Napoli losing to Inter and the victory over Salernitana put Milan closer to the top, but they’ll have to defeat the ever-underwhelming but always-sound Roma in this round’s crunch match to fuel realistic title aspirations.
Serie A Week 17 – Sunday 8 January 2023 – San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Looking at the big picture, Milan have had to navigate a host of problems in the first few months of the season and continue to do so given all their current injuries. Yet they are still firmly one of the most credible contenders, should Napoli slip once more time. That’s the case thanks to the elite level of their cornerstones and the self-believe the previous Scudetto win created.
Charles De Ketelaere will eventually find his footing, but he’s a botched purchase at this stage. It’s never a good look when a pricey signing doesn’t contribute right away, even more so for a team that prides itself on scouting well with reason. He has looked so timid that he’ll probably need a few months to turn it around. Luckily for the Rossoneri, Brahim Diaz has fared as brilliantly as at the start of the previous campaign before he fell off a cliff. Given the formula with which they signed the Spaniard, he’s likely to head back to Real Madrid in the summer. They have six months to handle the transition at the no.10 position; otherwise, they’ll have to intervene in the summer, which is something they’d gladly forgo.
On top of the struggles of the Belgian prodigy, the reigning champions haven’t had Mike Maignan for a few months, and he’s not healthy yet. That’s a huge deal, as it’s easy to argue he’s the best goalkeeper in Serie A and a true difference-maker. Ciprian Tatarusanu hasn’t had major blunders, but it’s the norm for backups to show cracks once they play too much. The acquisition of Devin Vasquez was a little odd and apparently was in the works before the need emerged. We’ll see whether he’ll get a shot, but it reportedly doesn’t shut the door for another one, but they’ll have to really creative to find a reliable option since they have secured Marco Sportiello for the future backup job.
Factoring in Divock Origi, who has shown flashes but can’t stay healthy, Yacine Adli, and Malick Thiaw, who have barely been deployed, Milan have gotten very little help from their summer moves. They are usually not very active in January, and the squad has flaws, not holes, that can be fixed only through expensive transfers. They’ll probably have to improve from within, and better health is the first step because too many key pieces have spent time on the mend.
While Maignan is still out, Davide Calabria and Alexis Saelemaekers have shaken off their injuries, replenishing their right flank. They remain tremendously lopsided because Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez have so much gravitas on the other one, but it’s a positive development. While Pierre Kalulu has been fine as a fullback, the captain is naturally more gifted offensively, and the Frenchman is better suited to play centrally. The Belgian provides a ton of dynamism and especially balance, which is precious for a side that has been leakier than in the past for various reasons. For starters, other than their starting goalie being unavailable, Fikayo Tomori hasn’t been as superb as last season and hasn’t been in peak form so far, and they are missing Franck Kessié’s physical dominance.
The compilation of defects would have buried inferior sides, but the Rossoneri have plenty of certainties they can count on, from the exuberance of Leao and Hernandez to the clutchness of Olivier Giroud and the all-around skillsets of Sandro Tonali and Ismael Bennacer. While the veteran sputtered in Salerno, the other three showed up big time. Defending too high against them is a death sentence, but Roma won’t make that mistake. It’s also dangerous to let them have the ball too much, as the two midfielders are real threats if they are allowed to operate in the final third, and that’s likely going to be a problem for the Giallorossi, who like to sit back.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Tatarusanu; Calabria, Kalulu, Tomori, Hernandez; Tonali, Bennacer; Saelemaekers, Diaz, Leao; Giroud.
Roma are hanging around on the outskirts of the Champions League race, and the first part of the schedule was inconclusive on whether they belong to the conversation. Things were looking pretty good while Juventus and Inter were flailing, not so much once the foes roared back, and they stuttered when Paulo Dybala went down. There’s plenty of time for everybody to string together a few positive results, but they’ll need to be more convincing in multiple areas.
José Mourinho’s sides are rarely aesthetically pleasing, but they would have the horses to employ a peppier style if they wanted to. The reports about a transition to a different scheme, especially should they land Davide Frattesi, are interesting, but the Special One said multiple times that his defenders prefer a three-man line. They could switch to 4-2-3-1 right now if they wanted to, but they have resisted it to be sturdier. The recent lineup versus Bologna was more of a 3-5-2 than a 3-4-2-1, and that would be where the Sassuolo starlet would fit in wonderfully. It comes at the cost of an attacker, but Nicolò Zaniolo and Tammy Abraham haven’t performed well enough to be untouchable starters. Benching the Englishman right off the bat against a not-so-threatening side was telling.
The Rick Karsdorp case partially ruined their break, and it could have been handled a lot better considering his limited importance in the great scheme of things. Either the coach didn’t think he would kick a hornet’s nest with his tirade, which might have been just a sharp message and motivating tool toward the locker room, or it was a grave miscalculation, because all the bylaws, collective bargaining agreements, and economic needs of the club don’t permit to just banish a player because of poor attitude.
He’s far from indispensable, and nobody would have batted an eyelid if they just moved on from him because he wasn’t good enough. They’ll try to avoid a loss on the balance sheets and replace him adequately, as the Financial Fair Play significantly heavily constrains them but, technically speaking, they would be fine without replacing him. Nicola Zalewski can easily play on the right wing, Zeki Celik has been decent, Leonardo Spinazzola is back, although not 100 percent, and Stephan El Shaarawy has completed his adaptation to the role and is an asset in the right circumstances. Instead, they’d need a pure fullback if they really want to switch to a four-man defense.
The return of Dybala is a sight for sore eyes since the other forwards have mostly been stuck in a slump. La Joya is putting up great numbers this season, and it was nice to see a team finally give him the starring role he deserves, and the World Cup, albeit with a secondary role, was the cherry on top of his revenge tour. He’s the stick that stirs the drink even when he’s not scoring consistently. They’ll be hoping he can activate his teammates with his class and the attention he draws. They don’t need a lot to be an elite team. They are very solid in the back, but scoring has been a struggle. Having their top star is a first step, then Abraham has to figure it out and return to last season’s levels. He doesn’t need to produce in spaces, not missing sitters would suffice. Zaniolo is very polarizing and can look fantastic when he has it, but that is rarely the case, and he’d be better off in a wider role that their go-to formation doesn’t conceive.
Starting Benjamin Tahirovic in the last game was perhaps more of a call for help to the management than a real sign of trust in the youngster. He was fine and could get another nod in this one since Mady Camara, who had been okay at the position, is banged up. They can just deploy Lorenzo Pellegrini there, as they had done at the beginning of the season. Injuries and whatnot haven’t allowed them to field their top four offensive players together much, and that might have swayed the coach into thinking that it shouldn’t be their standard configuration. Considering the lineup in the more feasible matchup with Bologna, it’d be bold if it resurfaced here, also because Zaniolo and Dybala aren’t 100 percent.
The Giallorossi can hit their stride if they ever find a perfect way to conjugate their natural talent with the sufferball used by their gaffers. A little less drama wouldn’t hurt either. They arguably left a Derby on the table, as Lazio were undermanned on that occasion, plus they lost to Napoli and Atalanta, and drew with Juventus in lucky fashion. They haven’t had a signature win yet, and that could do wonders for their whole seasonal outlook.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Ibanez; Celik, Matic, Cristante, Pellegrini, Zalewski; Dybala, Abraham.
Milan: Maignan (calf strain), Ibrahimovic (ACL tear), Messias (calf pull), Rebic, Krunic (thigh injuries), Origi (thigh strain), Florenzi (thigh tendon tear), Ballo-Touré (shoulder sprain).
Roma: Wijnaldum (tibia fracture), Darboe (ACL tear).