Higuain heroics mean Roma come up short in fight for second in Serie A
As expected, Roma's Luciano Spalletti-led revival wasn't enough to snatch for automatic Champions League qualification. Roma went into the weekend knowing that Napoli failing to beat Frosinone would give them the chance to move second on the final day of the Serie A season, but record-breaking Gonzalo Higuain's hat trick meant that the Giallorossi's 3-1 thrashing of a dreadful AC Milan on Saturday night meant nothing. Roma stay third and now have to plan for the final playoff qualification round, which has been a Serie A graveyard in recent seasons.
Goals from Mohamed Salah, Stephan El Shaarawy and Emerson Palmieri saw off Milan in a beating that led the disconsolate Gazzetta Dello Sport to say that Milan's odds against Juventus in the Coppa Italia final should be "similar to those of Leicester winning the league at the start of the season."
The Rossoneri let Roma run rings around them, and it was only the away side's wastefulness that saw them just a goal up at half time. The complete lack of pressing in midfield combined with a suicidal high defensive line against two speed merchants El Shaarawy and Salah led to Roma's 19th-minute opener. Kevin Strootman was given all the time in the world to float a delicate pass over Milan's square defence into the path of Salah, who charged on goal and rolled a composed finish past the exposed Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It was the same story for the second goal. Miralem Pjanic could have sparked a cigarette while waiting for El Shaarawy to make his nifty diagonal run in behind a distracted Phillipe Mexes and Alex, and the Bosnian casually picked him out with a sensational chipped through ball that the Pharaoh brought down beautifully and stroked past Donnarumma.
Pjanic had the run of midfield on Saturday night, and with his 13th assist of the season in all competitions he showed why there are so many clubs pondering whether to activate his €38 million release clause in the summer. Including, reportedly, Juventus. If he makes what would be an extremely unpopular trip north, Serie A may as well hand Juve the league title in August and be done with it.
That it took Roma until the hour mark to double their lead would have been worrying for Spalletti were the season not already over. Luckily for Roma, Milan were unable to capitalise on Roma's profligacy, with Keisuke Honda -- Milan's one bright spark -- drawing the only two real saves Wojciech Szczesny had to make all game, first with a low left foot shot in the 31st minute and then with a 74th-minute header that was sharply tipped over by the Pole.
By the time Carlos Bacca had bundled in his 18th of the season for minutes from the end, Emerson Pamieri had already tapped home his first Roma goal to make sure of the result and end his side's league season unbeaten in 17.
For a home team that was playing for a place in Europe, it was weak. No wonder the Gazzetta said that Milan's only hope for the Coppa Italia final was to "grab on to the Bible and read David and Goliath."
For Roma fans, meanwhile, there's only the familiar feeling of wondering what might have been.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Wojciech Szczesny, 7 -- Milan weren't exactly a potent attacking threat, but when called upon the Pole did what he had to do.
DF Alessandro Florenzi, 6 -- Given the freedom of the right flank by Milan, and spent most of the game driving forward. End product is lacking, however.
DF Kostas Manolas, 7 -- Superb again for most of the game, but was distracted for Bacca's consolation goal.
DF Antonio Rudiger, 7 -- Kept Mario Balotelli so quiet that he was subbed at half time by Milan coach Christian Brocchi.
DF Lucas Digne, 7 -- Played with the enthusiasm of someone who'd just been told he was going to Euro 2016, and Milan let the Frenchman do what he wanted.
MF Miralem Pjanic, 9 -- Joined Paul Pogba at the top of assist charts with 12 thanks to his sublime ball for El Shaarawy, and was pure class for 90 minutes. Imagining that pair in the Bianconeri midfield is the stuff of nightmares for the competition.
MF Daniele De Rossi, 8 -- The Italian has been back to his imposing best in the last few weeks, and again he was full of beans on Saturday.
MF Kevin Strootman, 8 -- The Dutchman is officially back. Patrolled the midfield with authority and delivered a magnificent assist for Salah's opener.
MF Radja Nainggolan, 7 -- Tucked in behind Salah and El Shaarawy, the Belgian provided plenty of grit and pressing but offered less invention that his deeper colleagues.
FW Mohamed Salah, 8 -- Roma's top scorer took his league total for the season to 14 with a typical Sonic The Hedgehog style burst. Caused havoc on the right.
FW Stephan El Shaarawy, 8 -- On loan from Milan, he was applauded by the home crowd after bagging his eighth in 16 appearances, and no wonder.
FW Francesco Totti, 7 -- Sent on for Strootman as soon as El Shaarawy made it two, and strutted about the San Siro with his customary style.
FW Edin Dzeko, N/R -- Given just five minutes of a match that was over after less than an hour. Spalletti has clearly decided that the Bosnian is not for him.
DF Emerson Palmieri, N/R -- Scored his first goal in Italy just three minutes after coming on as a sub: not bad at all.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley