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The stage is set for an epic encounter as Serie A's early-season pace-setters welcome one of their oldest and fiercest rivals to their new home in Turin for the first time

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By Mark Doyle

Juventus have made an encouraging start to life under new coach Antonio Conte but their Scudetto credentials will be put to the test when they host reigning champions AC Milan on Sunday night.

Juve opened their campaign with back-to-back victories over Parma and Siena but successive draws at home to Bologna and away to Catania have underlined that Conte’s revolution will require time and patience from the club’s success-hungry fans.

Milan have started sluggishly, just as they did last term, but there have been mitigating circumstances in that coach Massimiliano Allegri has been hampered by a spate of injuries to key personnel.

However, with their injury worries easing and spirits lifted after two wins in the space of four days, against Cesena and Viktoria Plzen, Milan make the short journey north to Turin intent on quashing the Juventus uprising.

A fascinating battle between two of the biggest names in world football awaits, and below we analyse some of the most important aspects of this crunch clash.

ANDREA PIRLO'S AVAILABILITY


Where else can we start but with Andrea Pirlo? The entire build-up to the game has centred on the veteran Italian playmaker, who this summer joined Juventus on a free transfer after a decade at Milan.

The exact reasons behind Pirlo’s departure are still the subject of much debate – even though both he and Allegri have maintained that the player simply wanted “a new challenge”. However, what is not up for discussion is the fact that Pirlo still has plenty left to offer at this level.

Indeed, so influential has he been for Juventus in the opening weeks of the new season - with three assists in four games to his name - that there has been a suggestion that the Turin club are already Pirlo-dependent. And that is why the news that he could miss the game with a knee injury picked up in training is so significant.

JUVENTUS' WIDTH


With their narrow midfield, Milan have long been vulnerable to pace on the flanks, something their hosts have in abundance. Consequently, Pirlo and his midfield partner Claudio Marchisio will be intent on getting the ball wide to Milos Krasic and Simone Pepe as quickly and as regularly as possible.

Milan will be well aware of this, of course, as it is one of the key facets of Conte’s bold 4-2-4 system, or even of the 4-1-4-1 he may choose to revert to. However, that does not mean that they will necessarily be able to nullify the threat posed by Juve’s wingers, primarily because Luca Antonini and Daniele Bonera are not particularly intelligent or, indeed, speedy. Which means Milan must cut the supply line to Juve’s wide boys.

THE MIDFIELD BATTLE


And that brings us neatly on to Milan’s lack of pace and athleticism in midfield, which was brutally exposed in their defeat by Napoli at the San Paolo a fortnight ago. Consequently, the return of Kevin Prince Boateng and Massimo Ambrosini from their respective ailments is great news for the visitors.

Boateng’s availability is particularly significant for two reasons: firstly, the Ghanaian, in the role of trequartista, will ask serious questions of Andrea Pirlo’s notoriously suspect defensive capabilities; secondly, the Milan man will ensure that his former team-mate is denied sufficient time and space to dictate the pace of the game and provide Krasic and Pepe with quality balls.

THE RETURN OF IBRA


Of even greater significance than the return of Boateng for Milan is that of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who played all 90 minutes of Wednesday’s midweek win over Viktoria Plzen after two weeks on the sidelines with an adductor problem.

In the four games in which Milan were forced to make do without their wonderfully laconic Swedish striker, they looked toothless and one-dimensional. Zlatan is the focal point of the San Siro outfit’s attack because he brings a precious variety to their play. He provides invention and guile on account of his wonderful vision and technique, while at the same time offering a superb out-ball as a conventional target man because of his height and physical prowess.

Just as importantly, Ibrahimovic’s presence can bring the best out of Antonio Cassano, with the two having dovetailed exceptionally well in the two games they’ve played together this season, against Lazio and Plzen.

VUCINIC's VIM AND VIGOUR


Juventus have their own significant returnee in the form of Mirko Vucinic. The Montenegro international, acquired from Roma this summer, is back from suspension after picking up a thoroughly avoidable red card against Bologna. On that night, having opened the scoring, he got himself sent off by collecting one booking for dissent and another for a senseless lunge on Archimede Morleo.

Vucinic has never been the most prolific of strikers but he is an intelligent and gifted footballer who, with his clever and incisive running, is capable of creating goals as well as scoring them. He also has previous against Milan and has already scored past them this season, having notched in their Trofeo Berlusconi clash at San Siro in August.

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