whipped a low cross into a crowded six-yard box. Four minutes into the second half, those players combined again for the same outcome.
Any lingering ghosts of past defeats were ushered out of the building. Roughly half of the 30,000 fans in attendance had come to cheer the away team, and they were treated to a third goal before the end, substitute Alessandro Florenzi running on from right-back to send a thunderous finish beyond Lorenzo Montipò.
The celebrations at full time were enthusiastic but measured – Milan’s players know there are still two more opponents between them and the finish line. Next up on Sunday come Atalanta, who may not be enjoying their most brilliant season in recent memory but remain a dangerous opponent chasing a European place.
Pioli, though, was entitled to take a moment to reflect on another job well done. He said that getting to know his players better through the course of the season had allowed him to put together a winning gameplan, understanding he could ask Tonali, who had only scored twice in 31 league games, to play closer to goal against opponents who would leave spaces to be exploited.
“I am in love with my players,” said Pioli. A dangerous emotion for some, in fair Verona. Seemingly not, though, for this Milan team.