Inter Milan will visit the Allianz Stadium on Sunday evening as Antonio Conte returns to the place where he won three league titles in a row. The usual questions would have been about what kind of welcome Conte would get from the home fans but this game will be played behind closed doors because of the Coronavirus situation. It will be extremely strange to see a game of this magnitude being played without thousands of passionate supporters in the stadium, nevertheless, this match will have a massive impact on the title race.
There will be a few hundred people in the stadium but those will be officials and broadcasters. The Italian sports minister has said that this is more of a precautionary measure rather than a serious threat. Even though fans support and noise will be missed but you can be sure to get a blockbuster game.
Significance of this game
Aside from this being a match between direct title rivals and the fact that the Juve can build a 9 point gap over Inter on top of Serie A, there are some other physiological factors to consider. Juventus won the first meeting between these clubs at the San Siro in October. Not only did the Old Lady beat Inter comprehensively but they sent a clear message to their nearest rival. A defeat for Inter will not only push them 9 points behind Juventus (Inter have a game in hand), it will also plant more seeds of uncertainty, especially considering that these two could meet in the Coppa Italia final.
In case of a draw, Lazio, who are just one point behind Juventus, will be the winners because if they can go top of the league by winning at the weekend.
A game of transitions
In a world where the game has evolved so much in terms of innovation, technicality, tactics, and analytics, it is extremely rare to see a match between two title contenders who still use a two-striker partnership. Even though Juventus used the 4-3-3 in their Champions League game against Lyon on Wednesday, we are likely to see the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond on Sunday and Inter are certain to deploy the 5-3-2. Both coaches have their own reasons for using these setups. Conte has always been an advocate of the backfive (back three when in attack) while Sarri’s 4-1-2-1-2 is designed to decrease Ronaldo’s defensive work. Juventus defend in a 4-4-2 zonal setup while Inter defend in a 5-3-2 setup, both sides leave two forwards upfield (one to link up with the midfield and other to pin the opposition centre-backs) to break quickly as soon as they win the ball.
Both sides have speed, power, and skills to do hurt the opposition on the break but both clubs also have centre-backs who are not very suited to defend fast transitions. The intelligent thing for Conte will be to instruct his players to be more reactive and allow Juventus to build out from the back. Inter could drop into a mid-block, cut out the passing lanes and try to expose the lack of pace of Chiellini (35), Bonucci (32) and Pjanic (29).
Juventus are not playing Sarri-ball yet and it could cost them dearly
Maurizio Sarri wants to play possession-based football however, his Juventus are not yet as good as his Napoli side, so there will be opportunities for Inter Milan. Juventus were, surprisingly, beaten by Lyon in the first leg of their Champions League tie and Inter should look to complicate things by frustrating Sarri’s side, even more, this weekend. After the defeat against Lyon, Sarri cut a confused figure in the post-match interview – “I don’t know why but I can’t get the players to understand the importance of moving the ball quickly. It is fundamental. Sooner or later this concept will get into their heads but lately, we’re doing opposite to what we do in training”.
After winning five league titles in a row, along with with domestic cups and two Champions League final appearances, Juventus parted ways with Max Allegri and brought Maurizio Sarri at the start of this season. Juve fans and the board were not just satisfied with winning Serie A anymore, they wanted to win the Champions League and play with some swagger. However, the Old Lady of Turin is taking her time in inculcating Sarri’s methods. The 1-0 loss to a struggling Lyon side – who are seventh in Ligue 1 and the fact that only goal difference is keeping them in the top 10 – has raised more questions about this process.
There were similar questions about Juventus and Sarri when they went to face Inter at the San Siro earlier this season but the eight-time defending champions put on a strong display. That is something Juventus will have to do on Sunday, because if they lose or get outplayed in the Derby d’Italia, then the immediate pressure might not be there in the stadium, but Sarri will be under massive scrutiny. Juventus registered no shots on goal against Lyon and their ball movement was lethargic. This performance was similar to a lot of their Serie A games but the difference was that Juve did not get a goal that they normally get from individual brilliance in league games.
If the champions are taking their time in improving the style, then the numbers are not too great either. Inter have conceded less and scored more goals than Juve in the league. The fans are unimpressed and desperate to see improvement in playing style. Even the modest squads of Lazio and Atalanta have scored 10 and 15 more goals respectively in Serie A. The Juventus boss has offered an explanation that his players find it tougher to motivate themselves for Serie A games but the energy is better for Champions League games. This does explain why Juve qualified for the Champions League round of 16 with two games to spare, from a group that featured Atletico Madrid and a dangerous Bayer Leverkusen side.
Juventus fans and Sarri critics do not care about any of this and a loss in the Derby d’Italia could have massive consequences for Sarri. Meanwhile, Antonio Conte has received plenty of stick from the Juventus fans for joining Inter and he would like nothing more than to go back to his old stomping ground and win against this inconsistent Juve side.
The reason that this game is incredibly tough to call, is because of the inconsistency of both teams throughout the season. Which Juventus will turn up for this game? Will it be the slow, sideways passing side or the one that emphatically beat Inter in October? Similarly, which Inter will show up on Sunday? Will it be the hard-pressing side that won 3-1 away against Napoli and came from 0-2 to beat Milan 4-2 or the uninspired side that lost 2-1 against Barcelona’s B team to get eliminated from the Champions League.
If Juventus use the 4-3-3 then they have a great opportunity to put some distance between themselves and Inter. Conte’s team should look to be compact and try to play through Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez to expose the Italian champions on transitions.