“We are inconsistent, but we go to San Siro to win. We are stronger and, man for man, there is no comparison.”
That was the opinion of Lazio defender Francesco Acerbi two weeks ago as his side prepared for their Serie A clash with AC Milan, prompting Rossoneri midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko to respond with a simple tweet.
“Ok ACERBI see you Saturday,” he wrote, waiting until the final whistle of that match to truly exact his revenge for the slight. Exchanging shirts and a brief hug with the Italy international, Bakayoko and teammate Franck Kessie then headed under the Curva Sud where Milan’s hardcore supporters gather.
Playfully, they paraded the shirt like a trophy, the 1-0 win giving the Milan duo bragging rights and the opportunity for what should have been regarded as the ultimate piece of banter to end their spat. Of course, that would not be the case and Acerbi made his feelings clear, going so far as to say (in the tweet above) that "fomenting hatred is not sport but a sign of weakness,” while Lazio striker Ciro Immobile chimed in, calling Bakayoko and Kessie "two little men.”
Milan issued a statement offering a public apology, but that was not enough for the footballing authorities, the pair fined a total of €86,000 for the incident. But it was also deemed insufficient by Lazio supporters, who used their next match—at home against Udinese—to deliver their own verdict. “Bakayoko, this banana is for you,” they chanted among various other racist taunts, which of course prompted no response whatsoever from the Lega Serie A or the FIGC, who took no action in that matter.
All of which brings us to Tuesday evening’s Coppa Italia semifinal clash, a second leg that could not be more finely balanced. Since playing Milan, Lazio have won against Udinese but capitulated this past weekend, losing to an already relegated Chievo, a game which saw Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto earn needless red cards.
“We knew it would be tougher than people assumed, but without doubt that was a massive error and we all paid dearly for it,” said Lazio head coach Simone Inzaghi when asked about the first of those sendings off. “We should’ve stayed calm and after that gesture it all became more difficult. It’s not over for our Champions League hopes, but this was a step backwards that nobody expected.”
Neither player will be suspended in the cup and that race for the top four, which sees Milan in fourth just four points above Lazio in eight, will be put to one side, a place in next month’s final the only priority here. The Rome-based outfit are expected to use their usual 3-5-2 formation, with long-term injury casualties Jordan Lukaku and Valon Berisha the only absentees for Inzaghi to deal with.
For Milan, only Giacomo Bonaventura remains on the sidelines, allowing Gattuso to use his favored 4-3-3 formation with Pepe Reina continuing in goal as he has in this competition. In front of him, Mateo Musacchio is expected to get the nod alongside skipper Alessio Romagnoli, while the skillful Lucas Paquetá will join Bakayoko and Kessie in midfield.
Their attack as always will focus on creating chances for Krzysztof Piątek who—in addition to his 21 league goals this term—has bagged eight goals in just four Coppa Italia appearances but boss Gennaro Gattuso insists his men must be concentrated on this next fixture after dropping points at the weekend.
“We must take it game by game,” the coach told reporters after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Parma. “We’ll now focus on Lazio and I know that there will be more than 55,000 fans in attendance. We can’t put in another performance like that of our first half tonight.”
Given how close these two teams have been in recent encounters, that is undoubtedly true. Milan’s recent victory over Lazio ended a run of four consecutive draws between the pair, with a total of just three goals scored in their last five meetings.
With the bad blood from the Acerbi incident adding another layer of intrigue, it will be a tense affair at San Siro, but one which will see the victor heading to next month’s final with a chance of lifting the Coppa Italia.
AC MILAN (4-3-3): Reina; Calabria, Musacchio, Romagnoli, Rodriguez; Kessie, Bakayoko, Paqueta; Suso, Piatek, Calhanoglu
LAZIO (3-5-2): Strakosha; Luiz Felipe, Acerbi, Bastos; Romulo, Milinkovic-Savic, Leiva, Luis Alberto, Lulic; Correa, Immobile
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.