AC Milan look to end their struggles as they welcome a soaring Juventus to the San Siro on Saturday in Serie A.
Date: Saturday, April 9
Time: 8:45 p.m. local time/7:45 p.m. BST/2:45 p.m. EDT
Venue: San Siro, Milan
TV Info: BT Sport 1 (UK), beIN Sports (US)
Live Stream: BT Sport Connect (UK), beIN Sports Connect (US)
It's been a rough month for AC Milan.
After starting 2016 with a shock loss at home to Bologna, coach Sinisa Mihajlovic guided his team on a good run of form, going unbeaten over 12 games in all competitions. That run included a 2-0 win over Fiorentina, a 3-0 thrashing of crosstown rivals Inter Milan in the Derby della Madonnina and a skin-of-the-teeth 1-1 draw against Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo.
The similarity between all those teams? They were ranked above Milan in the table. It's been the minnows that have given them problems. They've lost this year to the likes of Genoa, Atalanta and Bologna and been held to draws by the likes of Carpi and the Verona clubs, Hellas and Chievo.
It's got some people in the club flummoxed. Team vice president Adriano Galliani told reporters on Thursday they were "struggling to understand" the team's struggles against teams they should beat (h/t Football Italia).
Last week's loss against Atalanta once again threw Mihajlovic's job security into doubt, with La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting that he could be replaced by the beginning of next week if the team puts in a poor showing against Juventus (h/t Football Italia).
Whether the team can put in that showing is yet to be seen. The Rossoneri have only scored two goals in their last four games, and one of those was a penalty. You can also forgive an observer for wondering if their heads will be fully in the game.
After Atalanta, the team was called into a training retreat, a move the players did not take kindly to. Captain Riccardo Montolivo told in-house TV network Milan Channel (h/t Football Italia) that he didn't think the ritiro was a good solution, and the families of players like Diego Lopez have voiced their displeasure over the decision as well. Given the attitude towards the decision, it's worth wondering how effective it will actually be.
It will take a Herculean effort to take down the champions. Juve haven't lost a league game since October, winning 20 of their last 21 games and drawing the other. That run has taken them from 12th place on Halloween to pacing the field by six points after Napoli's shock loss to Udinese last weekend.
As if that run wasn't already absurdly dominant, they've kept clean sheets in 15 of those games. They've totally throttled their competition and look set to cap off an epic comeback for their fifth consecutive title.
One of the early games in that run was the first meeting between these two teams. The game was decided by a late Paulo Dybala wonder strike, but Juve thoroughly dominated the game, overpowering Milan's midfield and holding them to only two shots on target.
|Last 5 matches, all competitions, most recent first|
|L 2-1 @ Atalanta||W 1-0 vs. Empoli|
|D 1-1 vs. Lazio||W 4-1 @ Torino|
|D 0-0 @ Chievo||L 4-2 @ Bayern Munich*|
|L 2-0 @ Sassuolo||W 1-0 vs. Sassuolo|
|W 5-0 vs. Alessandria*||W 2-0 @ Atalanta|
AC Milan Notes:
*Coppa Italia semifinal second leg, Milan won 6-0 on aggregate.
*UEFA Champions League round-of-16 second leg, Bayern Munich won 6-4 on aggregate after extra time.
|AC Milan (4-4-2)||Juventus (3-5-2)|
|Abate Romagnoli Alex Antonelli||Barzagli Bonucci Rugani|
|Honda Kucka Poli Bonaventura||Lichtsteiner Sturaro Marchisio Pogba Sandro|
|Bacca Balotelli||Morata Mandzukic|
AC Milan: OUT: MF Andrea Bertolacci (suspension), GK Christian Abbiati (heel), CB Philippe Mexes (undisclosed injury), FW M'Baye Niang (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: MF Riccardo Montolivo.
Juventus: OUT: MF Sami Khedira (suspension), FW Paulo Dybala (calf), CB Giorgio Chiellini (calf), CB/RB Martin Caceres (Achilles), MF Roberto Pereyra (thigh).
When M'Baye Niang injured his ankle in a car accident at the end of February, it threw Milan's forward line into turmoil. Niang had turned into the ideal partner for Carlos Bacca. His ball-playing ability and pace perfectly complemented the Colombian hit man, who requires service and the ability to attack space to be effective.
With Niang gone for what is sure to be the entire season, Milan's other forwards have a huge opportunity to make an imprint on Mihajlovic and become a regular starter.
One of those players is Mario Balotelli.
On loan from Liverpool—the team to which Milan sold him two summers ago—Balotelli started this season brightly before being shelved for almost half the year due to a sports hernia.
Since his return, Super Mario simply hasn't been as effective as he could be. He has the quality to help set Bacca up and score for himself, but some indifferent performances against the likes of Sassuolo have not put him in pole position. Indeed, Galliani told reporters (h/t Football Italia) outside Milan's training ground on Friday that he didn't think he had done enough to stay permanently.
Balotelli has seven games to change that, and he's in line to start on Saturday against Juve. He'll need one of his best performances against the immovable object that is the Juve defense for his team to have a chance at points.
In keeping with the striker theme, keep an eye on Juve's Alvaro Morata.
The Spaniard endured an epic dry spell earlier this year that lasted from October to January, but he's now in scintillating form. He scored back-to-back braces at the end of January, had two impressive games against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League and scored another two in the Derby della Mole during the winter break.
With Dybala on the shelf, Morata is the guy who will be looked to for fast attacks. If he can get in behind Alex in Milan's defense, the Rossoneri could have a very long day ahead of them. Expect the 23-year-old to charge hard on the counter and help to dictate this game.
The last time these two teams met, Juve completely overran the Milan midfield, allowing little possession and not letting them get any kind of rhythm.
That battle will again go a long way toward deciding the contest, which is why the battle between Juraj Kucka and Claudio Marchisio will be so important.
Kucka is mostly a destroyer, but he can show a surprising amount of skill from time to time. His job will be twofold—keep Juve's midfield in disarray and help his own create for the strikers up front. His job will be especially important if Montolivo can't go after picking up an injury in training a few days ago, as both a ball-winner and a potentially creative force.
His opposite number Marchisio has made the regista position his after the departure of Andrea Pirlo. He plays it differently, but he plays it well, mixing excellent passing ability with a defensive tenacity that has been key to keeping opposing players from good attacking positions.
Truly underrated, Marchisio is the fulcrum of the team. Without him, the midfield is often badly unbalanced. If he is neutralized, Juve's game suffers. If he's allowed free reign, though, an opponent could be in for a long night.
Whoever wins this matchup will go a long way toward winning the midfield battle—which will almost certainly determine the winner of the game.
Odds (via Odds Shark)
AC Milan win: 11-4
Juventus win: 21-20