Milan face derby day of reckoning as Juve clash falls flat on shabby stage

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<span>Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

A shocking pitch, near-empty stadium and a cast full of understudies made for difficult viewing at San Siro


It was supposed to be one of those Sunday night spectacles that define a Serie A season. Milan, second in the table and needing a win to keep pace in the title race, up against Juventus, fifth and fighting for their Champions League lives. Two of the giants of Italian football squaring off at San Siro, the country’s grandest arena.

Juventus were yet to beat any of the teams ahead of them in the table – Milan, Inter, Napoli or Atalanta. But their manager, Massimiliano Allegri, had never lost in 18 career meetings with his Rossonero counterpart Stefano Pioli. This was an occasion for someone to rewrite the narratives. Instead, all the pens ran dry.

Related: Milan draw with Juventus as De Jong scores late winner for Barcelona

There is barely a tale to recount about the football match itself. Juventus went the full 90 minutes without taking a shot on target. The last time that happened to them in a game against Milan was March 2011, with Alessandro Matri up front and Luigi Delneri in the dugout. They finished that season seventh.

Milan pushed harder, but still never looked much like scoring. Rafael Leão forced Wojciech Szczęsny to get down quickly when he dug out a shot between four defenders on the edge of the box. Olivier Giroud sent a header straight at the keeper from near the penalty spot. That was as close as either team came to breaking the goalless stalemate.

Perhaps things might have gone differently if Zlatan Ibrahimovic had not been forced off for Milan after 28 minutes with an achilles injury. It was he who laid the ball off to Leão for the first of those opportunities, redirecting a pass from Junior Messias into the path of their Portuguese teammate.

Even before the Swede’s exit, however, this felt like a diminished spectacle: a Broadway show with a cast full of understudies, performed on a crumbling stage in an almost-empty theatre. Milan were missing the spine of their team, with Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer injured, Franck Kessié away at the Africa Cup of Nations and Ismaël Bennacer returning too late to be considered for the starting XI. Juventus arrived without Leonardo Bonucci or Federico Chiesa.

The players who did line up for kick-off found the pitch in a shocking state. Keeping the grass green at San Siro has been a struggle ever since the stadium’s third tier was added – blocking out sunlight – but its condition on Sunday was especially poor. This was the sixth game at San Siro in 12 days. Inter had hosted Venezia on the same turf barely 24 hours before.

New Covid regulations, meanwhile, had capped the attendance at just 5,000 fans. That restriction applied across all Serie A games but inevitably was felt most keenly at a venue with more than 70,000 empty seats.

Neither manager sought to make alibis. Although Pioli suggested that the heavy pitch made attacking harder, often requiring players to take an extra touch or play an extra pass, he stressed that his team should have been more precise. He framed the draw as an acceptable result, but said his “glass is half empty because of [last Monday’s] loss to Spezia.”

You could not blame him for lingering on that defeat. Milan had themselves to blame for missing a hatful of chances but still ought to have taken all three points when Junior Messias swept the ball home in injury time. His goal was cancelled out by a premature whistle from the referee Marco Serra, and Spezia snatched a winner moments later.

During an interview for the Observer, Pioli said he was proud of his players’ mature reaction, declining to scapegoat the referee for making a mistake. Yet regret plainly remains. By the end of Sunday night, his team had fallen four points behind Inter – who also have a game in hand. The derby that awaits in Serie A’s next round after the international pause might be make-or-break now for Milan’s hopes of sustaining a title push.

Juventus’s sights are set lower. A win on Sunday would have vaulted them ahead of Atalanta into fourth place, but Allegri suggested he was happy just to keep pace for now with the Bergamo club, who drew 0-0 at Lazio on Saturday. His glass, he said, was “completely full”.

The Bianconeri have tightened up after a disastrous start to the season, extending their unbeaten run to nine games and recording their eighth clean sheet in the last 12. Restoring the defensive solidity of his previous tenures has been a priority for Allegri. One wonders how many of the club’s supporters, however, shared his description of Sunday’s game as “beautiful”.

Allegri also celebrated the fact that his team had “kept the gap to Milan at seven points”, a sentiment that felt alien to hear from a Juventus manager when theirs is the team trailing. The Old Lady’s sights have fallen dramatically over the past 18 months.

To achieve such a robust defensive performance with the maligned Daniele Rugani at centre-back brought additional satisfaction, even if the player responded to Allegri’s praise of his timing and positioning at full-time by saying that “these are fundamentals I picked up from a few managers, in particular [Maurizio] Sarri.”

Verona 2-1 Bologna, Lazio 0-0 Atalanta, Internazionale 2-1 Venezia, Genoa 0-0 Udinese, Milan 0-0 Juventus, Empoli 2-4 Roma, Torino 1-1 Sassuolo, Spezia 1-0 Sampdoria, Napoli 4-1 Salernitana, Cagliari 1-1 Fiorentina

There is time yet for Juventus to upgrade their attack in this transfer window. The club’s interest in Dusan Vlahovic is well-known but up until recently the suggestion had always been that Juventus would prefer to sign him in the summer. The total absence of attacking threat on Sunday might help to persuade the club of the need to make something happen sooner, even at a higher price point.

That much, though, is speculation. Milan, too, are exploring options to strengthen their squad over the next few days but if nothing else they know that the playing conditions at San Siro ought to be better by the time they face Inter – with the pitch being fully re-laid. A spectacle is never guaranteed in football, but at least the next scene in Italy’s Scudetto drama ought to unfold on a less shabby stage.

Pos

Team

P

GD

Pts

1

Inter Milan

22

36

53

2

Napoli

23

27

49

3

AC Milan

23

22

49

4

Atalanta

22

18

43

5

Juventus

23

13

42

6

Roma

23

10

38

7

Fiorentina

22

11

36

8

Lazio

23

7

36

9

Verona

23

5

33

10

Torino

22

9

32

11

Sassuolo

23

1

29

12

Empoli

23

-10

29

13

Bologna

22

-8

27

14

Spezia

23

-18

25

15

Udinese

22

-5

24

16

Sampdoria

23

-12

20

17

Venezia

22

-20

18

18

Cagliari

23

-22

17

19

Genoa

23

-25

13

20

Salernitana

22

-39

10

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