As the great Chinese tactician Sun Tzu said, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”. Know Your Enemy is a new series here on JuventiKnows in which we will focus on the ‘other’ team: our adversaries. For the most important matches, we ask fans of Juve’s next opponent to expose their team’s secrets & weaknesses. Will Antonio Conte read these? You bet he will! Nevertheless, it isn’t for him we are doing this, but for our readers’ education… Enjoy!
This Saturday, the Bianconeri travel to Milano in what may be the title-deciding match of the Serie A season. AC Milan vs. Juventus is always a great fixture in its own right, but with both teams currently sitting at the top of the table this match holds more at stake than mere team pride and bragging rights, just like the good old days…
To discuss the Rossoneri’s season so far (and how the game might unravel), we’ve assembled a couple of Milanisti gurus.
| Elaine (@milanobsession)
Obsessed Milanista living in Southern California, she is quite naturally, the founder and blogrunner of milanobsession.com. There is hope for her yet, as she decided to marry a Juventino!
| Matteo Bonetti (@TheMilanGuy)
AC Milan correspondent for ESPN Soccernet & regular contributor to the Beyond the Pitch podcast, Matteo is the founder of themilanguy.com. His grandfather Silvio Bonetti was the vice-president of AC Milan in the late 60s!
On behalf of JuventiKnows, a warm welcome to both!
On to the questions!
1) While Juventus underwent another revolution, AC Milan only required tweaks this Summer after winning the Serie A last year. Did Galliani FIX the remaining HOLES in the team? What outstanding issues are there?
Elaine: Well, like Juve, the search for a true left-back still haunts us. In January, we got Mesbah from Lecce and I like what I’ve seen so far, but fear he may not be at quite the level we would hope. Additionally, Allegri’s system calls for a trequartista, and while Boateng plays best there we really lack that true playmaker in that spot, and need someone who can fill in when he’s out.
Matteo: Outstanding issues? As we all know by now, the Ibrahimovic suspension has not been lifted for this match, so the answer to your question (and elephant in the room essentially) is… Max Allegri. The manager has been known for his highly defensive approach, at times fielding three axe-wielding lumberjacks in midfield rather than a finely-tuned, creative operator. It is a vastly different philosophy than Milan teams we’ve seen in the early/mid 2000s, but an approach that so far has come with mixed results.
2) Milan have not been entirely convincing this season, in particular when it comes to their performance in BIG GAMES. With wins over Udinese and Arsenal, has Allegri finally fixed this?
Elaine: Do you ever “fix” these kinds of things? It’s been a combination of terrible luck with injuries, and the bigger issue of mentality. Juve are the perfect example of what changing the mentality can do. But in addition to the bizarre season-long injuries to Cassano and Gattuso, Allegri’s honeymoon has been cut short this year by issues with particular players and that is always a distraction. Thiago Silva cited a “hunger” that was missing earlier in the year, and that is now there. Saturday’s match will be a perfect test to see if that hunger does in fact exist as a team.
Matteo: The win vs. Udinese was one of the main surprises of the season, as Milan played atrociously for the first 60 minutes before the entrance of the now immortal Maxi López, who lifted the team’s spirit and partnered with Stephan El-’Plucked Eyebrows’ to create two goals which gave Milan the vital three points. It was a great win for morale, but as to whether our ‘big game syndrome’ is “fixed”, we will know Saturday.
3) MAX ALLEGRI won the title his first season at Milan. What do you expect from him in his second year?
Elaine: I think winning a title puts so more pressure on a coach, so I would have been more than thrilled with back-to-back titles, but the team chose to focus on the Champions League. I would be happy with a Top 3-finish in the league, and possibly progressing to the CL semifinals. A trophy of any kind would be icing on the cake for me this year.
Matteo: I expect a tight battle all the way to the end. Any knowledgeable Milanista knows this Juventus squad is not one to be taken lightly: after two defeats this year to the Bianconeri, we are aware they’re a very formidable opponent. It seems that the Serie A is shaping up to have a certain eau-de-La Liga about it, as there are two top teams noticeably ahead of the rest of the pack. Not playing in Europe certainly adds to Juve’s favor, as Milan has been decimated by injuries all year long.
4) Milan have been in the midst of an INJURY CRISIS this season. Whose absence has been felt the most and you wish you had back now? And among those who will play, who do you expect to STAR for Milan this weekend?
Elaine: Biggest injury? CASSANO. Only because Gattuso has been with the team all along, even if he hasn’t been able to play, he is our own personal ultrà. In addition to Cassano’s mad skills, his spirit galvanized the team and he was an unlikely leader and always so positive. But having up to 14 first team players out at one time, as well as having injuries for so long, has in and of itself left a mark on this season.
As for Milan this weekend, the star could be anyone. We have 17 different players on the scoresheet, and we also have the hardworking under-recognized players like van Bommel and Thiago Silva as well as the brilliant Abbiati in goal. I would hope the star for Milan on Saturday will be the TEAM.
