The gulf between Juventus and AC Milan is widening.
The Bianconeri secured a fifth consecutive Scudetto this season on the back of an incredible run of form that saw them go undefeated for 26 Serie A games. Champions again, they now aim to add to their success with a second straight domestic double. To do so, they will have to beat a fellow Italian giant, albeit one whose stock has fallen considerably in recent years.
While Juventus have been busy making history, with their five league titles in a row something the club hadn’t achieved since the 1930s, Milan—their Coppa Italia final opponents this Saturday—have been defying it.
The Rossoneri also have a proud past filled with wins both at home and on the continent, but for three successive seasons, they have failed to finish inside Serie A’s top six. And should they not win this weekend, they will consequently miss out on European football once again.
The 2015-16 campaign appeared to be one of hope for Milan, with a new head coach in Sinisa Mihajlovic and an expensively assembled new cast of players. No other team in Italy’s top tier had a higher net spend than the Rossoneri, per Transfermarkt.co.uk, and the transfer fees lavished reflected the club’s haughty ambitions.
However, before the season was out, the coach would be dismissed and replaced by Cristian Brocchi, formerly head of the Rossoneri’s Primavera. And, in the aftermath of that decision, the team endured a severe loss of form that saw them pick up just eight points from a possible 18 to surrender sixth place to Sassuolo.
As a result of their league slump, Saturday’s cup final takes on an enhanced importance for Milan, something club president Silvio Berlusconi talked about recently.
“Winning the Coppa Italia would give this season a new meaning,” he told the club’s official website, per Football Italia. “We must give everything we've got, and more. The result is just too important, as it would give us direct access to Europe as well as the 29th trophy in 30 years.”
For this Juventus side, Saturday night’s clash is an opportunity to further cement an already-impressive legacy. By contrast, for Milan, the match is an olive branch, a shot at closing the growing gap between them and their esteemed rivals.
Date: Saturday, May 21
Time: 7:45 p.m. BST (2:45 p.m. ET)
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy
TV Info: Sky Sports 2 (UK), GOLTV (USA)
Live Stream: Bet365.com
Juventus 5-0 Sampdoria
Verona 2-1 Juventus
Juventus 2-0 Carpi
Fiorentina 1-2 Juventus
Juventus 3-0 Lazio
Milan 1-3 Roma
Bologna 0-1 Milan
Milan 3-3 Frosinone
Verona 2-1 Milan
Milan 0-0 Carpi
Juventus had a difficult beginning to this campaign, winning just three of their opening 10 league games as head coach Massimiliano Allegri tinkered with the system following the departures of key players in Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez.
Eventually it became clear that 3-5-2 was the most suitable shape, and this is likely to be what the Bianconeri line up in on Saturday.
Throughout Juventus’ Coppa Italia run, Norberto Neto has been ever-present between the posts, and the Brazilian goalkeeper is likely to get the nod over his iconic rival Gianluigi Buffon for the final. The back three in front of him will be without the sound positioning and precise passing of Leonardo Bonucci, however, as the Italy international is suspended.
Daniele Rugani is set to get the nod to take the 29-year-old’s spot, with Andrea Barzagli moving into the centre of the defence. For such a high-stakes game, Allegri will probably opt for the more cautious wing-back pairing of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Patrice Evra, though Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro would offer more attacking threat if needed.
In midfield, Juventus continue to be without Claudio Marchisio after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a 4-0 win over Palermo in April. Hernanes should take his place at the base of midfield, with Paul Pogba to his left and Stefano Sturaro—in for the injured Sami Khedira—to his right.
Up front, the strike pairing of Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic are set to dovetail again, bringing their combination of refined dribbling, cutting runs and aerial threat.
For Milan, the major injury concerns surround their No. 1 full-backs, Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli. Both have been remarkably consistent this season and would be big misses, especially as they will probably be replaced by inexperienced 19-year-old Davide Calabria and the out-of-form Mattia De Sciglio.
Along with the absence of key full-backs, the Rossoneri’s central defence remains an area of concern. Alex put in a shaky display in last weekend’s 3-1 defeat to Roma, with WhoScored.com giving him a 5.52 rating for his disconcerting mixture of clumsy passing and lack of anticipation.
Cristian Zapata may well take the Brazilian’s place alongside Alessio Romagnoli against Juventus, but regardless of the central-defensive duo Brocchi opts for, 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma will have to remain calm and collected in what is sure to be the biggest test of his short career as a first-team player thus far.
According to Forza Italian Football, Milan look set to switch from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-3 system, something advocated in this post. This will mean Giacomo Bonaventura and Keisuke Honda playing on the wings and providing support to Carlos Bacca, although M’Baye Niang is back from injury and could provide a needed injection of pace.
“I returned well to the squad yesterday,” the Frenchman told Milan Channel (h/t Football Italia) on Tuesday. “I still have a bit of hard work to do, but I hope to do that before Saturday.”
Central midfield remains an area of weakness for the Rossoneri. Captain Riccardo Montolivo will act as an anchor, dropping deeper between the centre-backs to provide extra defensive protection. Juraj Kucka will start to his right, perhaps in a man-marking role on Pogba, which worked to an extent the last time the two teams met.
However, on the left hand-side, Andrea Bertolacci has been severely out of form lately, meaning the more dynamic but less creative Andrea Poli or Jose Mauri may replace him.
Juventus (3-5-2): Norberto Neto; Daniele Rugani, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini; Stephan Lichtsteiner, Stefano Sturaro, Hernanes, Paul Pogba, Patrice Evra; Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic
Milan (4-3-3): Gianluigi Donnarumma; Davide Calabria, Cristian Zapata, Alessio Romagnoli, Mattia De Sciglio; Juraj Kucka, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Poli; Keisuke Honda, Carlos Bacca, Giacomo Bonaventura
Players to Watch
Pogba has been in superb form for Juventus in recent months, revelling in a midfield role that allows him to push forward and support attacks. At 23 years of age, he finally appears to be adding consistency to the bodacious skill and poise that has defined his game for so long.
This was shown in a recent run in which he had a hand in at least one goal for eight consecutive fixtures, per WhoScored. This streak included three man-of-the-match showings.
Pogba acknowledged his own maturation when speaking to Juventus' official website, saying:
My performances have perhaps been more decisive than in previous seasons and I’m very happy to have set a new personal record for combined goals and assists. I feel a greater responsibility now, especially after the departures of Pirlo and Vidal with whom I played for three whole years.
For Milan, Bonaventura will play a crucial creative role, one not dissimilar to that which Pogba offers to Juventus. The 26-year-old has been his side’s best player this season, scoring six and assisting eight league goals and frequently showcasing pinpoint passing and nimble footwork.
He has also evidenced a great deal of versatility, at times operating in a more withdrawn central role as well as in the trequartista position, though this weekend he could be fielded on the left wing in a 4-3-3. This system will require him to find pockets of space between the lines and supply good service to lone striker Bacca.
All odds provided by Oddschecker.com.