The keenly anticipated clash between AC Milan and River Plate, two giants of the global game, brought a richly entertaining first day at Al Kass to a close. There can have been few more entertaining, nor fiercely competitive, matches in the tournament’s history, with the Italians running out narrow winners following an engrossing game.
As the teams took to the field, the Argentinean youngsters gathered in a huddle, their warlike chants suggesting a steely determination.
Yet it was Milan who started strongest. With a line-up featuring six veterans of Al Kass 2014, their familiarity was instantly evident as they stroked the ball around from the first whistle.
In the fourth minute, midfielder Niccolo Zanelatto dinked an exquisitely weighted ball over the top for captain Federico de Piano, whose lob dipped narrowly over the bar. It was an early sign of AC’s attacking threat, but River Plate soon seized the initiative after a tentative start.
On 11 minutes the Rossoneri suffered a scare when keeper Francesco Cancelli inexplicably passed straight to River Plate striker Franco Lopez, but he was instantly dispossessed and the danger cleared.
River Plate were growing into the game, while Milan struggled to create clear-cut chances. With goal machine Patrick Cutrone, one of the standout performers of Al Kass 2014, having since graduated to the senior set-up, the Rossoneri frontline appeared to lack a cutting edge.
But on 16 minutes it was River Plate’s cutting edge that was missing as a low cross from the right that somehow evaded the touch of Lopez, just three yards from goal. Perhaps emboldened by this chance, the Argentines began to impose themselves on the game and, in the 23rd minute, they took the lead. Striker Enzo Zacarelli dispossessed Andrea Malberti midway inside Milan’s half and fed Lopez, whose confident dink over Cancelli put River Plate in front.
The goal signaled the onset of a marvelously entertaining period, with both sides taking it in turns to launch attacks into opposition territory.
On 37 minutes, the outstanding Lopez embarked on a tremendous dribble through the middle before producing a slide-rule pass to the advancing Enzo Zigarelli, who finished with aplomb to make the score 2-0.
River Plate were now dominant, their aggressive approach and silky skills clearly unsettling Milan. The Argentines looked favourites to score next before, in the 38th minute, this fascinating contest took another twist.
Milan pressed forward and Zakaria Hamadi’s ferocious drive from outside the area hit the foot of the right-hand post, rebounding into the path of Samuela Carrecia, less than six yards out. With the keeper stranded he couldn’t miss, presenting Milan with a way back into a game that had briefly appeared beyond them.
The second period got underway as a light fog descended on Aspire Zone’s Pitch 4, but the combined skills of both teams continued to light up the cool evening. The first chance of the half fell to Milan’s Juvenal Agnero, fed by Hamadi cutting in from the right, but his first-time shot was saved by River Plate’s Tomas Sotelo.
But Milan wouldn’t have to wait long for an equaliser. On 53 minutes an ambitious back-pass from Kevin Sibille, wide on the right, was intercepted by Agnero, who rounded the keeper before clipping the ball into the net.
Two minutes later the turnaround was complete after Milan attacked down the right. A low cross was not dealt with by the River Plate backline, leaving Hamadi with the easiest of chances to make it 3-2, and prompting delirious scenes on the Milan bench.
River Plate appeared to be growing frustrated, a series of hefty challenges prompting the game’s first yellow card, shown to Jose Vivanco. It was to be the first of many as the game grew increasingly physical.
Yet, on 58 minutes, it was Milan who lost their discipline when Giorgio Altere crudely hacked down captain Pablo Olivo in the area, leaving referee Ahmed Alsayed no option but to point to the spot.
Muaricio Vera made no mistake, slotting low to his right to make the score 3-3.
Minutes later Milan almost restored their advantage, when substitute Tommaso Pobega advanced through the middle before playing in Agnero on the right, whose low cross fell to Hamadi. Initially unable to dig the ball out from under his feet, he attempted an outrageous back-heel that was scrambled to safety by Sotelo.
In the 63rd minute, River Plate were once again victims of their own carelessness, when another crazy back-pass from the left was stolen by Cosimo La Ferrara, who forced the ball home to make it 4-3 to Milan.
Play swept from end to end as this marvelously open game had the audience on the edge of their seats. And, in the 77th minute, Zanaletto broke through the middle for Milan, lobbing the keeper but also the goal. River Plate immediately responded, as substitute Valentino Cernaz was played in and slid the ball past the onrushing Cancelli, only to see his effort roll narrowly wide of the right post.
Two minutes later Milan missed a chance to increase their lead when Agnero dragged a close-range shot wide following a goalmouth scramble. Undeterred, Milan launched yet another attack, Hamadi cutting in from the left but tackled before he could get his shot away.
On 85 minutes, River Plate’s Cristian Yanez was replaced by Gianluca Simeone, son of the famously feisty Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone. Anyone wondering whether Gianluca had inherited his father’s fighting spirirt did not have to wait long for an answer. Within seconds of entering the field of play Simeone was shown a yellow card, his crude challenge almost sparking a free-for-all. Teammate Nahuel Gallardo followed him into the book within a minute as River Plate’s frustration began to boil over.
From the ensuing free kick, Milan almost extended their advantage as de Piano played a chipped ball to Zanellato, unmarked on the left of the penalty area, whose fine header was tipped onto the bar by Sotelo.
River Plate continued to press for an equaliser, but the Rossoneri held firm, finally prevailing in a game that will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it.
The Argentineans had visibly tired late on, perhaps as a result of their arrival in Doha the previous night after a long journey from South America. It seems certain that, with time to regroup, they will once again come out fighting. Meanwhile, Milan face age-old rivals Juventus in their next match. After this enthralling contest, they will be full of confidence.
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