Serie A: Capricious Milan roll over mighty Juve
The Jeep sputtered and coughed, looking out of fuel and battle-weary. But it motored on nonetheless, as if constant movement would smooth over its shortcomings. "Just keep moving," it seemed to be saying to itself. "We'll get there any moment now."
But they never got "there". Against a capricious Milan side that seemed to be giving its performance of the season, Juventus never really got going on Sunday. The Italian champions saw a lot of the ball, had almost 60 per cent possession, had 656 passes at the San Siro compared to the home side's 490, but could not guide a single one of them into the Milan net.
Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri took a look around his dressing room before the crucial match and decided to hand the captain's armband to Ricardo Montolivo. Italian clubs pass the armband down the squad according to the number of caps players have for their club, so it was a surprise to see Montolivo, who arrived at Milan only in the summer, lead his team out to the field before kick-off.
"He needs to become charismatic and this was a good opportunity," Allegri said of his decision. Montolivo did not disappoint. The classy playmaker won a virtual head-to-head on Sunday with Milan legend and now Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who crossed over to Turin last season amid much rancour.
Pirlo was not man-marked out of the game, rather the offensive moves launched by him were stonewalled by Milan. Each and every attack was taken apart, either stamped out in infancy or hoofed away by a knot of red and black shirts. Montolivo, in contrast, led by example, covering the length and breadth of the field, breaking up attacks and launching some of his own. Hence it was only natural he was involved in the counter-attack that led to Milan being awarded a controversial penalty. It was converted by Robinho, and proved to be the only goal of the game.
While the penalty itself was wrongly given, the referee having concluded that the ball had hit Juve midfielder Mauricio Isla's arm inside the box, it was not the reason for Juve's first away defeat in 18 months. "If people want to find excuses for a defeat, it's simple," Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon said. "But I believe the best way of explaining it would be to say: the opposition were better than us and we deserved to lose."
The defeat came on the back of a comprehensive 3-0 win over European champions Chelsea in the Champions League, which begs the question: is the European campaign, with its hundreds of flight hours and exacting hotel stays, proving too much for Juventus?
Antonio Conte's men went through the last Serie A season unbeaten, but did not have Europe to contend with. This time around, however, they are yet to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League with just a game left to play. They are still favourites to qualify in second place in Group E ahead of Chelsea, but Juve's game yesterday was all pressing, no thrust.
Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, the engines of this Juventus side and normally so decisive, could not penetrate the wall of Milan players in the final third. Pirlo was quiet apart from a couple of through balls that his teammates failed to convert. He even committed a petty foul on Montolivo, slyly catching his ankle as the younger man charged away with the ball.
Milan themselves did not create much, but showed they were ready for a scrap.That may have been down to a visit by Milan President Silvio Berlusconi, who met the squad prior to the match for the second time in 10 days to "charge them up". If the flamboyant media mogul was indeed behind Milan's performance yesterday, it would only be fair: it was Berlusconi who had risked unsettling the squad in the first place.
Asked whether Milan had approached former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola to replace Allegri, Berlusconi had claimed that Manchester City were closer to a deal with the 41-year-old, inadvertently confirming that the board had lost faith in Allegri and was looking for alternatives. Allegri himself seems resigned to his fate, wryly remarking after the match: "I feel flattered that the club is looking for Guardiola as my replacement, seeing as he is one of the best coaches in the world."
If there were any doubts over how Milan players would respond to a coach who was essentially Dead Man Walking, they were dispelled yesterday. Allegri had reportedly told his players after the 1-3 loss to Fiorentina on Nov 11 that if they had wanted to prove "that you are all against me, then you did it". Milan have not lost since and their clean sheet against Juventus was their first since October 27 against Genoa. Berlusconi has since given his backing to Allegri, insisting the board is behind him, but Marco Van Basten was in the stands yesterday along with a Milan director, setting off fresh speculation.
Juventus remain four points clear at the top of Serie A and will be determined to make amends for Sunday's horror show the next time they take to the field. That will be against crosstown rivals Torino on December 1, in a local derby that promises to be a feisty affair. Until then, they'll keep the engine running.
More about Arun Pradeep
Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.
- + Champions League: Why Barcelona must be afraid
- + Champions League: Bayern flex muscles, Real just glide
- + Champions League: Harsh lessons for AC Milan, Arsenal
- + EPL: Arsenal in free-fall
- + Serie A: Fiorentina spice up Italian top-flight
- + Steven Gerrard still pushing boundaries at 32
- + EPL: Robin Van Persie leads the line for United
- + EPL: United silence 'noisy neighbours', but City still in this fight
- + La Liga: Atletico Madrid gatecrash Real-Barca party