Is tonight the night Juventus’ decade of Serie A dominance ENDS? AC Milan are the only undefeated team in Europe’s big leagues and can move 13 points clear of their rivals with victory in ‘Pirlo’s first final’ at the San Siro
- AC Milan host Juventus in a key game in the Serie A title race on Wednesday
- Stefano Pioli’s side are the only team in Europe’s top five leagues still unbeaten
- Defeat for Juventus would leave them 13 adrift and their title hopes in tatters
- Cristiano Ronaldo is in form but there are concerns over Zlatan Ibrahimovic
- Sportsmail breaks down the San Siro showdown into the key battle grounds
There is no way to sugarcoat it, it really is make or break for Juventus on Wednesday night.
Clocking up their ninth consecutive Serie A title last season under Maurizio Sarri there was reminder after reminder of the invincibility cloak that seems to swaddle the Old Lady.
Even when times got tough, they would grind out results. But what were wins last season are now draws and where rivals would slip up they now stand tall on two feet.
AC Milan have Juventus on the ropes and know they can deliver the knockout blow under the San Siro lights on Wednesday.
It has been all smiles at AC Milan and they know they can deliver a knockout punch to Juventus
The Turin side won the title the last nine seasons but find themselves in disarray in 2020-21
The showpiece has fallen on the legend of La Befana. As the folktale goes, Befana is a witch who brings good children treats on the morning of the Epiphany – January 6.
It is anyone’s guess if it will be the children of Milan or the children of Turin that will finish the day with smiles on their faces.
What is riding on the game is not lost on anyone in Italy and nobody in either dressing room will need reminding of its significance.
Two esteemed rivals are once again back contending for honours. It’s been a decade-long wait for Milan but their absence from the top table is over and now Stefano Pioli’s side are feasting.
Wednesday’s front pages are dominated by the mammoth clash between rivals at the San Siro
Wednesday’s newspapers are awash with front covers dominated by the game. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a ‘Scudetto Lottery’ headline while Corriere dello Sport declared it as Andrea Pirlo’s ‘first final’ as Juventus boss.
With Milan top of the standings, the only unbeaten team left in Europe’s top five leagues, victory will take them 13 points clear of Juve. It would be a devastatingly blow to Pirlo and his players. Lose and 10 in a row seems out of reach.
Injuries and positive Covid-19 test results have hampered both squads but there remains an abundance of talent on both sides, all keen to be the star that shines brightest with the rest of Europe watching on.
With all that in mind, Sportsmail breaks down the key battle-grounds for a clash that will have all of Italy watching on with bated breath.
Right now, Milan and Juventus are two teams in very different moments.
Separated by 10 points is one thing but at Juventus there is a fear the dynasty is drawing to a close, a confusion as to how they are getting it wrong and a general sense of distress.
And then there is Milan, one of the pillars of Italian football enjoying a renaissance that has been 10 years in the making.
The Rossonneri have brilliantly managed to blend a side made up of young talents such as Rafael Leao, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Jens Petter Hauge, Brahim Diaz, Matteo Gabbia, Davide Calabria and Sandro Tonali with the experience of leaders like Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Milan have managed to blood a host of young players and give them belief they can win it all
The squad have no fear and are the only team in Europe’s top five leagues that are unbeaten
He’s the coach Pioli needs on the pitch, the one who can maintain standards and inspire this young core to greatness, bestowing a fearlessness in them which has shown on multiple occasions in this ongoing unbeaten streak.
Then there is Juventus where a myriad of errors seem to have knocked the wind out of their sails. Pirlo is heavily reliant on the production of Cristiano Ronaldo, goes into the game without adequate full-back cover and has failed to address the lack of depth at centre forward with Alvaro Morata – the only orthodox No 9 in this team – unavailable tonight.
And yet this is a derby. A fierce rivalry like any across Europe.
There is a bitterness from Milan’s side at the success of their northern neighbours. A bitterness they have struggled for so long before getting a chance at redemption.
Between the two teams they have met 235 times: Juventus with 92 wins, Milan with 68 wins and a total of 75 draws. History counts for little when it was Milan who won 4-2 when these sides last met at the San Siro. It is set up perfectly for a classic.
CALHANOGLU’S JUVENTUS AUDITION
Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
If you’re Hakan Calhanoglu that means piling misery on the team you could well end up playing for at the end of the season.
