After the disappointments of the recent Coppa Italia round, Milan and Roma have no alternatives to drowning their sorrows in Serie A.
Serie A Week 20 – Sunday 14 January 2024 – Stadio San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Milan haven’t exactly slayed giants in league player as of late, but they have found consistency and made it out the stickiest patch of their season. The victory over Empoli interrupted a three-month slump on the road, a proper black eye, and beating Sassuolo is always a minor feat. They could have cemented the fact that they were out of the woods for good by besting Atalanta in the cup, but they got got with a dose of bad luck.
Stefano Pioli must have so little support within their management if the rumors about a coaching change pop up every time they lose a pair of matches. He was appointed by a different one, which is always a precarious starting point. Things are most likely headed in that direction at the end of the campaign, as they’ll have to either hand him a new contract or part ways. While the gratitude for winning a Scudetto almost out of the blue should indeed not last forever and the early Champions League elimination was brutal, his contribution is overlooked. Only a small part of their woes can really be pinned on him.
Most sides would have been completely rocked had they lost their top three center-backs in rapid succession. Narrative-wise, their front office has been masterful in deflecting the criticism, because a lot of their problems have stemmed from their signings either being subpar or needing a lot of time to hit their strides. Christian Pulisic, Tijjani Reijnders and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have been the only day-one starters that fit right in.
The gaffer did have some questionable lineup choices early on, for instance giving Rade Krunic, a career backup, a large role, but he eventually moved on once he had real alternatives. Plus, he should get some credit for helping players successfully transition to new roles. Not many coaches are as flexible and open to innovative solutions as he is. That’s often mistaken for a lack of a solid identity, but their players seem to know what to do.
Napoli capitulating early gave everybody else a chance, and perhaps the Rossoneri hierarchy believed they could go mano-a-mano with Inter and Juventus. The other two title contenders didn’t change as much as they did last summer, so a period of adjustment was to be expected. Since their rivals have been rock-solid, it’s tough to imagine they’ll re-enter the title picture given the nine-point deficit. They’d need to win basically every game and hope for multiple missteps, but the season is still long. Moreover, seeing what’s happening to other big teams, a spot in the top four isn’t handed to anybody.
Theo Hernandez has fared surprisingly well as a center-back considering his characteristics and offensive prowess. It might not turn into a permanent solution, as they aren’t deep on the left wing, but it’s already an accomplishment that he made it a topic of conversation. The early return of Matteo Gabbia will help, and they have some talented young fullbacks who would benefit. They could have the best of both worlds if they switched to a three-man defense and used their braccetti as aggressively as the most the modern teams, as they wouldn’t lose his contribution in the final third, which is still there occasionally, as he still has a modicum of freedom, especially in easier games. It’ll be interesting to see whether the fix will hold up once he makes his first blunder in a big spot.
The Rossoneri raising their overall level inevitably goes through Rafael Leao finding another gear. His season has been okay considering the hiccup of a thigh strain, but he hasn’t been the best version of himself so far, especially scoring-wise. He has generally turned it up when he had his eyes on something very glitzy, and that might not be on the horizon this season.
They are getting busy on the transfer market, but Luka Jovic perking up lessens their need for a new deputy no.9. That really stopped being a necessity since they bowed out from the Champions League, as they’ll be able to ride Olivier Giroud. The Serb is actually better when he plays next to another striker, but they can’t lean on such a solution regularly with losing balance. He’s also not good enough to affect their tactics. Another center-back probably wouldn’t hurt, but it depends on the timetable of their injured ones. Given Hernandez’s showing, they might be better off moving up Juan Miranda’s arrival, as they already have their men for the future. Having already signed a versatile young piece like Filippo Terracciano buys them time to decide what to do next with less pressure.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Maignan; Calabria, Kjaer, Gabbia, Hernandez; Loftus-Cheek, Adli, Reijnders; Pulisic, Giroud, Leao.
Doubts: Gabbia/Terracciano, Adli/Musah.
