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Sep 27, 2010

A Classic Indicator of Progress: Milan v Juventus

By Lorenzo Scala

At 20:45 CET on October 30th at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza di San Siro Milano, two of Calcio’s most illustrious and historic clubs, A.C. Milan and Juventus F.C., come head to head on Gameweek 9 of the stagione 2010-11 Seria A calendar.

I will be in the Anello Arancio section of Milans iconic San Siro stadium for the match, accompanied by three of my closest friends and fellow tifosi milanisti to witness the spectacle. The fixture arrives at an important stage in the season for both clubs. The Milan fans are far more expectant this year following the arrivals of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, who should provide the step up in quality required to mount a serious title challenge to Inter. Their expectation has thus far been matched by the encouraging start to the season shown by Kevin-Prince Boateng, whose dynamism is a breath of fresh air in what threatened to become stagnated midfield, and by ‘Ibracadibra’, who has stepped into the front line with confidence personified by ‘il grande soloista’, as Arrigo Sacchi put it, much to Zlatan’s disgust. His early season goals have pulled Milan through the inevitable tactical teething period. Recurring injuries have exposed Alexandre Pato’s youthful fragility, and Robinho will take some time to reach full fitness following a pre-season of uncertainty. Striking the balance between maximising the squads formidable attacking potential while ensuring solidity in the defensive unit and in its efficiency in diffusing opposition counter-attacks, are proving Massimiliano Allegri’s toughest challenge as coach at the early part of the season. The fixture against Juventus will give an indication of the team’s tactical progression during the early phase of the campaign.

For Juventus, the match will be the greatest test of its new identity since Gigi Del Neri took charge. It is a time of change for Juventus. The bianconeri are in the process of a major transformation in all departments of the club management. Harmony, consistency, and quality: These are the three elements which Juventus President Andrea Agnelli aims to forge the clubs new identity. After a recent management meeting he met the journalists questions and remarked on the clubs new stadium project- “Here you are seeing the Juve of the future. Today we visited the construction site together with the board members. We can say that this is the first day in the life of the new stadium, an avant-garde stadium, on the level of the main European teams, open 7 days a week. In Italy we are the first club to reach such an objective”. It is a progressive step in club infrastructure long overdue for all of Seria A’s clubs. That of economical and managerial modernisation in line with the rest of the continents top leagues. For Juventus to spearhead this progression in Italy is a statement from the club to right its errors of the past decade and re-discover its position at the forefront of the domestic powerhouses. Gigi Del Neri has the task of creating a new identity on the pitch, where his recent predecessors somewhat failed. With Bepe Marotta managing behind the scenes and a clutch of new players brought in this summer, it is a process that will require a degree of patience from supporters who not so long ago were used to regular success at the highest level.

The last time I witnessed a Milan - Juventus fixture, was the 2003 UEFA Champions League final at Old Trafford, when Andriy Shevchenko sealed Milan’s sixth European Cup title with the winning penalty against a resolute and defiant Gigi Buffon inspired Juve. It was a Champions League final for the purist Calcio fan and a triumph for all of Seria A, which was to signal the peak in a spell of dominance in Europe - the first Champions League final contested by two Italian clubs, three years after Real Madrid and Hector Cuper’s overachieving Valencia made history for Spains La Liga as the first clubs from the same domestic competition to contest the final of the European Cup / Champions League since its advent in 1955, at the Stade de France in Paris on May 24th 2000. Like other Milan fans may tentatively admit, I was relieved for Pavel Nedved’s absence from the bianconeri line-up through suspension, the consequence of an ill-fated twist in the drama of the semi-final 3-1 away victory against Real Madrid. Some argue that it ruined the spectacle for the neutral, as it significantly reduced Juves punch in the final third. It was a blessing for Milan, so influential was the Czech fantasista in Juventus’ journey to the final at Old Trafford. It was also a final to be remembered for Clarence Seedorf, the first footballer to win the Champions League with three different clubs. . In truth, the match played out in gritty fashion, both teams respect for each other transpiring into a cagey affair, with clear chances few and far between. Shevas spot kick clinched victory, Paolo Maldini lifted the trophy to succeed in his father’s footsteps and signify the full circle that Milan and Serie A had come since the all-conquering side of the late 80’s and early 90’s under Arrigo Sacchi and then under Fabio Capello.

