The date is finally here: the one we’ve circled as fans, the one that surely has been on the players’ and coaches’ minds, the one that will help determine whether this season is a simple feel-good story of Juventus finishing in second or third place, or a truly heroic campaign that ends in the improbable lifting of the Scudetto.
The circumstances could not be more difficult for the Bianconeri. A frustrating 1-1 draw against Empoli last weekend not only means two dropped points, but also the absence of Arkadiusz Milik. With Federico Chiesa’s status possibly up in the air, even if the Italian is on the bench the suspension of the Polish striker means that Juve’s offensive reinforcements are very, very thin.
The same is true for the midfield. Adrien Rabiot looks to be ready for the game, but Weston McKennie is a question mark. With the continued unavailability of Nicolo Fagioli and Paul Pogba, that leaves very few options for a starting 11.
All of this leads to one conclusion: corto muso.
Juventus, to have a shot against Inter in this all-important game on Sunday night, must not open themselves up to a free-flowing contest with their opponents, but instead defend like fiends, wait for a mistake, and strike effectively when given a chance.
1. No mental mistakes
Since the beginning of November, Inter have won five domestic games against opponents who have seen red cards, four times in league play — 2-1 vs. Atalanta, 2-0 vs. Lazio, 2-0 vs. Lecce, and 2-1 vs. Verona — and once in the Supercoppa final against Napoli, 1-0. I’m not screaming “conspiracy” here, because many of these red cards showed up late in the game after Inter already had a one- or two-goal lead, but there have been some additional VAR question marks (see the recent Fiorentina game) that do leave one with, if nothing else, a healthy awareness that a single mental mistake can change the result.
On the heels of the Empoli draw, Juventus shouldn’t need reminding of this fact, but all the same: around the penalty box and with tackling, tread carefully. I do not need to be the one to tell you that Italian refereeing and VAR decisions can be anywhere from head-scratching to absolutely ludicrous.
Then there’s the fact that, regrettably, Inter are a very good team. Like Juventus, Inter have lost a single game in Serie A. Unlike Juventus, they’ve been lighting up the back of the net from the get-go, tallying 50 goals thus far against 10 conceded for a ridiculous plus-40 differential. Simone Inzaghi has made this team a well-oiled machine, and they have firepower and serious threat at every position on the pitch. Juventus will need to play lights out for a chance to grab all three points at the San Siro.
2. Where are the goals coming from?
As already mentioned, the news on the offensive side of the ball isn’t great. Milik will be serving a suspension, and Chiesa, if indeed available, will be coming off an injury. Moise Kean’s move to Atletico Madrid fell through, but even though he’s back in Turin he’s also dealing with an injury.
All this leaves Dusan Vlahovic and 18-year-old Kenan Yildiz to take the starting two positions in all probability. It’s certainly enough to score goals and to win, but if this turns into a multi-goal thriller — which I don’t think bodes well for Juventus — heck, even if this is a 1-0, 1-1, or 2-1 type of game, you might need someone like Rabiot to pose a threat at that end of the pitch, or even have something wonderfully miraculous occur like another Timothy Weah screamer from distance.
No matter what spin you put on this, though, the attacking unit is thin as spring ice for the Old Lady this weekend.
3. Tuning the lineup for a midfield mismatch
If McKennie can’t start this game, that leaves Allegri with three traditional midfielders to use: Rabiot, assuming he’s ready, Manuel Locatelli, and Fabio Miretti — and this right here is why I am terrified of this game. Even with nobody hanging out at J-Medical or on the bench for suspension, Inter has the advantage in this unit. But with the reality of possibly having to field Rabiot, Locatelli, and Miretti, bad things are bound to happen.
Which is why, Mister Allegri, I am making a bold suggestion: if McKennie is indeed unable to play, I would opt to play Danilo in the midfield and add Daniele Rugani as a center back.
Am I insane? I might be, but that’s because my two-year-old son didn’t come with the brakes and I’ve got a baby girl due in March who, the nurse told us at the ultrasound, “is the most active baby in there I’ve ever seen.”
Either way, hear me out. Miretti is young and a decent player with some glaring weaknesses; the most glaring of these glaring weaknesses is his near-absolute uselessness on the defensive side of the ball. It’s essentially like having another striker out there who is the opposite of Mario Mandzukic in terms of willingness and ability to defend. What that means, then, is that if Allegri plays the lineup that he probably will play and is forced to play — DV9, Yildiz / Kostic, Rabiot, Locatelli, Miretti, Cambiaso / Danilo, Bremer, Gatti — then you’ve got one midfielder who can’t defend worth a damn, an 18-year-old forward suddenly asked to play behind the ball, and Vlahovic. That feels awful, awful thin to me whether you’re playing an open game or corto muso until the sky rains platypuses.
Danilo is good enough to pose as a midfielder, and if indeed Allegri goes into full defensive mode then the Brazilian won’t even be tasked with a great amount of possession duty anyway. He’ll be a defender, and he’s a damn good defender.
Regardless of how Juventus line up to open the game, regardless of who is or is not available for this game, playing the best team in Serie A at the San Siro is going to be incredibly difficult. With a game in hand, Inter have a golden opportunity to go four points ahead of Juventus and put some serious breathing room in between them and second place.
This is fino alla fine time. This one requires guts, patience, and precision. Let’s find out what kind of story this Juventus team is writing.