Sunday’s night battle between Milan and Cagliari is a must win for the home side. The last fixture of January comes before a mammoth run of fixtures in February that will define their entire season and possibly determine the fate of their Coach Massimiliano Allegri.
TotoCalcio is an enterprise similar to the British ‘Pools’ system, in which the player must predict the outcome in a certain amounts of games by simply choosing 1 for a home win, 2 for an away win and X for a draw. If you guess all the games correctly then you stand to win lots of money. It’s a simple format played by millions of Italians each year. So this weekend when the gamblers see ‘Milan-Cagliari’ on their betting form, it seems a certain ‘1.’ Yet looking at the importance of the match-up, perhaps players will be a little more hesitant in their predictions.
Cagliari have only ever won three times in 30 trips north to face Milan, including seven defeats in a row. Their last win at San Siro was on May 1st 1997, an iconic day for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was Milan legend Franco Baresi’s last ever game for the club before retirement (the club later retired their number six shirt in his honour.) Secondly, the defeat meant Milan finished 11th, their lowest league position since the relegation season of 1981-82. And thirdly Roberto Muzzi’s goal for Carlo Mazzone’s side meant they secured a relegation play-out against Piacenza after both clubs tied on 37 points (along with Perugia, but the Umbrians went down on their inferior head to head record.) Ultimately it was a stay of execution, as the Rossoblu lost the play-out 3-1 in Naples to drop into Serie B.
So considering Cagliari‘s record, surely it’s a home banker? Possibly, but the importance of a win will not be lost on Coach Max Allegri as he looks at the fixtures which immediately follow the Sardinians visit. In Serie A in February, Milan face trips to Lazio, Udinese and Cesena, whilst playing host to Napoli and Juventus. They also have the home legs of their Coppa Italia semi-final (Juventus) and the Champions League first knockout round (Arsenal) to contend with. Anything other than a victory over the Rossoblu would create enormous pressure on Milan to win games which on paper are much more difficult. Considering Juventus’ form, it’s imperative that il Diavolo don’t concede too many points to la Vecchia Signora in the Scudetto race.
As well as facing a vital run of games, Allegri is fighting a battle to keep his players fit. Already certain to miss the Cagliari game are Boateng, Flamini, Cassano, Gattuso, Yepes, Aquilani, Pato and Merkel, meaning the squad is stretched to compete on three separate fronts. As well as the drawn out saga regarding Carlos Tevez, reports suggest managing director Adriano Galliani is chasing Sulley Muntari to sign this month (a pre-contract has already been agreed for a summer move) to alleviate some of the pressure in midfield, whilst striker Maxi Lopez was present at the Coppa Italia game against Lazio Thursday night and has all but signed from Catania. New signing Djamel Mesbah was impressive on his debut at left-back in the Lazio game so there are still encouraging signs for Allegri ahead of a testing period.
Now is the time when Allegri must weigh up his priorities. Clearly the Champions League is the one everyone at the club wants to win and he is under pressure to deliver after last seasons first knockout round defeat to Spurs, whilst the Scudetto will always be a priority for any big club, so in hindsight the 3-1 victory over Lazio in the Coppa Italia was something the Livorno native could have done without, especially as midfielder Alexander Merkel picked up an injury during the game. Despite more pressing matters both in Serie A and in Europe, the intensity of the rivalry with Juventus means it’s a brave tactician to name a weak side for the first leg of the semi-final on the 8th of February. Luckily for Allegri, the second leg isn’t until the end of March meaning injuries could have subsided.
So if at first glance Milan vs. Cagliari seems a home certainty, the enormity of the game for Milan ensures it won’t be a cosy Sunday evening for the Rossoneri. Add into the mix Cagliari fired Allegri before he took the Milan job and the fact Cagliari have hit form themselves in picking up five points from games against Genoa, Juventus and Fiorentina and it has all the makings of an intriguing encounter. The pressure is on Max Allegri to win, as this game will be considered the calm before a very noisy storm.