I expect, as might some others a lingering melancholy thought to seep through as I stand in wait of the two teams entering the San Siro pitch on October 30th. It is a feeling that is borne from the pangs of a decade filled of controversy, bitter-sweet episodes, restructuring, and bruises which have threatened the dignity and honour of Italian football in general, and the clubs reputations throughout the continent. Alessandro Del Piero (barring injury) should lead a new look Juventus onto the San Siro pitch. As the only remaining juventino ‘survivor’ of the 2003 final likely to feature, given Buffon’s latest injury problems, the Juve Captain will be fired up and eager to impart his experience and grit to the molten ore which the new group of Juve players currently resemble under the direction of Gigi Del Neri, following the Calciopoli debacle. The last few years have been tough for Del Piero and co and while the bianconeri support felt the pain for their club stripped of two scudetti, Italian football fans in general mourned at the demise of its reputation across the continent. Juventus were burdened by the year of exile in Seria B, the consequences of which are rooted so deep into the structure of the club that it may take some time before we see them return to former glory.

In Milan, Massimiliano Allegri is the latest man appointed this season by President Berlusconi to dislodge the tag of a squad of players “too old and too slow” seemingly welded to the Milan crest in recent times. It is a misconception that is borne from the clubs management’s loyalty to their players in an era of success from 2002-2007. Following Milans Champions league triumphs in 2003 and in Athens at the second attempt against Liverpool in 2007, Adriano Galliani declared that all of Milans players would receive new contract extensions- a gesture of the clubs appreciation for their success on the field. While it was admirable to see such loyalty within the club, one could not help but ponder over the logic behind a refusal to implement a progressive rejuvenation of a squad which was clearly at its very peak, if not already on the decline, in terms of age, if not quality. How much longer could Jankulovski, Kaladze, Oddo and Favalli continue to perform with consistency at the highest level? In a time of economic hardship throughout Italy, as the countries President, Berlusconi was hesitant to appear to be spending large sums of cash on fresh talent for his sporting venture in Milan. Historically, President Silvio Berlusconi has always loved to deliver the star signing. In the past decade alone he has signed players such as Rui Costa, Nesta, Rivaldo, Redondo, Ronaldo, Bierhoff, Cafu, Shevchenko, Kaka and Ronaldinho. The only difference we have seen in this strategy over the past decade is the amount of money he is willing to spend to acquire these talents. The club strategy in the last 3 years since the Champions League Final success in Athens against Liverpool in 2007 has been to conserve the quality within the current squad, and adding to it if an economically viable opportunity presented itself. With the exception of Pato following the success in Athens, the rate of top quality signings have during that time slowed. This has caused murmurings of discontent among the rossoneri faithful, particularly in a time when Inter President Massimo Morratti regularly pulls out his cheque book to strengthen Inter into a formidable opposition, carving out five titles (including two default titles handed to them as a result of calciopoli) in a row and the UEFA Champions League title in 2010. It is the relative recent continuity in success of Inter, coupled with the apparent lack of re-investment by President Berlusconi to rejuvenate Milans spent forces that had caused a cloud of depression over the milanisti.

This season the cloud of depression has been lifted. For Allegri, Ibrahimovic and company, the Juventus fixture is an opportunity to demonstrate that the club is ready once again to become champions. For Juventus, it is a match that will indicate the progress in the clubs restructuring. It is a fixture of great tradition for these two clubs, but it is also one which may prove to be fundamental in defining their ambitions for the near future. I will savour the occasion as a supporter of Milan, as I do every time I return to the San Siro stadium.

2 comments:

Bluenine said...

Lorenzo,

An excellent post, really enjoyed reading that. I completely understand the excitement before a big game like this, even if its a month before. I plan to go for the Milan derby in November, and I am already excited ;)

As an Inter fan, I must point out two minor (or not) discrepancies... firstly, Del Neri's first big test comes much earlier, as they travel to San Siro this weekend for derby d'italia! Secondly, only 1 title was handed over to Inter by default due to Calciopoli, not two. But then, thats completely another debate ;) Perhaps we shouldn't open that can of worms, eh? ;)

Lorenzo said...

I know that the Derby D'Italia is a big test for Del Neri and Juventus. Perhaps though, it comes a little too soon for Juventus in the season. A month from now, against Milan, when they have had a few months to find their balance, we'll really be able to judge their progress. Apologies if I never highlighted that point in the article :)