Black and red stripes meet black and white stripes this Sunday at the San Siro, but the Bianconeri who are coming over to visit this time seem much less of a threat than their predecessors. Udinese may not possess the potency of Juventus at the best of times, but their current situation sees them fighting with the strength of despair rather than the drive of enthusiasm. As they walk into what is perhaps the toughest overall arena in Italy (both home teams considered), there’s going to be more than one enigma haunting Coach Pasquale Marino’s head.
First question – how do you stop Milan’s attack? This is the same quandary that the likes of Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi and Raymond Domenech are (probably) going to have to pose themselves come 2010 – the Milan offensive trio is, give or take one name, the core of the Brazilian strike-force and consequentially one of the most sensational offences in the world. Demanding that Udinese, a team currently competing to stay in the UEFA Cup zone, be the one to stop their feet when these talents are playing at home may sound a little unrealistic.
The situation is made even more dire by the current state of the Udinese back-line. Alongside the forwards, the defence was supposed to be the great strength of the Bianconeri team this year. But things have not gone according to plan. Cristian Zapata, arguably their best element, has spent more time injured than healthy, and will again be unavailable against Milan. Maurizio Domizzi – a recent acquisition from Napoli – has met with difficulties in integrating into the dynamisms of the team, while Aleksandar Lukovic is but a walking shadow to the player he was last year. There is much to be done if the crisis Udinese find themselves in is to be fixed, but perhaps the issue Marino should start from is precisely the back-line. The three goals in half an hour conceded against Lazio last Sunday point exactly to that.
Marino and the rest of the Zebrette crew may draw some consolation from the fact that Milan’s attack, while fearsome, is not infallible. The weakest link is surely Alexandre Pato, the budding verdeoro forward who has been showing all his age (or lack thereof) in this first half of the season with Milan. While his talent and technique are unquestionable, he lacks physicality and is more predictable than most would have him be – the Brazilian’s ball-on-foot repertoire seems limited to very little outside of a swift widening of the game from the centre to the flanks. He is not an outstanding finisher either. If any of the most experienced Udinese defenders wakes up for this match, they just might be able to neutralise him. The duck-hunt is open.
As far as the other elements of the Rossoneri offence are concerned, Ronaldinho is deadly but also inconsistent. There is no way of predicting whether he will be in form or not, a factor which can be of great influence to the game. And Kaka has shown some trouble in working effectively with his ex-Blaugrana colleague. If these players malfunction, the chemistry of the entire offence may suffer. These are, all things considered, the only things that Udinese can realistically hope for if they wish to keep concession low (there are, after all, only limited ways to prepare against a team which can afford to bench Filippo Inzaghi).
It is true that Milan has had some trouble in the midfield since the injury of destroyer Gennaro Gattuso (some even contend that his recent ‘rebirth’ has been the main reason for Milan’s return to form as a whole). The alternatives for his role are not particularly impressive either. Mathieu Flamini is decent albeit not nearly as energetic as Gattuso, Emerson is an empty husk, and Massimo Ambrosini, for all the hype he was given last year, is a monument to football mediocrity. Clarence Seedorf is brilliant, yes, but he plays in a completely different role and would be redundant in an eleven already fielding Kaka and Ronaldinho. Nor has the return of Andrea Pirlo from injury been as catalytic as many Milanisti hoped. If anything, the forced tactical changes imposed by the youngster’s absence were a much needed breath of fresh air to his team, which is now going back to predictable schemas. Should Kaka fail to return in time for Sunday’s clash, Milan could adopt a 4-4-2 formation once again.
These concerns aside, though, Udinese is hardly looking better. Whatever happened to Gokhan Inler, for example? He was spectacular last year and enjoyed a very decent Euro Cup with the Swiss team, but now he too seems entangled in the processes of entropy and decadence which seem to be enveloping his entire team. Without Inler, Udinese lose one of the most substantial contributions to the midfield and one of the few men who could have broken communications between Milan’s (comparatively) vulnerable midfield and their fearsome offence. Gaetano D’Agostino will try to keep the ship afloat, but he can hardly do it by himself, especially since Mauricio Isla (the other main element in Udinese’s three-man midfield) is still recovering from injury and will not be fielded.
Perhaps the offensive trio of Antonio Di Natale, Simone Pepe and Fabio Quagliarella can come back and lend a hand. They seem to have finally found their firepower again (especially Quagliarella, who finally showed some spark against Lazio), and the Milan defence is not as impenetrable as those of, say, Juventus or Inter. Considering the state of their own defence, Udinese is unlikely to go through without conceding anything, so the attack will definitely have to step up if they want to walk away with a result. Only a month and a half ago, for the Bianconeri, the result in question would have been an aspired victory. In the current situation, where the stripes in black-and-red will see anything less than three points as a caustic disappointment, a draw would likely be received like golden rain.