The Derby della Madonnina was the showpiece event of the week as far as Serie A was concerned. The game does not usually need a helping hand from the rest of Calcio to give it a gentle push into the limelight. However, with seven of the 10 matches in Week 24 ending in draws, that is exactly what it received.
The unlucky teams who managed to lose their games on the weekend of Friday 13th were Roma, Lecce and Milan – who we will speak about at great length shortly. The flurry of stalemates means the league table is left to stagnate somewhat for seven days. Whilst Atalanta, Cagliari and Inter will value three points, they have hardly had a seismic shift on the league positions in Italy’s top division. The former two have jumped a couple of places, but still reside a fair way behind the trio of Fiorentina, Genoa and Roma who are chasing European spots. The latter meanwhile simply strengthened an already dominant holding at the summit of Italian football, thanks in no small part to another two points dropped by Juventus, for whom Amauri scored his first league goal since their victory over Atalanta before the Christmas break, six games ago.
If you thought a seven point gap seemed large, consider the nine point chasm that now exists between the Inter and Juve. The fans, other than those of the current champions, who believe there is still a chance of winning the Scudetto are unfortunately deluding themselves. Alternatively they could be incredibly optimistic, in which case they are just unwittingly delusional. The stark reality is that both Juve Coach Claudio Ranieri and his Milan counterpart have major work to do to catch up to a Nerazzurri side that still look like a work in progress by their boss José Mourinho.
The Derby match on Sunday evening almost appeared to be a clash of footballing philosophies – the aesthetically pleasing movement of both ball and player showcased by Carlo Ancelotti’s Rossoneri, and the direct, efficient, passing-with-a-purpose style that has brought Mourinho so much success over the past five years. The 2-1 victory for the Special One should not be taken as victory for that particular style however, but instead as a lesson as to the slight change in direction Carletto must take his team if they are to catch up to la Beneamata. In the build-up to the Milan-Roma match, this site spoke about a “tactical growth” that was required if il Diavolo were to qualify for the Champions League. Despite this outcome now seeming likely, though by no means a certainty, the “tactical growth” is nevertheless still necessary if they are to once more wear the Scudetto shield on their red-and-black shirts. The return to two strikers, while not quite being the “growth” called for, would provide a plan B, an alternative way of playing in the match without having to make adjustments in playing staff currently on the field at that time. In fact, simply having another front man on the pitch, even if he is similar in style to his partner, would automatically increase the options. In that respect, they have been unfortunate that Marco Borriello, the only striker in their squad who offers something slightly different in attack with his physique, has been injured for most of this campaign. That looks set to continue for another month at least, with the Italian having a cyst removed from his leg last week. Filippo Inzaghi, on as a second half substitute on Sunday, has unsurprisingly also struggled with injury, and Andriy Shevchenko is a mere shadow of the player he once was and certainly not a viable first-team option.
A striker therefore, appears to be requisite in the summer at the Via Turati outfit if Italy’s longest serving Coach is going to entertain any ideas of ditching a system that is clearly not working. In fairness to the Emilia-Romagna born Tactician, he did appear to favour a system with two strikers before injuries struck, often using Alexandre Pato and Marco Borriello in tandem. They have started nine games in all competitions this year with two strikers, having won seven, and drawn two, both of which came in the UEFA Cup. 22 goals were scored, nine were conceded, with two clean sheets. Six of these games were at home, including the draw to Wolfsburg where we were treated to the rare sight of a Milan 4-4-2 system – one which has not worked for this squad for years now. The evidence quite clearly points to this being the successful way of playing, and that period between 2003 to 2007 where trophies were snaffled left, right and centre was based on this foundation. The age of the squad is always an issue that will continue to crop up until the hierarchy realise that it is something that needs to be dealt with, yet they have shown they can still win games this season when deployed properly.
The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that all but one of those nine games were also played without Andrea Pirlo. He is the most decisive factor in the functioning of Ancelotti’s preferred unit, and while some claim that his role in the team must be disposed of, I propose that he is more than capable of fitting into a 4-4-2, but it must be worked properly. Much of the club’s success was centred around the two-time Champions League winner playing well, which more often than not he managed to do. He was one of the stars for Italy at the 2006 World Cup too, winning three man-of-the-match awards. The link between his good form and sudden downturn, for both club and country? Strikers. Italy’s transition from a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 to playing with a single striker (the 4-3-3 that used contains two wide players who are nowhere near the striker) and the switch to 4-3-2-1 at club level has now reduced the playmaker’s options for passing. He is limited to laying it off to Kaká or Ronaldinho/Seedorf, which basically involves five to 10 yard passes that even Massimo Ambrosini could manage, or spraying it either left or right at international level, which is incredibly predictable and easy to nullify. As a result his effectiveness as a playmaker drops, and when that happens you are left with a player who offers very little else. He is not great defensively and you will not see him bursting into the box with well-timed late runs. If Pirlo is to continue in this Milan team, he must be given two strikers to play with.
The Nerazzurri provided a perfect demonstration of the benefits two strikers can bring, even more so when they combine the height, skill and creativity of Zlatan Ibrahimovic with the power and muscle of Adriano. The Rossoneri back-line, Kakha Kaladze in particular, struggled for the majority of the 90 minutes against the twin threat posed and their attention was diverted sufficiently to allow Dejan Stankovic to ghost in and net the second goal, even if he should really have been tracked by a midfielder. Adriano successfully handled the ball past Christian Abbiati for the first to add yet another page to the Inter book of controversy 2008/09. The Brazilian ran to celebrate with his Portuguese Coach, suggesting that the rift that had been caused by the No.10 has now healed. Good news for Interisti, as he is fast becoming a vital cog in the Mourinho machine that continues to churn out results. He finally seems to have settled on a method that suits the squad at his disposal, in midfield particularly, where their superior defensive prowess was tested to the limit at times, the former-Porto Coach has his three components working as one slick entity. They overran their Rossoneri counterparts on Sunday, and only their natural instinct to sit back and protect their lead allowed Milan to get back into the match and control the conclusion of the second half with superior possession. The return of Patrick Vieira will only bolster an already powerful collection of centrocampista’s, as well as offering a little bit of variety that has been lacking from that area all season.
The squad does not yet look like one that has been built by Mourinho, fairly natural as he has not yet been there a full season. Whether he is happy with all of those available to him remains to be seen. It would not be at all surprising to see more central midfielders targeted in the summer as he looks to find that missing element from his team. Roberto Mancini was equally as capable of winning Scudetti – it is the Champions League which sets the Portuguese man apart, and that is what he will have to win to keep himself in a job. The rest of Calcio will be praying he fails in this ambition, if only to experience a competitive title race once more.