Matteo: Injury-wise, I’m going to say Alexandre Pato for the simple fact that we know what he’s capable of when on form (and when not sleeping with Barbara Berlusconi, who has sucked the hunger/fire from his very soul). If we could get Pato to contribute like he has in years past and stay healthy, we’d have yet another weapon to throw at the defense.
5) The LAST TIME Milan faced Juve (in the Coppa Italia) Allegri fielded a strong XI in San Siro, yet lost. What changes does he have to make for this week-end?
Elaine: Mentality. With 13 first team players out at that point, I felt lucky we still had 11 to field. We will have a number of players back for this one but at the end of the day, mentality is the key. Believing we can win, regardless of injuries or suspensions, has made the difference in the games we pulled off against the odds. Belief was what pulled us through injuries last year, it is what is needed again this year.
Matteo: NO DANIELE BONERA or LUCA ANTONINI!!!
6) Do you feel Milan’s Scudetto push can CO-EXIST with their Champions League aspirations?
Elaine: Without the injuries, yes. We have a strong squad with many good players and a number of great players. But with the injuries, it makes it so much harder. Yet so many times this season, I felt like something would have to give, and then the squad has surprised me with another victory where none was expected. So perhaps fighting on both fronts is not so far-fetched after all.
Matteo: Sure do. Milan has considerable depth even despite the injury problems, and is a team built for handling more than one competition.
7) Juventus and Milan have a fair amount of EXES on each side. Storari, Pirlo, and Matri all once wore Rossonero colors, while Abbiati, Zambrotta, Nocerino, Aquilani, Ibrahimovic, and Inzaghi all featured prominently for Juve. Would you want any of these players back?
Elaine: I would take Pirlo back in a heartbeat. Those who follow me know that many real and internet tears were shed at his departure, and a few tears throughout the season, too, especially last week when he scored that beautiful free kick. He is a complete one-off, and deserves to have a team built around him. Although I am thrilled that he is happy and thriving a Juventus, it broke my heart to watch his last year at Milan.
Matteo: I expect the JuventiKnows nation to lambast me as I say this, but no. Andrea Pirlo is a very polarizing subject for Milanisti, who were all shocked to see his world-class form displayed from Juve’s very first game vs. Parma. Simply put, Pirlo needed a new venture, a new challenge, so I am glad he is performing well with the Bianconeri.
8) If you had to pick a WEAK and a STRONG point of Milan’s starting XI, what would they be?
Elaine: Milan’s weak point: keeping 11 men healthy. Seriously, it depends on which players start. Based on injuries, we don’t rally have a “starting” 11 this year so much. You get Antonini and/or Bonera out there, and that is our instant weak link. Depending on which position Allegri dials up this week for Emanuelson to play at, he can be a strength or a weakness. But if everyone is healthy those spots are fine. Our attack is our strength, and it’s not just our forwards. No one really knows where or when the goals are coming from.
Matteo: A weak point would be our aging midfield. Milan has had trouble facing teams like Juventus when the Rossoneri play the tired likes of Seedorf / Ambrosini / Van Bommel, who have a hard time adjusting to a more youthful elements (Marchisio / Vidal, etc.). Two strong points would have to be the central defensive pairing of Thiago Silva and “anyone not named Daniele Bonera”, plus the unexpected movements of El Shaarawy and Robinho, who float around and don’t give the opposing defense any reference points. It will be interesting to see whether Allegri decides to include Maxi López or Pato as well.
9) Specifically for this upcoming match against Juventus, where do you feel Milan’s STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES lie?
Elaine: Our true weakness in that first Serie A leg was age, since our young-ish players were all out. Depending on who we are able to field our midfield is likely to be outmatched by Juve’s starting 11, and we don’t really have an answer for Lichtsteiner or Cáceres (depending on who Conte starts). Our strength is still in our ability to convert goals. That said, scoring against Juventus since pre-season has been something we struggled with. But if we are, in fact, hungry, there will be goals.
Matteo: The most important part is having Nocerino and/or Boateng (in doubt for the match) draped on Pirlo the entire time. As I’ve seen over the years with Milan, especially in Europe, Pirlo can be negated as long as the other team sticks a very athletic midfielder on him throughout the match. Our weakness lies at left-back, as Mesbah is still an unknown entity and Luca Antonini a defensive abomination.
10- How do you see this game playing out? Are you optimistic?
Elaine: I am more optimistic about this meeting than the previous meetings this season. I am excited to have both teams coming into the match on a winning note and hope it will be an epic match, whatever the outcome. But of course, I need Milan to win this one so I don’t lose another bet to my husband.
Matteo: I go into every match with a pessimistic attitude so I can be pleasantly surprised. I expect a 1-1 tie. Forza Milan! (as a closing comment I would just like to add: may the best team win, and most importantly let referees not decide the game with a dubious call or penalty)
A big thanks to Elaine and Matteo for their contribution!