Why Carlos Bacca vs. Andrea Barzagli Will Be Key Juventus vs. AC Milan Battle

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2016

The battle between Andrea Barzagli (left) and Carlos Bacca will likely determine the result of the Coppa Italia final.
The battle between Andrea Barzagli (left) and Carlos Bacca will likely determine the result of the Coppa Italia final.MARCO BERTORELLO/Getty Images

The last game of Italy's 2015-16 program is set to be played on Saturday as AC Milan and Juventus square off in the final of the Coppa Italia.

It's a meeting of Serie A giants, but the position of the clubs couldn't be more different.

Juventus have just completed one of the most incredible seasons in Serie A's history.  They started their fourth consecutive title defense in the worst way possible.  After 10 games, they only had 12 points and sat in 12th place.  No team had ever won the Scudetto after such a start.

But the Bianconeri tapped into the winning spirit that had been instilled in them by former coach Antonio Conte and began an epic run.  Starting with a last-second 2-1 win in the Derby della Mole on Halloween night, they won 15 straight games, the last of which was a first-against-second battle with Napoli that vaulted them into a familiar place—top of the table.

They finished the season with 16 wins, one draw and one loss, winning the title with three games to spare.

Milan, on the other hand, have endured another difficult season.  Former coach Sinisa Mihajlovic lost four of his first seven games, including an embarrassing 4-0 hammering at the hands of Napoli at the beginning of October.

Bacca was the third top goalscorer in Serie A this year with 18.
Bacca was the third top goalscorer in Serie A this year with 18.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

But things slowly improved.  In the 20 games after Napoli, the Rossoneri only lost twice—once at Juventus and once in the first game after the winter break against Bologna.  After that loss, they went 11 games unbeaten.  That included their best performance of the season, a 3-0 win over crosstown rivals Inter Milan.

But March brought disaster.  They only won twice in the league after the beginning of that month, allowing tiny upstarts Sassuolo to creep up and pip them for sixth place.  Now, they must defeat Juve to have any chance of qualifying for European competition next season.

In order for them to do that, they need a big day from Carlos Bacca.

The Colombian joined the Rossoneri this summer from Sevilla for a €30 million fee, and he was an instant hit.  By the beginning of November, he had scored six times.  In January, he scored in five straight matches, shooting him up the league's scoring charts.

He finished third in the league with 18 goals, behind only Juve's Paulo Dybala and Napoli's Gonzalo Higuain.  What's remarkable is that he did this with hardly any service.  

According to WhoScored.com, Bacca only managed to take two shots per game.  Compared to Dybala's 3.1 per game and Higuain's 5.2, it's a paltry number.  To put up the numbers he did with such terrible service is quite a feat.

Unfortunately, Bacca's form has dropped in the last few months.  While he did score in each of Milan's last three games, he had only scored twice in the previous 10.

Part of this drop-off probably comes down to the familiar problem of a lack of service.  Fatigue may also play a part.  The 29-year-old played a full UEFA Europa League campaign the last two years with Sevilla, playing the final in both seasons.  He's also been on Colombia's team for both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and last year's Copa America.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, he's played 150 games at the club level in addition to his international duties.

Barzagli has shackled some of the best strikers in the world this season.
Barzagli has shackled some of the best strikers in the world this season.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Bacca has one last game to play this season, though—and the opposition he'll come up against will be fierce.

According to WhoScored, Juve have used a 3-5-2 formation in 25 games in Serie A this season and another three in the UEFA Champions League.

Juve's vaunted three-man back line of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini—their own version of "BBC" in answer to Real Madrid's similarly monikered front line—has been one of the best units of their kind in Europe over the last five years.  But that unit will be separated on Saturday.

Bonucci, who usually operates as the pivot in the center of the three, will be suspended for the final after exceeding the tournament's disciplinary threshold.

That means Daniele Rugani will slot into the defense.  That doesn't necessarily mean a drop in quality—the 21-year-old is one of the best young defensive prospects in the world and has impressed during Chiellini's long injury absences this year—but it will mean a change in where everyone is.

Rugani has manned both the left and right of the line this year, but he's never covered for Bonucci in the middle and it's unlikely he'll do so here.  Barzagli will likely man that spot—and will be the one in direct confrontation with Bacca.

Barzagli played in 41 matches between the league, Champions League, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa.  He's put in some typical performances.  One of the best players in the world at his position, the 35-year-old has kept the lid on some of the world's finest strikers this season, from Sergio Aguero to Higuain to Bacca.

Along with Chiellini (second from right) Barzagli has helped to form one of Europe's most feared defenses.
Along with Chiellini (second from right) Barzagli has helped to form one of Europe's most feared defenses.PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

He's not a volume tackler, as WhoScored clocked him at 0.9 tackles per game this season.  The physical side of defending is normally left to Bonucci and Chiellini, but what Barzagli does is deny goalscorers the ball.  He averages 2.2 interceptions per game, and there have been countless more instances where he has denied a cross or hounded a dribbler into a position where an incisive pass is impossible.

Barzagli's job will be to keep Bacca under control the way he did in November's 1-0 home win over Milan, when WhoScored recorded that the Colombian was held without a shot.  Bacca was similarly shackled in the return game, making only two attempts on goal and hitting the target once.

This game will come down to a battle between one of Italy's best strikers and arguably its best defender.

If Bacca can break free and get a good ball or two, he could change the balance of the game.  But if Barzagli takes the upper hand and Juve's defense locks down, Milan's last chance of getting to Europe will be all but snuffed out.

Related

    Martinez: Hazard Is the MJ of Football

    Belgium coach says captain will win Ballon d'Or

    World Football logo
    World Football

    Martinez: Hazard Is the MJ of Football

    Rory Marsden
    via Bleacher Report

    Chelsea Rip FIFA After Transfer Ban Lifted

    'FIFA chose to treat Chelsea entirely differently to Manchester City for reasons that make absolutely no sense'

    World Football logo
    World Football

    Chelsea Rip FIFA After Transfer Ban Lifted

    Matt Jones
    via Bleacher Report

    B/R Ranks: 5 Likely January Transfers

    B/R's Dean Jones on Matic, Zaha and more

    World Football logo
    World Football

    B/R Ranks: 5 Likely January Transfers

    Dean Jones
    via Bleacher Report

    Chelsea's Transfer Ban Lifted 🚨

    Blues can now sign players in January

    World Football logo
    World Football

    Chelsea's Transfer Ban Lifted 🚨

    Tom Sunderland
    via Bleacher Report