Judging by Milans anger at the rejection of their appeal to reduce Zlatan Ibrahimovics three-match ban in the hope that he would be available again for Saturdays eagerly anticipated top of the table clash with Juventus at San Siro, one could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that they dont believe they can win without him.
The game for the Scudetto will be without Mister Scudetto, wrote La Repubblica . Ibrahimovics reputation understandably precedes him in this regard. If one counts the two revoked from Juventus after Calciopoli, he has won eight consecutive league championships in three different countries. How then does a team prepare for a title decider without the player who decides titles? Theres absolutely no doubt Ibrahimovic is Milans most important player. He has scored 15 goals in Serie A this season and created another five for his teammates.
His all-round game will be missed. In acknowledgement of that, Fridays La Gazzetta dello Sport offered a reminder of how Ibrahimovics height comes in handy when defending set-pieces not to mention the out-ball he often provides by pulling wide, holding up the play then laying off a pass to a midfield runner. But Milan have more than coped in Ibrahimovics absence before. Theyve had to and at delicate moments, too. He has missed 16 games through suspension or injury since joining the club from Barcelona last season. Of them, Milan have won 10, drawn four and lost just twice. Obviously, coach Massimiliano Allegri would have rather had Ibrahimovic at his disposal. Who wouldnt want their best player on the pitch? But its not the end of the world, not when one also considers that Ibrahimovic hasnt had much luck playing against his former club. Indeed, he has scored just once in his last seven encounters with Juventus. Last weekends 3-1 win at Cesena offered proof that Milan can still deliver in Ibrahimovics absence. True, the opposition were weak, but that shouldnt take anything away from a quality performance. Silvio Berlusconi believed it was the best first half hed seen from Milan in years.
Juventus, however, represent an altogether different proposition. Theyve got the better of Milan twice already this season and are still quite remarkably undefeated in all competitions. Sure, Juventus draw too much, but if they win on Saturday theyll go two points clear and still have a game in hand. Though the spotlight will once again fall on Andrea Pirlo - the former Milan playmaker acknowledged by Juventus fans in a recent banner as the sun in our solar system - its worth pausing here to sing the praises of the teams unsung hero this season. Andrea Barzagli has become a pillar at the back for Juventus. He has played every game for the club in Serie A this season and has never been substituted. A defense that had conceded 32 goals at this stage last year has let in just 14 and is now the best in Italy. Its quite a turnaround. The question is: Can they keep Milan out again? Thats been the basis of much of the pre-match debate. Theres a sense that an attack composed of Robinho and the fit-again Alexandre Pato might give Juventus more problems than one featuring Ibrahimovic. Why? Because theyre quick, mobile and give defenses fewer reference points. It promises to be another fascinating match, not least because its one of paradoxes. Juventus have raised their game in the big matches this season but dropped points in the littler ones. With Milan, its been completely the opposite, faltering against their rivals, while battering the minnows. Will that trend continue on Saturday night? Or will it be broken? Whatever happens, its likely to have a telling psychological impact on the title race.