In Juventus and AC Milan we have two giants of world football. The hosts have found life difficult following the departures of greats Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and cult-hero Andrea Pirlo; the slow start to their defence of last season’s record-breaking 31st title has seen them pick up only 6 wins from their opening 13 league fixtures.
However, back-to-back victories leading into this tie created a hopeful vibrancy amongst Juve fans and the Torinese people sold out all 41,000 seats to make for an electric atmosphere against their Milanese rivals who travelled the relatively short 80-mile distance across the north of Italy to the beautiful region of Piedmonte and the Juventus Stadium that sits in a remarkable location beside picturesque backdrops of the Alps.
The “Rossoneri” had also built up momentum going into this one; taking 11 points from their previous 5 games. Although midfielder Andrea Bertolacci was sidelined through an injury picked up against Lazio and therefore had to join Mario Balotelli on the medical list, punters and media-alike were tipping the visitors as the favourites in this headline-hogging affair.
Juventus XI: (4-1-2-1-2) Buffon; Lichtsteiner, Barzagli, Chiellini, Evra; Marchisio; Sturaro, Pogba; Hernanes; Dybala, Mandzukic
AC Milan XI: (4-3-3) Donnarumma; Abate, Alex, Romagnoli, Antonelli; Kucka, Montolivo, Bonaventura; Cerci, Bacca, Niang
JUVENTUS 1-0 AC MILAN
Right from the get-go, Juve showed their intent to push their full-backs forwards as Claudio Marchisio dropped deep into an “anchoring pivot” role within seconds of the kick-off; providing the freedom for both Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra to creep forwards and link up play from wide areas. Standing at 5ft 10in and not being predominantly known for his heading ability, the 29-year old, four-time Serie A winner holds the master-key to every door that the men in black and white wish to open and was directed to fill in behind his central defenders whenever Milan had a dead-ball situation inside their own half; allowing both Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzaglia to come and attack the ball in the air and scrap for challenges; Marchisio was trusted by manager Massimiliano Allegri to sweep up behind them.
The two faces of Milan
As the “Old Lady” boasted far superior possession stats during the opening exchanges, Milan looked to find joy on the break and when on the ball they searched out Alessio Cerci who was often found in acres of space on the right touchline and in the mood to cause havoc, especially after the defensively astute Evra was forced off through injury and replaced by Alex Sandro in the 29th minute. With the typically attack-minded Brazilian full-back jumping at every given opportunity to flee defensive duties, Cerci was left frustrated several times as teammates failed to find him with the quick, direct passes he was pining for to catch the “Bianconeri” backline out.
As the clocked ticked on towards halftime, Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic was content to go in with the game scoreless at the break. When out of possession, Milan receded into a 4-5-1 with Cerci and Niang dropping into wide midfield areas as Kucka and Bonaventura tucked-in centrally and Montolivo sat behind them to restore compactness.
11-a-side football played in the area of a 7-a-side pitch
Milan welcomed the Juventus players to squeeze forwards in all areas and although the reigning champions were fully in control of events, they failed to penetrate as space in the attacking 3rd was hard to come by. With full-backs so far advanced and the central defensive duo extremely high, Juve pushed Milan to retreat and ultimately defend their penalty area as the hosts were aware that solo striker Carlos Bacca wouldn’t hurt them on the break. The Colombian talisman signed from Sevilla for a reported €30 million in the summer and whilst he can brag about his strength, touch and natural finishing ability, but blistering pace is a weapon that his arsenal does not have.
There were various moments in the final 15 minutes of the first half were all 20 outfield players were within a 40-yard radius of one another. This worked in the favour of the visitors as Paulo Dybala; who was playing in a free role just in behind Mario Mandzukic was full of energy and movement but his off-the-ball runs came to no avail in the sea of bodies. Brazilian Hernanes was another who failed to stand out or find empty pockets of space, he decided to vacate his central attacking midfield position (where he and Dybala, at times, ran into one another) and occupy wide areas on the left as Paul Pogba would look to drift inside to create.
The half was played out and neither side managed to create any clear-cut chances on goal; much to the frustration of the home team and fans.