Calhanoglu has been a gem under Pioli and he is right to count himself as unfortunate in a number of games this season. The Turkish international is the most unlucky midfielder in Serie A with five efforts striking the post already this season.
Serie A’s MVP for the month of December, Calhanoglu is a man in form.
The 26-year-old has six goals and nine assists in 21 games this season and Juventus will not need reminding of the Turkish star’s ability – particularly from distance.
Hakan Calhanoglu was Serie A’s MVP for December and he can be decisive on Wednesday
Reports in Italy say that Juventus is waiting for Calhanoglu, who is out of contract in the summer, to end all dialogue with Milan before they present their offer to him.
According to Sky Sport Italia and Tuttosport the former Bayer Leverkusen star is asking for a salary of €7million (£6.3m) per year. AC Milan chief Paulo Maldini is said to have had no joy so far on an offer of €4.5m for new deal through to 2025.
And so it remains a very delicate situation with Atletico Madrid also said to be ready to challenge sides like Juventus and Manchester United for him.
Challanoglu could be used both at the base of a midfield, in a three-man midfield or as a winger and would dovetail alongside Arthur at Juventus.
Sami Khedira’s pending exit will free up around €6m (£5.4m) a year that could be offered to the Turkish player.
He is free to sign a pre-contract agreement this month but even if Juventus is his desired destination, he can earn his money most by demolishing their title hopes on Wednesday night.
PIOLI VS PIRLO
A fascinating battle between two very different modern football philosophies – Pirlo’s ‘liquid’ football against Pioli’s ‘solid’ football.
In his short career as Juve boss, Pirlo has shown a desire to be flexible with systems and he has toyed with both a three-man and four-man defence. Pioli, a fundamentalist as a coach, always goes for a back four.
Pioli’s experience can be decisive and that is something Pirlo has no shortcut to gain.
It is also a match that could weigh heavy on Pirlo. He will need to evaluate the emotional impact on him returning to one of his old sides for such a big match.
The battle of Stefano Pioli (left) and Andrea Pirlo (right) sees different philosophies collide
He is still very young in coaching terms – he’s just 41 – and while a match against his old side can be a stimulus to improve his standing in Serie A, it can also be a significant source of stress.
Pirlo heads back to the San Siro knowing he simply cannot fail. The Juventus coach must show his team have the grit and courage required, must show they are not tired of winning and must show they are as psychologically prepared as Milan.
Where Pirlo has gone wrong is allowing players to ease off the throttle in the supposed ‘smaller’ games. The draws with Benevento, Lazio and Crotone have taken away six points and right now they are 10 from Milan with a game in hand.
Pirlo knows those draws needed to be wins and they needed to be arriving in Milan four adrift with a game in hand. The past has been and gone but lose tonight and it could be an unbridgeable gap that no one foresaw at the beginning of the year.
DONNARUMMA VS SZCZESNY
Juventus will have feared it and now it is staring them right in the face.
Donnarumma is unquestionably the best goalkeeper in Serie A. He is enjoying an almost perfect season: confident in every save and above all a commanding leader of the defence.
Like Calhanoglu his contract expires in June 2021 and all the best clubs are dreaming of taking him on a free come the summer. He reportedly wants terms of €7m a year to renew and negotiations rumble on. Juventus are one of the clubs believed to be on the trail of the Milan goalkeeper.
Gianluigi Donnarumma (left) is the league’s best goalkeeper, putting pressure on Wojech Szczesny (right) with reports the Milan stopper could replace his rival in Turin
Juve stopper Wojech Szczesny only renewed his contract 12 months ago, a deal through until 2024, but he is far from the great performances of previous years.
At the San Siro he will have to be the star in this battle to relaunch Juventus’ title ambitions and recover lost points that are hurting the champions right now.
A farewell at the end of the year for Szczesny is possible if Juventus manage to make the investment in Donnarumma but salary is a sticking point for all clubs amid the Covid-19 pandemic right now.
Milan’s +17 points compared to last season are the result of the great saves of Donnarumma who has shown fans glimpses of icons Nelson Dida and Sebastiano Rossi.
LEAO VS CR7
In truth, only Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski can offer up a legitimate argument against Ronaldo over the course of a season.
But in a one-off game, even the greats freeze, and that is what Milan must hope for on Wednesday night with no Ibrahimovic to duel with the Juventus talisman.
