With HIM being present there in the stands, they just could not have lost a game of football now, could they? Perhaps the greatest-ever number 9 in the history of world football and an AC Milan legend of the highest order, Marco van Basten was the celebrity guest to be witness to this game at San Siro where Milan hosted Italy’s best team and reigning champions Juventus. The game was anything but a footballing spectacle with neither of the sides being particularly impressive in the attacking department and in the end a controversial call that allowed Milan to try their luck from the spot underlined the difference between the two sides. No matter how hard one may try, it is impossible to keep the controversies away from a Milan-Juve clash. It all began with the grandest possible atmosphere San Siro faithful could have created for such a big occasion. The presence of van Basten only added to the already intense vibes that were floating around the stadium and the fans paid the perfect tribute to the Flying Dutchman.
Only minutes before the game it was learnt that Christian Abbiati had picked up an injury and that forced Marco Amelia to start between the posts. The bigger consequence of Abbiati’s absence was that the armband was awarded to someone who has largely been an unsung hero for Milan this campaign. Riccardo Montolivo, who has been thoroughly impressive barring an odd game or two ever since his move from Fiorentina earlier in the summer proved he is a leader material and was the best player on the pitch for Milan. Going head-to-head against the most intimidating midfield in Italy comprising Pirlo, Vidal and Marchisio, Montolivo had perhaps reserved his best for this night. A stunning performance from the Italy international allowed Milan not to be dominated in the middle of the park despite Juventus having enjoyed a lion’s share of possession.
And then, well, much as expected, there was a decision that changed the game. Remember Muntari? Well, not as much blasphemous but certainly a call well worth the criticism it invited post the game from Juventus circles. Blocking an Antonio Nocerino header with his arm held up, Mauricio Isla’s attempt was not deemed clean and instantly a penalty was awarded Milan’s way. This time thankfully enough for the home side, a more reliable Brazilian was on the spot and though not with the cleanest of strikes, Robinho did convert to put Milan up. In retrospect, the decision will be much talked about since the replays clearly show the ball only struck Isla by his side.
As the game progressed, Juventus could do little with all their possession as Milan looked pretty organized at the back and were more than content with the one goal lead that they successfully managed to guard. Milan looked to hit their visitors on counter at times but could hardly threaten the Gianluigi Buffon goal. By and large, the Milan midfield was happy clearing the ball deep from their own half. Despite their repeated attempts at building up an attacking move, Juventus failed to manage anything substantial as only 2 of their 13 shots met the target, that too hardly troubling Marco Amelia.
Milan saw a great opportunity to double their lead late in the first half as a poorly, rather a lazily cleared ball by Buffon fell kindly to Stephan El Sharrawy but the striker could do little about it as Andrea Barzagli made a perfectly timed challenge to negate the potential damage. Effectively, that was the closest either of the teams came to scoring and the game since reduced to be Milan nullifying Juventus more than anything else.
Formation, Tactics & Key Performers
Formation [4-3-3]: Amelia; De Sciglio, Mexes, Yepes, Constant; Montolivo, De Jong, Nocerino; Robinho, Boateng, El Shaarawy
Massimiliano Allegri once again threw a surprise – this time not with the formation he deployed but with his team selection. Playing Kevin Prince Boateng at the tip of the attacking line in a 4-3-3 was as baffling as it could get. The exclusion of an impressive Bojan Krkic might also have raised some eyebrows. Robinho, though not accustomed to lead an attacking charge of late, could still have been a better choice in the central position and Bojan could have offered a little more from the wing than what eventually Boateng did. El Shaarawy was slotted in his regular position on the left.
However, there was a catch here. Against Barzagli who was solely focused on marking El Shaarawy out of the game, things were never going to be easy for Milan’s top scorer and Allegri had to look for the other attacking outlets. Contrary to what the formation initially looked like, Boateng dropped pretty deep and was involved in the battle in the final third to win the ball. Boateng aggregated the second highest number of passes for Milan in the game and with a reasonably good accuracy considering he was playing near the final third for the major part of the game.
Undoubtedly, the best performer for Milan on the night was Riccardo Montolivo. Considering the little of the ball that Milan saw throughout the game, the stand-in captain for the hosts performed incredibly well opening spaces for his teammates and finding right targets in the box with his long balls of impeccable accuracy. At the same time, Montolivo assisted equally while defending as he was manning the same flank Asamoah was operating from. Montolivo negated the impact of Juventus’ primary weapon from the wings and with his tackling and proper marking, Asamoah could barely have an influence on the game.
Montolivo’s strong authority on the right allowed De Sciglio – another star for Milan on the night – to advance on the wings, which again kept Asamoah in good check as the Juventus defence line was pretty narrow. De Sciglio should certainly take heart from this performance, perhaps his best in the season as he was equally effective both defensively as well as going forward. Much like De Sciglio, Kevin Constant too performed admirably from the other flank. But unlike the former, he rather restricted himself to the defensive duties and was particularly impressive against the runs Arturo Vidal made from out wide.
