Someway, somehow Juventus got the monkey off their back on the road thanks to a late Cristiano Ronaldo brace versus Udinese. The product on the pitch remained largely lackluster, but the star power in the roster sometimes just carries the team on its own regardless of tactical lucubration and whatnot. Hopefully, the unlikely win will provide that emotional spark the squad desperately needed since it was the exact opposite of fiery in the last two fixtures.
In Florence, it was the pure three-man defense, in Udine Federico Bernadeschi on the wing and Weston McKennie as a pivot: it seems like coach Andrea Pirlo has tried to put his imprint on recent matches with surprising and unexpected solutions since he has the whole roster to play with for the first time in the season. It has worked out very poorly in both instances as the Bianconeri still conceded in the Viola game, and were not as stifling as he likely hoped for, while Bernardeschi was invisible and McKennie is just not a great fit for that role. He would certainly thrive as box-to-box, but, next to only Rodrigo Bentancur, he is a little too wild and has a lot of ground to cover, plus he does not have as many opportunities to exploit his cuts in the box, which is one of his best traits.
On the other hand, the subs have generally been productive, but the question remains if that is because the starting XIs have been so subpar or due to the sheer quality of the player rather than the result of accurate reads by the gaffer. Alvaro Morata has been a strong contributor off the bench, and so has been Dejan Kulusevski lately, and even Adrien Rabiot dished a great assist. So at least there is that positive going in amidst a plethora of flaws.
At some point down the road, Juventus might find a way to field Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala together while also having some credible presence in the box. It does not look like that time is now, though, and it would be smart to quit trying out some experiments in such a pivotal time of the year. Morata supposedly did not start for a small calf problem in the last game, but he did not look particularly hampered when subbing in. Either there is a tactical evolution that sees all three forwards together in the XI, which exists but only outside of the schematic boundaries of the current manager and at the expense of other meaningful pieces, or the Spanish forward should just be a staple of the formation. He may not be the most prolific striker, but he brings a lot to the table, first and foremost a ton of straightforwardness, and he is just a much-needed linchpin for the offense.
Federico Chiesa is back for this game and likely to start, while Weston McKennie might take Alex Sandro’s place, pushing Juan Cuadrado back to right-back. The coach hinted that just one between Matthijs De Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci, who are both one yellow card away from disqualification, will get the nod and it would only fair to give Giorgio Chiellini one likely last battle with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but it is not a certainty. Adrien Rabiot will make the XI after last week’s assist.
There will be three more games to go, but this is pretty much the deciding clash for the Champions League race. The momentum coming from a victory would likely carry the successful side till the end, while a loss would be totally dispiriting. The last round brought some slightly surprising developments, with both Atalanta and Napoli stumbling, but everything remains wide open. The Old Lady has generally been excellent at home and pretty good in the head-to-head clashes, on top of dominating this match-up in recent years, and now they will have to put those favorable elements to fruition.
4-4-2 Szczesny; Danilo, De Ligt, Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Cuadrado, Bentancur, Rabiot, Chiesa; Morata, Ronaldo.
The big question that hovers over Milan’s season is whether they kept a pace above their capabilities in the early going, when they were legit title contenders, and then regressed to the mean, or if their aspirations were legit and they are underperforming now that their Champions League berth is in jeopardy. It is likely a little bit of both, but the reasons for their skid are evident.
For instance, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was going like gangbusters in the first half of the campaign, has missed time with multiple injuries and has not been as consistent in recent outings, even if healthy. They also had to navigate an important stretch of the schedule without Ismael Bennacer, who is the straw that strikers the drink in the midfield, and with Hakan Calhanoglu being subpar due to some physical problems for some time. It would be tough for everybody to compensate for having the entire backbone of the team pretty much wiped out.
They have also shown some mental frailty and vulnerability in the back in their recent stumbles, more glaringly in the Lazio game. However, they are coming off a pretty easy win over Benevento and, when you have quality, a good result could be enough to return to form fully. Moreover, they have solved all of their injury concerns and have the full roster at their disposal right now.
They had remained terrific on the road even when they were floundering as they hold the best record in the league and have lost just twice, against Spezia in a stunner and recently with the Biancocelesti. Instead, they have had prolonged and inexplicable trouble at San Siro, but that is a matter for another game. Their track record against top competition has gotten worse from January on as they were defeated by Inter, Atalanta, and Napoli, on top of losing the first head-to-head clash with the Bianconeri. Most of the contests were at home, though.
Besides the aforementioned Bennacer, Calhanoglu, and Ibrahimovic, who are all massive hubs with their different characteristics, they lean a lot on Theo Hernandez on the left flank, who recently snapped out of a significant slump. Their other top contributors, in particular Franck Kessie and Ante Rebic, tend to play off of their playmakers. The Croatian forward, in particular, tends to see red when facing Juventus. While he has not been as prolific as 2020/2021, he is one of the most gifted wingers in the league when it comes to finishing. Alexis Saelemaekers has also grown a lot on the right wing, becoming a real part of their offense, especially with his passing, rather than just a guy who provides balance with his energy and work rate.
Given the amount of personality they have in the roster, they try to face the opponents head-on and pull the strings in any game. Sometimes it has gotten ugly if they were not successful in their intent as they are not a super stingy or resilient side, pretty much like the Old Lady. The lads will have to stomp their authority right away and avoid going down in the score in the early going, differently from what they have done so many times; otherwise, the opponents could easily gain momentums and play them off the park. As for the lineup, Alessio Romagnoli and Fikayo Tomori are in contention for a spot in the back, while Brahim Diaz might be a surprise inclusion over Rebic and Rafael Leao.
4-2-3-1 Donnarumma; Calabria, Kjaer, Romagnoli, Hernandez; Kessie, Bennacer; Saelemaekers, Calhanoglu, Brahim Diaz; Ibrahimovic.