Straight from the dark heart of Italy
AC Milan and Juventus return from the winter break joint top of the table and sporting matching winter tans after a week of warm-weather training in Dubai.
The ever-fashionable clubs have mirrored each other throughout the first half of the season, and will be keen to match strides rather than fall behind the times. There are four matches remaining before the crowning of the winter champions, which is always a good indicator of the eventual champions: in the 17 years since the introduction of three points for a win, only four winter winners have failed to triumph come May.
It could be that a January slip-up gives one team or other that vital advantage before the mid-February return of the Champions League – in which Juventus, free this season of any European competition, will hope the Rossoneri triumph against Arsenal having run themselves into the ground.
However, continental commitments could prove marginal and overall there is little to choose between the clubs. Massimiliano Allegri and Antonio Conte are young and determined coaches with fresh ideas, players in form and (currently) fit – and the feeling that every match is there for the taking.
Juve have already got one over Milan rivals with a late double in the 2-0 home win back in early October, traditionally a time when the Rossoneri are below par – but more than any other team, Milan have always enjoyed the return to action in January.
If there is to be any trouble at the champions, it could well come from within their own ranks. The club's desire to show the world that they can always incite a star player to Milanello has seen them make an all too public pursuit of Carlos Tevez; as the saga rumbles on, no doubt to the final hour of the final day of the transfer window, the seemingly growing rift between Allegri and Alexandre Pato could well unsettle the club.
There's no doubt that the pair don't see eye to eye on how the game should be played: the player is too ad hoc for the methodical coach and in a recent interview Pato made it clear that where Carlo Ancelotti offered guidance, Allegri offers only hollow words.
“The coach tells me I need to improve, but not how and in what areas,” claimed the Brazilian in a frank recent interview with heavyweight Milanese daily Corriere della Sera. “With Ancelotti, at least we talked on how to improve my game by telling me what I needed to do.”
The outburst was greeted with some irony within the Milan organisation. “At least it proves he is alive,” commented one source to the self-same newspaper. To some at the club, the 22-year-old is seen as something of a sphinx, someone who barely opens his mouth to chat and when he does it is only with his fellow Brazilians.
Such a lack of empathy cost him the armband in late November when Milan faced Chievo without club captain Massimo Ambrosini and his vice Rino Gattuso, along with a whole host of experienced players.
By tradition the armband would be passed to longest-serving available squad member, which would be Pato – remember he arrived at Milan back in 2007. However, Allegri anointed Thiago Silva, Pato’s closest (and if reports are to be believed, only) friend in the dressing room.
The fact that Pato is dating Silvio Berlusconi’s daughter Barbara has apparently made the situation within said dressing room a little tense, with squad members feeling they can't speak their mind just in case a stray word is taken out of context and somehow gets back to the top.
Allegri knows he needs to stay on the right side of the president and blurted out in a press conference in Dubai that he had no problems with Pato, only to suggest in the same breath that maybe the Duck’s quacking was just a way of getting a few issues off his chest.
The coach also seems to have a few issues simmering below the surface and he had a little dig at the forward’s reccurring fitness problems: “Maybe he felt left out during his recent injury.”
Pato was sidelined for nearly two months – spending most of that period training alone – and it seems that he has become marginalised with Zlatan Ibrahimovic now seen as the focal point of the team.
So when a friendly on Wednesday night pitted Milan against PSG, now overseen by coach Ancelotti and sporting director Leonardo, speculation buzzed that Pato is set to team up with his two mentors. Scoring the only goal of the game sent a message to both parties, but there is little sign of any thawing in the relationship with his current coach.
Over at Juve, Marco Borriello’s arrival raised a neatly-plucked eyebrow from the man he could replace: Alessandro Matri.
Coach Conte already has Mirko Vucinic, the fit-again Fabio Quagliarella and Alex del Piero in attack while Luca Toni, Amauri and Vincenzo Iaquinta still lurk in the shadows, but Borriello’s style is similar to Matri’s and the new man also has his sights set on a return to the Italy squad ahead of Euro 2012.
A bemused Matri denied that he was under pressure. “We have the same number of strikers as the other clubs… we have four, five, no, six or seven... I don’t know.”
Borriello and Matri are considered two of the pin-up boys of Italian football and the press have hailed Juve as possessing the two most handsome frontmen in the league, but it looks like it could get ugly in the battle for the No.9 shirt. However, if Milan were to accept an audacious €45m PSG bid for Pato, even the arrival of Tevez couldn't stop Juve feeling they have the edge in the title race.
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