Inside No 9: no hexes yet for Giroud as Verona lose voice in Milan again

For almost an hour, it had seemed as though a curse was about to be broken. Hellas Verona have never won a game at San Siro: not even in that magical 1984-85 stagione when they became champions of Italy. Sixty-eight times they had come to the so-called Scala del Calcio – football’s equivalent to the iconic opera house – and 68 times they lost their voice, regardless of whether they were sharing a stage with Inter or Milan.

Di sabato, they started out singing beautifully. Verona raced to a 2-0 lead over the Rossoneri, with a performance even more brilliant than that scoreline suggests. Igor Tudor’s team was taking the game to Milan high up the pitch, setting the tempo with rapid short passes.

Gianluca Caprari’s opening goal arrived after Miguel Veloso sent a header through the heart of a defence that no longer seemed to know which way it was facing. Then Alessio Romagnoli went through the back of Nikola Kalinic, giving up a penalty that Antonin Barak converted.

Barely a month had passed since Tudor replaced Eusebio Di Francesco on the Verona bench, yet he had shown us already that he could teach his team to hold a tune. Hellas were unbeaten in four matches since his appointment, scoring 12 and even claiming a victory over José Mourinho’s Roma.

True enough, Verona had taken an identical lead in this fixture last season, but that was a fluke – a lucky deflection helping them on their way at the start of a match in which they surrendered 34 shots to their hosts, clinging on for a draw. Questa volta, they were in charge. Milan had a single attempt on target in the first half, and that a tame effort by Alexis Saelemaekers.

But Verona weren’t the only ones working to dispel a curse. When Olivier Giroud joined Milan this summer, he took on the No 9 shirt. It used to belong to Pippo Inzaghi, one of Serie A’s most prolific scorers of all-time. Yet none of the 10 players to inherit it since his retirement in 2012 have reached double figures in the league while wearing it.

There are some famous names on the list. Gonzalo Higuaín seemed like a sure thing when he joined on loan from Juventus in 2018 – yet was returned to his parent club in January after hitting the net six times in 15 appearances. André Silva arrived with a €38m price tag and a personal endorsement from Cristiano Ronaldo, but scored twice in 25 Serie A games (he did add eight in the Europa League). Fernando Torres got one in 10.

When Krzysztof Piątek joined from Genoa in January 2019, Leonardo, then working as director of football, stopped the player from taking the shirt, saying “it needs to be earned”. Piątek settled for the No 19 and bagged nine goals in half a season. Granted the No 9 to start the following campaign, he scored four in his next 18 matches and was packed off to Hertha Berlin.

Giroud, improbably, had not worn the No 9 for any of his club sides before he joined Milan this summer. He has been a No 12, a No 18, a No 17 and a No 22 through the various stops of his career but never the number most associated with a starting centre-forward, outside of international games.

Perhaps that is why the curse never bothered him. Più probabilmente, it is because he arrived at Milan with nothing to prove, a World Cup and Champions League winner. One way or the other, Giroud breezed in with two goals on his home debut against Cagliari. “I heard there was something special with the No 9 shirt," Egli ha detto. “But I’m not superstitious.”

Do you need to fear a curse to be affected by it? Giroud’s start at Milan has since been disrupted by a Covid-19 infection and then injury. He was rushed back into the team after his illness, playing against Liverpool in the Champions League before even getting a chance to resume training, and subsequently wound up missing more time with lumbago. But he returned on Saturday to make his fourth league start of the season, leading the line for a heavily-rotated Milan side. Already missing Mike Maignan through injury, as well as Theo Hernández and Brahim Díaz due to Covid infections, Stefano Pioli opted to rest Rafael Leão, Simon Kjaer and Sandro Tonali as well.

Tuesday’s Champions League visit to Porto has become a must-win after defeats by Liverpool and Atlético Madrid, yet Milan learned the hard way that they could not afford to take Verona lightly. Leão ended up coming on to replace an injured Ante Rebic after 36 minuti, but Pioli followed up by sending on Samu Castillejo and Rade Krunic at half-time to replace the struggling Alexis Saelemaekers and Daniel Maldini.

It was Leão who initiated the comeback, grinning with delight as he twisted his markers inside out before whipping a cross into the middle of the box. But it was Giroud, on from the start, whose instincts and movement allowed him to find the space between two defenders and head into the corner.

As San Siro erupted, he ran to retrieve the ball. A tone was set. That was the 59th minute and Milan equalised in the 76th, Franck Kessié scoring a penalty after Castillejo was fouled. As the midfielder went to celebrate, two teammates grabbed him and started to drag him back toward the centre-circle. Milan wanted three points, not one. They got them, after Koray Günter hacked a Castillejo cross into his own net.

It felt like a significant win, and not only because it sent Milan briefly to the top of Serie A – before Napoli jumped back in front by extending their perfect start with victory over Torino on Sunday. They had shown resilience on a day when starters were missing and they did not play well, against upwardly-mobile opponents.

Milan remain a young team – the average age of their players on the pitch this season has been just 24.7 years old – who make virtues of energy and dynamism, but there are days when experience still matters. Giroud was signed to provide leadership in situations such as this.

For a few minutes, he shared the pitch with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making his 100th appearance for the club but only his second of this season – a reminder of the potential for further improvement still in a side that has now taken 22 points from its first eight matches. That is Milan’s best start since Serie A went to three points for a win in 1994.

Giroud still has a little way to go to break the curse of Milan’s No 9 shirt. Seven more goals, to be precise. “I’m doing well, my back is better,” he said at full-time. “I’m almost at 100%, let’s say 90 for now. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment and now I just want to make a good impression and help my team to win.”

He has no care for supposed hexes. His goal, anche se, helped to prevent Verona from breaking their own.

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