Serie A champions Milan continued their dismal form in league play after falling 2-0 to rivals Juventus. Milan’s coach Massimiliano Allegri did not offer excuses when he referred to the defeat in Turin as the worst performance of the season by his players. As for Juve, this was by far the club’s most significant win of the season and Antonio Conte’s biggest triumph as a coach.
While the Bianconeri might have made a strong statement regarding their ability to challenge for the title this season, it is too early to rule out Milan due to a number of factors. The Rossoneri have been plagued by an extensive injury list which includes key players such as Alexandre Pato and Robinho. However, Milan’s main concerns extend beyond those players who have been missing through injury as the squad’s age is beginning to tell even at this early stage of the season. Some Rossoneri players began to tire in the 2nd half and were visibly running out of gas towards the end of the match considering Milan played midweek in the Champions League while their rivals were rested as Conte’s squad did not qualify to European competition this season.
A quick glance at the Rossoneri starters in Turin reveals six of the starters on the wrong side of 30. This cannot be underestimated since Milan went through a similar issue a few years ago before Thiago Silva, Robinho, Pato and Kevin-Prince Boateng were added to the squad helping to lead the club back to glory culminating in the Serie A title last season. Milan might need another face lift in the near future if the club is to challenge for European honors while the expected return of the Bianconeri as a force might also wrestle away the Italian league title from Allegri’s squad.
Weaknesses have been highlighted by the injury list as Allegri’s men showed signs of fatigue because of having to play midweek and due to the age of many of the starters. Star player Zlatan Ibrahimovic was relied upon heavily but his form so far has been indifferent and he too has dealt with some injuries this season. Some have argued Milan won the Serie A title because there were no legitimate contenders in 2010-11 and Napoli cracked under pressure with the Partenopei players lacking the necessary experience to deal with big moments. Napoli’s challenge eventually fizzled out after suffering a comprehensive 3-0 loss to Milan which left the Rossoneri in the clear since city rivals Inter were dealing with their own issues such as coaching changes (Rafael Benitez let go for Brazilian Leonardo) among other things.
It would be unfair to say Milan did not deserve the title last season but it is also possible to argue the Rossoneri won due to the weakness of the competition. If Juve can continue to perform at this level and can be less wasteful in front of goal then the Rossoneri might have difficulty retaining their title. Speaking of Juve, the Bianconeri have shown in the five matches played so far that they have a robust, talented and deep midfield with the likes of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal. Pirlo has been in impressive form since joining the Bianconeri on a free transfer this summer but he is just one of the many reasons behind the convincing start by the Old Lady.
The hiring of Conte as coach has been a blessing so far since the former Old Lady skipper knows what it means to wear the club’s famous shirt. He has worked hard to build belief in a squad which needs time to gel together following a plethora of summer signings including Pirlo, Vidal, Mirko Vucinic and Stephan Lichtsteiner. The Old Lady’s main concerns appear to be the lack of a reliable left-back with Fabio Grosso long past his best, Paolo De Ceglie being injury prone and Reto Ziegler loaned out to Fenerbahçe. Juve’s most reliable centre-back Giorgio Chiellini was moved to the left-back position against the Rossoneri but the player is best suited to playing as a central defender. This highlights Juve’s weakness on the left side and could potentially expose the club’s defensive line as Leonardo Bonucci has failed to establish himself since moving to Turin last season.
Another apparent weakness for the Bianconeri is the lack of a killer instinct as Juve could have easily wasted two points against Milan despite having control in midfield and possessing the ball more while shooting 20 times compared to just 4 shots by the visitors. Of the 20 shots, 7 were on target but the concern here has been highlighted by the inefficiency of Juve’s attack which cost the club four points after draws against Bologna and Catania in the previous rounds.
The schedule will not get easy for Juve with the end of October and the month of November featuring clashes against Inter, Napoli and Lazio which can be decisive in determining how far the club can go this season. As for Milan, it is too early to rule them out of the race because there are 33 rounds to go and the club will gradually recover the key injured players. The ultimate winner will be the fans who might finally enjoy a tight race between a number of clubs after years of domination by Inter followed by last season’s triumph by Milan.