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Bonucci, Chiesa & Hakimi: Where Juve could win or lose the Derby d’Italia

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The teams of Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Conte clash in an epic game over the weekend.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-JUVENTUS-ATALANTA Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

Another week in January, another crucial game, another long list of unavailable players.

When Juventus travel to the San Siro over the weekend to take on Inter Milan in the Derby d’Italia, the Bianconeri will once again be without a number of key cogs in the Juve machine. Some of that is because of injury (Paulo Dybala) and some of it is because of COVID-19 (Matthijs de ligt, Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado). Throw in a few other players in various stages of recovery from injury (Federico Chiesa, Weston McKennie, Alvaro Morata, Giorgio Chiellini, Merih Demiral), as well as two key attackers who played roughly 700 minutes against Genoa’s B team (Dejan Kulusevski and the aforementioned Spaniard) and what you have is utter chaos.

Imagine being Andrea Pirlo picking 11 players for this game.

There is at least some solace in the fact that, if reports are true, both Chiesa and McKennie will be back; the depth of this club remains astounding.

Given the players at disposal and what Inter does and doesn’t do well, there are two areas on the pitch where I feel like this game could be won or lost. Let’s look at them.

Where it might be lost: il capitano

Let’s level with each other: Juve’s captain — saying that still leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth after Leo’s Milan misadventure — has been bad pretty consistently this entire season. He’s been terrible occasionally, and every once and a while he’s been ... Leonardo Bonucci. All in all, though, No. 19 has not been the player he was before his time at AC Milan, and that does not bode well for Juve’s aims this year.

If there are any Bonucci defenders left around these parts, they might point to the central mitigating circumstance for the center backs: injuries. De Ligt, of course, was recovering from shoulder surgery at the beginning of the campaign that put the Dutchman out for an extended period of time, and then the real capitano Chiellini resumed his now-usual position at J-Medical. (I heard he has a reserved parking spot now.) Even Demiral thought it would be fun to get injured. And as if all that wasn’t enough, let us not forget the fact that Daniele Rugani is running around somewhere in France with his baby and girlfriend.

Bonucci defenders might also point to the fact that while the defense has felt leaky at times, the unit actually hasn’t conceded that many goals — 16 matches played in Serie A, 16 goals conceded. Amazingly, if you forget the Genoa game in the Coppa Italia for a moment and the freak Fiorentina blowout at the end of the year, the last time any team scored more than a single goal on Juventus was all the way back in October when Barcelona won 2-0 in Turin.

Please don’t let any of that fool you: this defense is brittle, and Bonucci is at the heart of that brittleness. With de Ligt sidelined, Bonucci is going to need perhaps his best performance of the season against Antonio Conte’s squad if Juve want to take all three points. While Lautaro Martinez, Romelu Lukaku, and Alexis Sanchez have had some finishing issues at times — if you watched their extra-time win over Fiorentina in the Coppa, you got a first-row seat — they’re still a deadly bunch of attackers. There’s a mix of speed, strength, and technical ability that makes me shake in my boots a little bit when thinking about Bonucci being the last line of defense.

Where it might be won: la tempesta (i.e. my made-up nickname for Chiesa)

At least one crucial attacking piece for Juventus did not exert vast troves of energy against Genoa, and that was Chiesa, who is allegedly going to be back for the Derby. This is where, thinking of Inter’s weakness and Chiesa’s recent past, I feel a spark of excitement for the attack.

Less than two weeks ago — can that really be true? — Chiesa absolutely shredded Theo Hernandez to bits on the right side of the flank. It was a conscious move on Pirlo’s part, as the manager said he wanted to keep “pressure” on Hernandez and guard against the Frenchman moving forward, which is where he excels. The strategy worked and then some. Chiesa’s brace handed his manager three points and a lot of validation for the chess move.

I know this is kind of dumb, basic logic, the sort of stuff that Nate Silver would have a little remark about as he pulled a microfiber cloth out of his breast pocket to wipe down his glasses, but if Chiesa can do so much damage against a team whose strength is their left side, I’m hoping he is going to offer a brilliant Act II against a team whose weakness is their left side. This is a fact that pretty much every Inter fan and pundit alike admit, including in the interview Danny did with Inter’s SB Nation site. Conte has a weird, messed up fascination with wingbacks, and on the left he hasn’t even been using real wingbacks!

Unleash Chiesa. Let him run at all three Inter center backs in the preposterous manner of which he is so fond.

The main two things that popped into my mind were Bonucci and Chiesa, but an honorable mention in “how the game could be lost” category would probably go to Achraf Hakimi bombing forward on the right side of the pitch. The right wingback has a wicked shot and a penchant for goals, and without Alex Sandro, Pirlo is going to be relying on someone like Federico Bernardeschi or Gianluca Fabrotta to stave off attacks (or to hope to pin back).

Gulp.

Gosh, I hope Juve win. There are so many compelling individual battles ahead, so many tactical idiosyncrasies to this game, not even to mention the Conte storyline or the fact that this is freaking Juventus vs Inter — there are so many loaded levels in this game I don’t even know where to begin to register my excitement. It’ll be a banger. Of that much I’m sure.