Nigel De Jong too fared impressively carrying the job to nullify to movements of a certain Andrea Pirlo. Rather surprisingly, Pirlo was seen further high up the pitch and was often forced to pass wide on the flanks since Milan remained pretty organized offering the maestro no space. Milan are more than aware of what Pirlo is capable of with those long balls that perhaps nobody delivers better than him in the football world. And therefore, apart from the defensive midfielder that focused on concentrating the movements of Pirlo, the back four too held back their positions in the areas Pirlo generally tends to find his target men with his deliveries. And this disciplined positioning bore fruit as only half of Pirlo’s long balls met the intended target and even then the target could do little taking the ball forward since De Jong would have dropped deep enough by then to block the channels.
Milan could afford to sit back deep allowing Juventus zero penetration as they went up in the first half itself with a goal they must consider themselves lucky for having got a chance to score. It was an extremely soft penalty call but in hindsight one might just feel it would be harsh to criticize Rizzoli since Isla was going for the block with his arm up which in real-time makes it increasingly difficult to notice that it was not a punishable offence.
- Goal scorer Robinho was replaced right after the hour mark by Pazzini with the clear intention of introducing a man who could hold the ball better in the attacking half. Pazzini did not disappoint but could have done more with his off the ball movement. However, he more than made up for it by dropping deep and assisting the midfield to win the ball.
- A little shaky looking Mexes was later replaced by a sturdier Zapata and the move paid off. Zapata’s stronger physical presence ensured Milan were more secure in defending from a number of set-pieces Juventus were awarded towards the end of the game.
- Mathieu Flamini replaced Boateng in the final five minutes with the clear idea of adding defensive numbers. Flamini had his orders clear and did not try anything too different, which considering he is Flamini, was a job certainly well carried out.
Formation [3-5-2]: Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Caceres; Isla, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Asamoah; Quagliarella, Vucinic
Despite the unavailability of star defender Giorgio Chiellini, the Juventus side on paper looked good enough to take away three points off San Siro. Caceres was the replacement for Chiellini for the central defensive position on the left and given the versatility of the Uruguayan to slot perfectly into any defensive role, he was expected to carry out a good job and in all fairness, he had a pretty decent game – not that the Juve backline was greatly tested.
Andrea Barzagli, the most experienced and reliable defender for Juventus on the night made sure his calming presence at the back kept El Shaarawy away from unleashing his magic. Leonardo Bonucci has had a wonderful season for Juventus so far and his impressive showing continued on Sunday. Starting from the most central position on the defensive line, he managed to keep the Milan forwards in good check. Though Milan largely chose to sit deep, Bonucci nonetheless needed to guard the goal from time to time since Caceres tended to push a lot more forward and Barzagli remained focused on El Shaarawy’s movements.
Since Pirlo pushed himself further up the pitch in comparison to his usual position deep in his own half, the onus was left on Bonucci to take the ball till the half way line and trigger an attacking move. Bonucci was effective with his sideway passing and also delivered a number of accurate long balls but here, he lacked in vision – of course he’s not Pirlo. Although his long balls more often than not found the right target, they were often caught in a position where they could not do much with the ball and ended up either losing possession or forcing the ball out of play.
Ever since Conte has taken over, Juventus have greatly relied on the prowess of their three-man midfield and it is this very midfield that failed to deliver to their potential. While Pirlo was effectively dealt with by a more than organized defensive line of Milan, it was Marchisio who disappointed even more. The Italian often tends to race forward making the defenders chase him that creates more space for Pirlo. However, with the kind of game Montolivo was having, Marchisio was largely undecided with his positioning. His contribution even defensively was not all that significant and one might just wonder if it would have been a wiser choice to replace him with Pogba later in the game.
Arturo Vidal was the best of the three on the night as he seldom lost the ball even in the opposition half while surrounded by an intimidating Nocerino and a well-positioned Constant. With Pirlo being forced to pass wide, it was Vidal who carried forward the game and tried to find the target men inside the box with his crosses but much like every other day, both Juventus forwards had a fairly average game.
Overall, Juventus maintained a very high line especially in the second half that could have left them susceptible against the counter attacking moves but to nobody’s surprise, Milan were just fine sitting back and negate every single attacking move as the game progressed.
- Mauricio Isla will certainly be made the scapegoat for the alleged hand ball that awarded Milan a penalty, which turned out to be the only difference between the two sides. But even otherwise, the summer signing performed way below expectations and caused little troubles to the Milan backline with his pace and crossing abilities. He was rightfully replaced at half time by Padoin but even the latter failed to add much as his crosses from the right were anything but accurate.
- Surprisingly it was Quagliarella and not Vucinic to be taken off to introduce Giovinco in the second half. Clearly, the diminutive Italy forward failed to have any impact on the game and was involved in a rather avoidable tussle with Yepes near the final whistle.
- Paul Pogba was eventually brought in for Asamoah. Perhaps he should have replaced Marchisio to have a more direct impact on the game with his energy and technique.
Although the penalty was harsh on Juventus, even the skipper Gianluigi Buffon has conceded the team played badly. You’d expect a much more dominating performance from a side that is easily the best in the league. However, the loss should not really halt the progress for Juventus.
Milan may take heart from the biggest win in the season. Although they were lucky with the penalty decision as Allegri too admitted, this was the second successive encouraging result for the Rossoneri and one might just start to hope their season can take a turnaround from here.