MILAN -- Paolo Maldini admitted he didn't know how AC Milan's players would react after Sunday's Derby della Madonnina. The mental scars that came from losing a game 4-2, after going in at half-time 2-0 up and playing the best football they had played all season, were still fresh.
"The game against Inter could have killed us," Maldini said. "Instead, it's my opinion that out of that night came a new beginning for the rest of our campaign."
Thursday night's Coppa Italia semifinal 1-1 draw against Juventus (stream a replay in U.S. on ESPN+) aroused some feelings of regret in Milan's technical director. Victory had once again eluded his team, though judging by the performance, the conviction that Milan are on the right path is steadily percolating.
"The spirit has changed. You can't dispute that," Maldini insisted.
Milan backed up what they did in the first half against Inter. The curiosity lay in whether it could be sustained over 90 minutes and what might happen if Juventus were suddenly to spark into life.
Before the game, much of the attention had fallen on Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In the end, another veteran stole the show. If Juventus are still in this tie, they owe it to the 42-year-old Gigi Buffon. Not for the first time this season, the man wearing the gloves for the Old Lady finished with the Man of the Match award in his hands.
Milan kept him busy throughout; Buffon's opposite number and successor in the national team, Gigio Donnarumma, was not. Aside from needing to get down low to stop a Juan Cuadrado drive billowing the netting inside his far post, the vastly experienced 20-year-old had little to occupy him from open play.
Milan took the lead just after the hour through renaissance man Ante Rebic. Written off as a flop when the season entered its winter break, the World Cup runner-up with Croatia has now scored five goals and assisted another in his last five games.
"He came back with more determination and enthusiasm," Milan coach Stefano Pioli explained. "He's been more receptive to what we're doing. Changing how we play and where he plays has helped. Mentally and physically, he's in incredible shape. Ante's becoming a big player for us."
Juve boss Maurizio Sarri was less than impressed with how his players defended the situation. It felt as though their focus was on Ibra, the ball and no one else.
"We're conceding goals in quite avoidable circumstances," Sarri said. "The cross into the box was slow; it looked easy to defend to me. But this is another one of the aspects we're struggling to improve."
Juventus have been playing 4-3-3 since the Napoli defeat on Jan. 26, although who he used and where they were deployed made Thursday night an interesting experiment. Aaron Ramsey played as a No. 8 for the first time since September and, substituted seconds after Rebic's goal, still doesn't look his best self in black and white. Sarri restored Cuadrado to a more attacking position, higher up on the right flank, and the Colombian did an OK job of attacking the space left by Milan's intrepid full-back Theo Hernandez. Cuadrado also had a penalty shout when Rebic clumsily caught him in the face with his arm shortly after giving Milan the lead.
But for the effervescent Paulo Dybala, Juventus were flat and created little to trouble Milan, even after Hernandez's red card 20 minutes from the end. Ronaldo was peripheral until his last-minute scissor kick struck Davide Calabria's arm and led referee Paolo Valeri to award a dubious penalty following an on-field review. The decision was contentious because of the similarities it bore with one which referee designator Nicola Rizzoli said was a mistake to give in a game between Cagliari and Brescia at the start of the season.
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Still, Ronaldo made no mistake from 12 yards and, quite remarkably, has now managed to score in every game he has played in this calendar year (that's 12 goals in his last eight appearances). By now it would come as some surprise if he didn't match Gabriel Batistuta and Fabio Quagliarella's record for the longest scoring streak in Serie A (11 consecutive games) when Juventus play Brescia this weekend.
"A team like ours can't be satisfied with coming here, giving away too many chances and having to get back into the game," Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci said after the game. "We have to step it up, do more and be more compact. We need more from everyone. ... We have to start moving the ball quicker. We can't afford to fall in love with it. We've got match-winners in the final third and we have to get them the ball."
A recurring issue, though, is Juventus' lack of presence in the penalty area. Ronaldo is often out on the left side; Dybala likes to come short; Sarri's favoured option on the right, Douglas Costa, is all too often out injured. No one is breaking into the box from midfield. Juventus should be getting better at this stage of the season, but instead it feels like they're regressing.
"We were making good progress up until 20 days ago," Sarri said. "At the moment, though, we're going through a phase in which we're finding it hard to carry on improving."
On the bright side for Juve, Zlatan and Theo -- arguably Milan's two best players -- will be suspended for the second leg of the semifinal. Relegation fodder Brescia and SPAL are up next in Serie A, while Champions League knockout-round opponents Lyon still find themselves a midtable side in Ligue 1.
The treble remains in play, but Sarri has yet to justify the decision to move on from Massimiliano Allegri and, after irking the Italian post office this week, it's pertinent to wonder when he will deliver. So far the quality of football expected of him seems lost in the mail.