Inter v Juventus
Serie A Week 34 – Saturday, 28th April – 19:45 GMT – San Siro
The home loss against Napoli was a devastating blow for a number of reasons, besides the obvious one that we have lost all our advantage in the standings and will have to win out despite the demanding schedule. Instead of trying to kill the title race with a win, Massimiliano Allegri went with his go-to rope-a-dope tactics, clearly content with a nil-nil that, in my mind, would have still been sub-optimal. Shooting zero times on goal is shameful and the whole plan backfired because the opponents deservedly broke through in the end. As they say, fortune favours the bold.
Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and company upfront did not have a good game, but it is hard to fault them too much when they had to cover so much ground just to get to the dangerous area, against a pretty stout defensive unit nonetheless. Dybala is in poor form, there is no denying that, but we can not expect him to tear the house down when he has to track back that much. Having him in the starting XI and inserting Mario Mandzukic late did not make much sense, or impact. The 4-3-3 we started the second half with was interesting, perhaps it should have been the choice from the get-go, with La Joya coming in later.
As always, the loss, the first in Serie A since mid-November, led to a very weird week, starting with the rumours of Gianluigi Buffon reprimanding the squad and having an argument with Medhi Benatia in the locker room. While that has been denied, there is no doubt that the captain and the leader has to say something after such a meaningful loss. The Moroccan centre-back made a crucial mistake as he gave up on chasing Kalidou Koulibaly on a corner kick after bumping into a couple of people. He has to be called out for that because blunders can not be swept under the rug, otherwise you never learn and you never improve. Also the ultras visited the training center and it is still unclear whether their aim was more belligerent or supportive.
The game plan set up the players to fail on Sunday night and that casts pretty thick clouds over Massimiliano Allegri’s future at the club. He has won a lot here, he has been versatile, he has managed the group pretty well and his requests are likely easy to handle for the management, but the move in big games can not always be to sit back and hope that somebody makes a winning play out of the blue. Especially not when you have so many talented offensive players at your disposal. Now, you can lose a game, you can be outscored by the enemies and strong defending is always the foundation of a championship team, but you can not flat-out give up trying attacking. Proactive football might be the only way for the team to take the next step.
The only good news after the Sunday debacle is that we still control our destiny. We have to defeat Inter and Roma in away games, but we know this squad can topple anybody on its day: the problem is how rarely they play their best football. We have seen them rally with the backs against the wall before, so I would not count them out yet even though the momentum is clearly in Napoli’s favour. The clash with arch-rivals Inter is the perfect stage to atone for last week’s faux pas.
Giorgio Chiellini got hurt early against Napoli and that already sent the back-line into chaos: he avoided a knee injury, but got a muscular one and will try to return for the Coppa Italia final, but there are good chances his season is over. Daniele Rugani, Andrea Barzagli and Benedikt Howedes will pair with Benatia from here on out, with the German as an option to relieve Stephan Lichtsteiner as well. I think it is about time to trust the youngster, who has had a pretty clean season in terms of gaffes, but we know experience is often the move in these cases and Barzagli has been pretty much announced as the starters.
It looks like the doubt will be between having two or three central midfielders: Mario Mandzukic will be in the XI, with Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Dybala battling for one spot, which will determine the scheme, and Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa as the duel on the right.
UPDATE: Allegri in the final practice has tried a lineup featuring Cuadrato at right back and Barzagli and Rugani in the heart of the defence, while the doubt between Dybala and Matuidi continues.
4-2-3-1: Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Benatia, Alex Sandro; Khedira, Pjanic; Cuadrado, Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain.
Chiellini (hamstring), De Sciglio (foot), Sturaro (Achilles).
Inter are a little perplexing and have been consistent in both directions, either looking effective and winning few games in a row, or appearing lackadaisical and bland for few weeks. They have brought home two easy victories in a row, so they are in one of their “up” moments.
A couple of things clicked for them recently: Rafinha, after some adaption time following the January move, has been the trequartista they were looking for. He knits the manoeuvre and sets up his teammate; it does not matter if he is not particularly clinical in the box, as they already have two elite scoring threats in Ivan Perisic and Mauro Icardi. He is a perfect complement, pretty much what they hoped Borja Valero would be when they signed him this summer.
Furthermore, Yann Karamoh gave them a shot in the arm with his electrifying moves and explosivity on the right, where Antonio Candreva is solid, but opponents have figured him out and he has yet to score this season. Karamoh is more unpredictable. Moreover, Marcelo Brozovic has resumed playing at high levels when slotted into one of the two midfielder’s spots in front of the defence: he has always had an all-around skillset, but he also lacked continuity. He seems to have found it in a role where he has precise tasks and not too much ground to cover. Lastly, Joao Cancelo has become a force down the right flank, a true source of offense at the right back position.
If you sum all of that with Samir Handanovic’s impeccable goalkeeper and a very robust defence, that makes for a very complete team. They are currently one point behind Lazio and Roma in the Champions League race and if they fail to grab one spot they will regret their inexplicable Winter plunge, where they failed to win for eight games a in a row and drew in six of them. There is a lot at stake for Luciano Spalletti as well, as finishing fifth would be disappointing.
Roberto Gagliardini recently got hurt and will not be available for this game. Borja Valero dealt with an illness early in the week and Matias Vecino would give them more bulk in the midfield. The Uruguayan international is also in imperfect physical conditions though. The other doubt is at right wing, where Antonio Candreva could start over Karamoh.
The fact that Cancelo has grown so much gives them a balanced attack on both wings, as Perisic has always been one of their top options offensively. Icardi is lethal and he thrives when he sees black-and-white. They have also found some goals through set pieces, which have been a problem for Juventus lately.
4-2-3-1: Handanovic; Cancelo, Miranda, Skriniar, D’Ambrosio; Vecino, Brozovic; Candreva, Rafinha, Perisic; Icardi.
Inter Milan v Juventus Performance Statistics