Injury Report: Gabbia (head injury), Okafor (thigh strain) – Probable;
Florenzi (thigh injury), Caldara (ankle fracture), Sportiello (calf strain), Pellegrini (heel fracture), Thiaw, Tomori, Kalulu, Pobega (thigh injuries), Chukwueze, Bennacer (AFCON) – OUT.
They didn’t drop the ball as they bowed out after a hard-fought game, but it’s odd that they haven’t gone too far in the Coppa Italia since José Mourinho took over considering the success they have had in the European cups. Their showing against Lazio was bland, and they didn’t have the passion of a side desperate for trophies.
They now have only two ways to make the present season a success despite all their problems: winning the Europa League or finishing in the top four/five depending on how many Serie A teams will qualify for the Champions League. They’ll have a role in that, as a deep run continentally would help the ranking. Fiorentina are currently leading the pack, but no team has truly separated themselves from the bunch for the spot vacated by Napoli, which can still re-emerge from the morass.
It’s Groundhog Day for them, as Paulo Dybala is back on the mend with yet another injury, although reportedly very minor in this case. It’s highly frustrating, and his minutes should probably be managed better when he’s healthy, especially when he has just recovered. However, it’s understandable why they rely on him hard right away. They are a different and much more threatening team with him. Plus, the close-quarter combat behind the top three makes it so that every Serie A match is very meaningful. They can’t really pick and choose when to deploy or spare him.
They have generally gone with Andrea Belotti or Stephan El Shaarawy to substitute for him. Sardar Azmoun has had some decent showings off the bench but he left for the AFC Asian Cup. Hindsight is 20/20 and they are seemingly always putting out fires in other roles on the market, but not finding a proper deputy for La Joya in the last couple of years is damning. They have almost non-existent room to maneuver and are decently deep in that role, so it’s hard to imagine it’ll happen this January either.
Lorenzo Pellegrini bagged a goal recently, but it was a bit random, and he hasn’t truly turned the corner performance-wise. It wouldn’t be surprising if it was revealed that he’s playing through a semi-serious physical problem at some point. Even though he’s not as offensive-minded and brilliant as the Argentine, he’s the only one who can make up for the creative void and connect the lines so they don’t leave Romelu Lukaku stranded too often. Instead, there’s no way to replace the pizzazz and electricity. It would also be nice if the big Belgian delivered in a crunch game for a change, even though the real problem is that he rarely gets clean feeds when things get tight.
They famously needed a center-back, actually two since there’s no telling when Chris Smalling will be back. Their fans revolted when they were about to sign former Juventus icon Leonardo Bonucci gratis. Since they had to add a new man right away, they’ll wind up doing the Bianconeri’s bidding by giving Dean Huijsen very valuable experience, even disbursing a hefty fee for a short-term loan without an option. It’s tough to see how that is a better outcome in the eyes of the supporters, especially since the veteran didn’t mince words toward the Bianconeri after his unceremonious exit, and acquiring a raw talent showed his downside immediately.
With Tiago Pinto out of the door in February and José Mourinho’s future set to be decided only at the end of the season, which is highly unusual and a tad disrespectful, there’s a sense of precariousness that compounds with their injury woes and further pitch-related issues, resulting in a fuggy atmosphere. The sensation is that they need a spark to truly rally and march toward satisfactory objectives. They recently got a rare high-profile win versus Napoli, and another one would only be beneficial toward that. Even if their opponents have their fair share of defects, the Giallorossi appear a lot more wounded and dysfunctional on the surface.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Patricio; Kristensen, Mancini, Llorente; Celik, Cristante, Paredes, Bove, Zalewski; Belotti, Lukaku.
Doubts: Celik/Huijsen, Bove/Pellegrini, Belotti/El Shaarawy.
Injury Report: Llorente (thigh injury) – Probable;
Dybala (muscle fatigue), Abraham (ACL tear), Sanches (ankle sprain), Smalling (patellar tendon injury), Ndicka, Aouar (AFCON), Azmoun (Asian Cup) – OUT.
Milan Win, Under 2.5 goals