Juventus v AC Milan
Serie A Week 28 – Friday, 10th March – 19:45 GMT – Juventus Stadium
Juventus, after a year without draws in Serie A, were probably due for a stinker and it happened against Udinese. I do not know what it is, but Sunday afternoon games always feel like less important and filled with weird stuff. The squad was outmuscled and outhustled by the opponent, who looked much sharper. For the first time in a while, the Bianconeri looked disjointed and sloppy and were pretty lucky to come away with a tie thanks to a header by Leonardo Bonucci, who made up for his soft tackle on Duvan Zapata’s goal. Unfortunately, Juventus failed to take full advantage of Roma’s slip-up against Napoli and to deliver a massive blow to the Scudetto race. Eight points is an excellent lead at this point of the season, but there is not much room to relax yet.
In an unusual Friday night game, which of course is very helpful before the Champions League tilt, Juventus will face Milan, who have been by all accounts, their biggest rival this season. It is the fourth encounter between the two franchises so far: The Rossoneri have come up on top both in the first Serie A game and on penalties in the Supercoppa, then were defeated in Coppa Italia.
Massimiliano Allegri will have to come up with a solution for two problems. Giorgio Chiellini was subbed off early against Udinese because of a hamstring problem: it does not appear to be serious, but he will miss this one. Luckily there are plenty of valuable alternatives on the roster: Medhi Benatia entered the last game, Andrea Barzagli is a rock and Daniele Rugani has been very good this year. Benatia is the frontrunner.
The biggest issue is the absence of Juan Cuadrado, who is suspended, and it could lead to a tactical change. The easy solution would be to field Marko Pjaca, who is a natural left winger but has had good showing also on the other flank. He almost feels destined to decide a game against Milan after he snubbed their heavy courtship in the summer to move to Juventus. However, Allegri has been reluctant to put him in the XI and he also wants to have a pacey player to sub-in, if need be.
The other option is a return to a three-man midfield, with Claudio Marchisio joining the troops. It would likely be a 4-3-1-2 with Miralem Pjanic as deep-lying midfielder and Paulo Dybala in the hole. It is crazy to think that a couple of months ago we were debating whether Mario Mandzukic, Gonzalo Higuain and Dybala could play together and now it feels strange if they do not start alongside another attacker. This formation could easily turn into a 4-3-3, with Dybala on the right and Mandzukic on the left. It is a marquee match so we should see the starting midfielder featuring Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic, despite the midweek game ahead. Stefano Sturaro is still out with an abdomen injury.
There is another option which would see Dani Alves playing as right winger, with Stephan Lichtsteiner behind him. Alves has always been a bit anarchic and it could be an OK solution for an hour, even though moving fullback to more offensive position rarely produces good results. If only one of them starts, Lichtsteiner has a little edge because of his defensive prowess. Allegri has left the room open to all possibilities in the pre-game presser.
UPDATE: It looks like the third option is gaining steam, with Barzagli possibly sliding in as RB and Kwadwo Asamoah starting on the left.
4-2-3-1: Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Benatia, Sandro; Khedira, Pjanic; Pjaca, Dybala, Mandzukic; Higuain.
Chiellini (hamstring), Sturaro (abdomen).
Milan are having a bizarre season, clouded by the never-ending saga that has been the Chinese takeover, but they are trending upwards on the field. As a matter of fact, they come off three straight wins and they are undefeated in their last five games. They are only two points shy of the fifth position which would allow them to play European football next season.
Quick recap of what is going on outside the pitch. The Chinese consortium led by Sino-Europe Sports has paid €200M as down payment and the deadline to deposit the final €320M to buy the club was March 3. The money did not arrive because they are having bureaucratic problems with moving funds abroad, but there are also reports saying that some investors have pulled out. Fininvest, the Berlusconi holding, is still negotiating with SES even though the terms have expired, but they want another tranche of down payment soon. It is reportedly going to happen, but the end of the ordeal is still a month away.
Vincenzo Montella has always been very capable in exploiting the strengthes of his roster, and when Giacomo Bonaventura went down with a very serious hamstring injury, he started riding Gerard Deulofeu, who joined in January, and the move has paid off. He has quickly become their main offensive playmaker and he is much more effective than Mbaye Niang, who had started at length as left winger before departing to the EPL pastures. The Spaniard gives another dimension to their trident because he is a very capable assist-man.
Suso is dealing with a minor muscular problem, but could recover in time and start. Otherwise, Deulofeu will move to the right flank, with Luis Ocampos on the left. A very elegant player, but he has not showed much in his two Italian stints so far.
The coach is juggling a lot with the rest of the formation, also because of injuries. Ignazio Abate is set to remain sidelined by of an eye injury: Mattia De Sciglio will start as right back. Leonel Vangioni has been viable as left back since being inserted in the XI because no there were no other options, but he is facing some competition from Davide Calabria. Cristian Zapata could supplant the usual starter Gabriel Paletta. Alessio Romagnoli returned last week from a hamstring strain with no hiccups: he has also been tried as left back, a position he occupied when he was younger.
Their midfield is in flux. The man who took down Juventus back in November, Manuel Locatelli, has lost his job to José Sosa. He is also under the weather. The favourites to flank him are Andrea Bertolacci and Mario Pasalic, but Juraj Kucka is definitely still in the race. They have tried Sosa and Locatelli together in the last game, but it did not work that well.
The biggest threat is obviously Carlos Bacca, who, despite a contentious relationship with the penalty spot and the fans, is showing flashes of his old trickster Sevilla self in the last two games. He has scored eleven goals so far. Gianluca Lapadula has also been efficient off the bench. They will not come to Turin to park the bus: they will pull no punches as they know they have beaten us fair and square before. Juventus will have to be at their best. Containing their speed upfront will be the biggest challenge for Bianconeri.
UPDATE: Suso is still feeling pain in his hamstring he is unlikely to start: it will be Ocampos on the left and Deulofeu on the right. Romagnoli as LB is gaining momentum.
4-3-3: Donnarumma; Abate, Zapata, Romagnoli, Vangioni; Pasalic, Sosa, Bertolacci; Suso, Bacca, Deulofeu.
Bonaventura (hamstring), Abate (eye), Montolivo (knee).