Ronaldo is in sensational form, his strikes against Udinese seeing him hit 20 goals for the 15th consecutive season for club and country.
He is the top scorer in Serie A with 14 goals, two more than Inter’s Romelu Lukaku and four more than Ibrahimovic. In fact, no player has scored more goals than Ronaldo in the Europe’s top five leagues in 2020-21.
Cristiano Ronaldo is in sublime form and is currently top of the Serie A scoring chart with 14
He is vital to Juventus and Pirlo needs him to produce a talismanic performance on Wednesday
Ronaldo’s influence on the side is monumental, a crutch to what has proven to be a frail Old Lady under Pirlo.
The 35-year-old has scored 48 per cent of Juventus’ goals in the first five months of Serie A. Without him, heaven knows what the situation at the Allianz Stadium would be.
The disappointment rests in that fans have been robbed of Ibrahimovic vs Ronaldo, the Swede not to be risked by Pioli having just recovered from a muscular issue sustained in victory over Napoli in November.
So, up steps Leao.
When Leao was born in Almada, a city on the outskirts of Lisbon, in June 1999 Ronaldo had already been at Sporting Lisbon for two years. Ronaldo was then 14 years old and had just begun his rise in the world of football.
Leao would look at Ronaldo with awe at his skill level and talent and now they go head-to-head as the strikers with goals in their boots.
Rafael Leao is improving all the time and will relish a battle against fellow Portuguese Ronaldo
Both are Portuguese, both are managed by the same agent Jorge Mendes and both are the best strikers on show for their respective clubs tonight.
Pioli knows Leao has a long way to goal but after his superb strike against Benevento he was full of praise.
‘Leao is growing a lot, he has some characteristics of him that we must try to exploit in the right way,’ he said. ‘I see in him the desire to improve ‘.
Friends on the international stage but foes this evening. Only one Portuguese can reign supreme here.
MAKE OR BREAK FOR DYBALA
Much like Juventus’ title hopes, time is running out for Paulo Dybala to turn things around.
January feels like a defining month for the Argentine as a resolution is sought for his future with his contract set for expiry in June 2022. A winter exit is unlikely – but not impossible – and Juventus know they could make a major profit on him having transformed his value since he arrived from Palermo.
A trip to Milan is timely for Dybala. They are a side he has thrived when coming up against.
He has eight career goals against Milan, two with Palermo and six with Juventus. How Pirlo could do with goals nine and 10 on Wednesday night.
Paulo Dybala is at a sliding doors moment in his Juventus career and needs a big performance
Dybala and Juventus have had a tumultuous relationship for at least 16 months now, due largely to difficulties over his contract and his future.
Negotiations are said to be continuing for the extension but reports in Italy say that Manchester United are interested and he is a player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer likes. Dybala was close to joining United in exchange for Romelu Lukaku, only for the Belgian to refuse the offer and join Inter instead.
According to Tuttosport, United still retain interest in Dybala, further complicating whether Juventus cash in for profit or persist in Dybala with Ronaldo not the long term future of this team.
Both sides are jockeying for position. Dybala wants to be handsomely paid and given a starring role in the side and Juventus want him to show that he deserves it by delivering on the pitch.
There would be no better advert than an MVP performance to bring Milan’s unbeaten streak to an end.
NEITHER AT FULL STRENGTH
Juventus have no Juan Cuadrado and no Alex Sandro due to positive Covid-19 cases and there remain doubts over the fitness of Giorgio Chiellini. Morata is simply not fit enough to be involved.
Milan are without Ibrahimovic while Rade Krunic and Ante Rebic both tested positive for Covid-19 hours before kick-off on Wednesday.
And so both are far from their best, far from where they want to be going into such a big game.
Juan Cuadrado will not make the trip to Milan having tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be risked by Pioli as he has just recovered from a muscular issue
But Pirlo would not cave, refusing to accept the media’s assessment this is the key game in the title race.
‘It is certainly an important match but not decisive,’ he said. ‘Playing Milan-Juventus is always fascinating, it was as a player and it will be as a coach.
‘We will have to be aware that we are going to play our game there against a Milan that is mentally and physically well. It is the team that has done best of all and is at the top of the Serie A’.
He will hope this composure transfers onto his players because if it doesn’t it could be a nervous 90 minutes ahead for those of a Juventus persuasion.
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