By Kris Voakes at San Siro
So that is what AC Milan can do!
After all the doom and gloom which has surrounded the Rossoneri since they saw key players depart last summer, there was finally one huge ray of light shining upon them at San Siro on Sunday, as their 1-0 victory over Juventus showed Italy what this side is really capable of.
Their qualification for the knockout phase of the Champions League in midweek was a reason to be cheerful, but this victory over the Bianconeri lays down a marker. They can now be sure that their limitations are not down around their ankles like some people had claimed, and if they can continue to get such stand-out performances from the likes of Riccardo Montolivo and Kevin Constant then they have reason to believe that a European spot of some sort is well within their sights.
Montolivo donned the captain’s armband for the first time after Christian Abbiati broke down in the pre-match warm-up, and if it was from the added decoration to his left bicep that he gained the superpowers he displayed during the game, then Massimiliano Allegri should have him wear it morning, noon and night for the next six months.
|MATCH FACTS | AC Milan 1-0 Juventus
The former Fiorentina man turned in his best all-round performance in at least two years, showing qualities both on and off the ball that have been lacking all too often this season. That dip had led many – this writer included – to suggest that maybe his free transfer was not quite the fantastic move some onlookers thought it would be for Milan. But with a real calmness and composure under pressure, a near-perfect passing display, and the wherewithal to get every decision right in terms of when to make forward bursts and when to hold and cover, when to tackle and when to jockey, this was Montolivo at his very best.
If he can continue this form for the foreseeable future, then Milan have the base from which they can build as they look to recover from their hellish early-season results. It was his performance which helped to starve one of the continent’s best midfield outfits of the ball for much of the 90 minutes, with Antonio Nocerino also lending a display of real poise, while Nigel de Jong remained a willing ally even if his passing left much to be desired.
The Rossoneri were not expected to win this one in midfield. It was said that they had to keep Juve’s forwards quiet and also get their own fluid attackers into space between the lines of defence and midfield in order to exploit the league leaders’ weaknesses. But the truth is, they did all of that and more. They exposed Juventus’ faults, but also found answers to their strengths.
Yes, the winning penalty came from a very harsh decision after Mauricio Isla was adjudged to have handled when the ball in fact hit his torso, but Juve can have no gripe about the result given that they had only three shots that asked questions of reserve keeper Marco Amelia. Skipper Gianluigi Buffon admitted after the match that his side were worthy losers, and he was so very right.
There were lacklustre displays all over the pitch for the visitors, while the home side were right on top of their game, with Robinho in the first-half and Stephan El Shaarawy in the second managing to ask regular questions of the Juve defence, while Kevin-Prince Boateng also caused problems despite wasting chances too. At the back Constant turned in surely his best ever display in Serie A, marrying great endeavour on the ball with a refusal to be beaten off it, even clearing a late effort off the line.
Allegri could hardly have done better tactically, but one thing that this result should not do is absolve him of blame for what has happened before now - quite the opposite. This was evidence of what his squad is capable of, even without the players he lost in the summer. Results like this only provide further proof that defeats against the likes of Sampdoria, Atalanta, etc. should have been avoided. But, if the coach can use the victory in the right way and turn it into extra motivation for this group, then it will be worth a lot more than three points to them.
And if their slender hopes of making any kind of mark on the Serie A table this season are to be fulfilled, then a few more Montolivo masterclasses certainly would not go amiss.
- Saturday's Derby di Sicilia went the way of Palermo thanks to some excellent performances in the final third, with Fabrizio Miccoli, Josip Ilicic and substitute Paulo Dybala all contributing to Catania's 3-1 defeat. After Miccoli's superb opener, Ilicic added a double which appeared to have seen off the Elefanti, but Francesco Lodi's stunning free kick put the game back in the balance. But the Brazilian's fantastic forward play after replacing Miccoli was absolutely crucial to the Rosanero holding on when they might otherwise have had to weather a real storm. It was the ultimate example of a coach using the right players at the right times as Gian Piero Gasperini responded to questions about his future in the hottest of hot seats by delivering in Palermo's biggest game of the season.
- Juventus remain four points clear at the top of Serie A thanks to Fiorentina's first failure in six matches, a 2-2 draw away to Torino. The Viola twice had to come from behind to claim a point after the Granata had threatened to cause an upset. Alessio Cerci scored against his old side, but he and fellow former Fiorentina winger Mario Santana showed once more why very few wingers can get away with playing inverted roles without occasionally looking short of quality, with Torino seeing a number of good crossing positions go to waste. The very best can do it, but coaches of mid-table sides should probably think twice about the practice.
- Serie A's long weekend continues tonight with day three of a four-day Round 14 schedule. The big game is Inter's trip to Parma, with the Nerazzurri looking for a first win in four games against the backdrop of the Wesley Sneijder affair. The Netherlands international has been told that he will not be considered for selection until a decision has been made on his contractual situation, but perhaps it is a canny way of showing confidence in the current first-team members who have struggled since beating Juventus three weeks ago. Either way, a quick resolution should be sought with Sneijder in order that Andrea Stramaccioni and his men can get back to the job of making Juve pay for a poor November in which they have collected just four points from four games.