The wait is almost over as Milan face Juventus on Friday with a place in the Coppa Italia final on the line as the two sides are locked at 1-1 ahead of the second leg of their semi-final tie.
Returning after three months without competitive action and a gradual return to full training with no ‘pre-season’ will undoubtedly influence this encounter, and so it remains to be seen who is closer to their best.
Nevertheless, there are arguably five stand-out battles across the pitch based on the touted starting line-ups being reported ahead of the encounter, which could ultimately have a direct impact on the outcome.
Milan XI: Donnarumma; Conti, Kjaer, Romagnoli, Calabria; Kessie, Bennacer; Paqueta, Bonaventura, Calhanoglu, Rebic.
Juventus XI: Szczesny; Cuadrado, De Ligt, Bonucci, Alex Sandro; Khedira, Bentancur, Matuidi; Douglas Costa, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dybala.
Possible line-ups via Tuttomercatoweb.
Should these prove to be accurate, not only will it take a collective effort to nullify Juve’s attack and expose their defensive vulnerabilities, but individuals will have to step up and make a direct impact in one of the countless sub-plots of this clash.
Rebic vs Bonucci & De Ligt
With the Croatian international expected to get the nod ahead of Rafael Leao up front, it’s a new role and responsibility that he’ll have to adjust to as the lone frontman rather than supporting a target up top.
Rebic’s speed, mobility and physicality will be key in ensuring that he isn’t left isolated, as he’ll need to drop deep to get involved in build-up play as well as run the channels to drag Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt out of position to open up pockets of space for Hakan Calhanoglu, Lucas Paqueta and Giacomo Bonaventura to offer a threat of their own.
It’s going to be a tough night for the 26-year-old as the Juventus duo are a solid pairing, but he’ll have to try and expose their vulnerabilities and give his attacking teammates a chance to make a decisive impact too.
Douglas Costa vs Calabria
With Theo Hernandez suspended, it’s expected that Davide Calabria could be shifted over to the left side of the backline and will start ahead of Diego Laxalt.
With Costa tipped to start and with the expectation that he’ll be deployed in his favoured role on the right wing where he can cut inside and be a threat with his left foot, this could be a disaster waiting to happen.
Not only will Calabria have to be perfect from a concentration and positional awareness perspective, but he’ll to try and offer something going forward to push Costa back and make him do some defensive work that he won’t want to do. Nevertheless, the priority is to shut him down, and with his pace, directness and goal threat, it’s easier said than done especially for a player being deployed in an unnatural role and with question marks over Calabria this season even at right-back.
Calhanoglu/Bonaventura vs Bentancur
With the Uruguayan potentially being picked in the XI, that would suggest that Juventus will look to him to pull the strings in midfield and try to dictate the tempo of the game while helping them dominate possession.
It’s unclear at this stage as to who will be deployed through the middle for us behind Rebic as Giacomo Bonaventura and Lucas Paqueta could also play that role as well as Hakan Calhanoglu, while they could in fact rotate during the game. As per MilanNews, it may well be Bonaventura.
Nevertheless, with Calhanoglu’s work rate, tenacity and desire off the ball, the Turkish international could be the right man to not only offer a threat through the middle, but to also harass and put pressure on Bentancur in that deeper-lying role at every available opportunity to prevent him from building moves and finding holes between our own defence and midfield.
Bennacer/Kessie vs Khedira/Matuidi
Given the lack of football over the past three months, the last thing that either side want to be doing on Friday night is constantly chasing the ball and closing the opposition down.
None of the players are going to be at 100 percent immediately as they’ve not had a proper build-up to the restart of the season, and so frustration will kick in if they go long periods without the ball and it could end up being a long night.
That’s why this physical and mental battle in midfield is going to be so important. If Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie can out-scrap their rivals, win the midfield clash and give us a solid base on which to gain a foothold and dictate the game, it could go a long way towards a victory.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Romagnoli/Kjaer
25 goals and four assists in 32 games so far this season tells a story in itself that the Portuguese star will be the obvious threat to us in the final third.
The lack of pace in our defence is a concern as it could easily be exposed by the likes of Ronaldo and Costa, and so it’s imperative that Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer are organised, switched on and positionally aware at all times to prevent us from being caught out over the top or on the counter attack.
Again, it’s easier said than done. However, if Stefano Pioli is going with that back four, then he will surely have been working on how to nullify the threat in training all week as while it’s unlikely we’ll shut Ronaldo out completely, keeping him as quiet as possible will go a long way towards a win as he has shown that he can strike even if not at his best.