The Old Lady finally strike
The second period started exactly as the first one ended; the hosts were on top, moving the ball fluently but not enough passes were decisive enough to sustain any great effect. With 25 minutes remaining, the midfield legs of Milan were beginning to become weary as they spent a huge percentage of the game chasing the ball from side to side and attempting to glide up-field to support Bacca as Milan launched the ball towards him whenever they gained possession from intercepting a Bianconeri pass.
As Sandro and Pogba were beginning to strike up an understanding, Allegri soon realized that with Pogba’s technical skill and the non-stop running of the Brazilian wing-back this partnership was going to be the biggest threat and the opportunity to capitalize would be for the pair to double up. Over 70% of Juventus attacks came down the left-hand side in the second half; including the one that saw the home side score what turned out to be the only goal of the evening.
With Milan camped inside their own half, the ball was played left to Alex Sandro and as Pogba came to offer a simple pass down the line Sandro was more than aware of the Frenchman’s raw talent and rolled the ball into him before marauding past him and also 3 Milanese bodies with a sprint that would have given Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt a run for his money. The French midfielder didn’t disappoint when returning the favour, performing a very “Pogba-like” move that flicked the ball up into the air as well as the Turin faithful from their seats before lobbing the ball over Ignazio Abate’s head and into the path of the onrushing Sandro; who latched onto it whilst rapidly maneuvering towards the byline.
Dybala made an intelligent late run that evaded any close attentions of Montolivo, the 30-year-old Italian international had spent the full game trapped in the middle of Juve’s midfield diamond as space for Marchisio to conduct play would have been crucial for the hosts as well as not allowing Hernanes room to breathe. This was the first time he had switched off all evening and when central defender Alex was caught in two minds as to stick and mark the Argentine’s run or to twist and charge to close down Sandro. The veteran defender was caught in no-man’s land and Juve’s 20-year old hotshot made a delightfully timed run followed by no mistakes in front of goal, executing a marvelous volley after chesting down the lobbed pass from his fellow South American teammate Sandro.
Dybala marked his 6th goal of the season after arriving from Palermo for €32 million in June and is becoming a real fan favourite around the city. Rossoneri’s defensive plan had worked perfectly as midfielders remained tight to their defensive line knowing Juve don’t have players with the constant threat or quality to find the killer pass or run that breaks the lines that they did in the Champions League runners-up team just five months ago. One split second of sloppiness and a lack of communication through both mental and physical tiredness proved pivotal and killed Milan as they paid the ultimate penalty when Dybala took full advantage.
The stadium clock was ticking down below the ice cold Torino sky in the ground sandwiched between the snowy Alps and AC Milan now had to find a way back into the encounter. They re-adopted the original 4-3-3 shape in hope of clawing a lifeline and tossed balls forward towards Bacca. As Luiz Adriano and Japanese striker Keisuke Honda entered the frame to offer energised minds, legs and technical quality in the attacking zone it was Juve’s turn to become compact and put bodies behind the ball whilst looking to punish on the break with Avaro Morata’s strength and speed replacing Dybala’s quick, creative brain. Half chances arrived to both teams, the best of which fell to the hosts who found Milan’s 16-year-old phenomenon of a goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma in top form; the saves of the youngster kept the scoreline realistic as a 2, 3 or even 4 goal deficit may have been harsh on Milan who defended well for large parts of the game.
Optimistic efforts were hit by both Cerci and Kucka who chopped inside but the ever-reliable Buffon was on hand to smother both. Apart from these speculative tries, Milan struggled to create anything and oddly, even as the referee’s official held up the electronic board saying 3 minutes, alongside his players, Boss Mihajlovic didn’t seem too urgent to bombard the Juve penalty area and Bacca was continuously left abandoned by teammates as he fought to win flick-ons and scraps for his colleagues to work with, however, the men in red and black were nowhere within 30-yards of the target man.
In the end it was a comfortable victory for The Old Lady, making it 3 wins on the bounce and starting to look somewhat like the champions they are. Meanwhile, AC Milan have a lot to do if they hope to achieve Champions League football next season.
Written by Alex Clapham
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