ARE ITALY’S SLEEPING GIANTS FINALLY AWAKE?

It seems an age ago since Serie A was considered one of the best leagues in the world. Once one of the fiercest competitions – with AC and Inter Milan battling out some of the best derbies ever seen, world class players a plenty throughout the league and constant powerhouses in Europe – more recently it has become a league with a similar feel to that of Ligue 1 in France, dominated by one team: winner of the last 9 league titles, Juventus.  This season on the other hand, both Milan clubs have other ideas. Over 20 games in the league played so far and finally, we have a title race on our hands.

HOW IT STANDS SO FAR

Whilst AC’s appointment of Stefano Pioli was met with #PioliOut trending 24 hours before his appointment was even announced, many AC fans will now be counting their blessings Pioli was appointed. Top of the table after 21 games, 2 points ahead of rivals Inter and perhaps most notably 7 points over 3rd place Juventus, albeit with a game in hand.

MONEY TALKS IN MILAN

Since 2019 both Milan sides have looked to develop teams capable of toppling Juventus. AC Milan have spent around £120 million, most notably in the 19/20 season where the bulk of it was spent. Wide attacker Rafael Leao was brought in from Lille for £26.5 million, box to box midfielder Franck Kessie for £21 million and energetic full-back Theo Hernandez £19.35 million. Throw that in with the free transfer of a certain superhuman Zlatan Ibrahimovic and you have a very productive window. This season however they’ve been shrewder with their spending, looking to add depth to a squad full of quality. Ante Rebic and young future star Jens Petter Hauge were brought in for £4.5 million each, adding depth up front and in attacking wide areas, with the biggest outlay coming from the £9 million loan fee for Italy’s very own Pirlo 2.0, Sandro Tonali.

Over on the blue side of Milan, Inter have spent far more than their local rivals in the past couple of seasons, totalling up £248 million spent since 2019, with a huge £66 million spent on goal scoring machine Romelu Lukaku who has 37 goals in 56 league games in his time in Milan. Elsewhere major outlays were spent on Christian Eriksen, Valentino Lazaro and Matteo Politano, all costing around 20-25 million pounds each. Unlike their counter-parts AC, the spending didn’t stop this season. With Achraf Hakimi – a revelation on loan at Dortmund the previous year – costing Inter £36 million from Real Madrid and box to box midfielder Nicolo Barella being brought in for £25 million.

THE STANDOUTS IN MILAN

This season for AC Milan 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been worth his weight in gold. Ageing like a fine wine, it seems no matter how old Zlatan gets, he keeps delivering. 14 goals in just 10 appearances for the veteran this season, Ibrahimovic still seems as hungry as ever to produce when it matters. In terms of goals, it’s two others brought in from that 2019 window helping ease the burden on Ibrahimovic. Rafael Leao has chipped in with 5 goals and 5 assists from left-wing and Franck Kessie has chipped in with no fewer than 7 from central midfield. A rather unbelievable performer this season for AC has been playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu. With 8 assists to his name so far, it’s his chance created per 90 minutes that stands out most, averaging 3.00 chances created per 90. Only Jack Grealish of Aston Villa has a better chance creation this season in the top 5 leagues with 3.10.

For Inter, it’s that famous front two. Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, both forwards are not only clinical in front of goal, but they’ve developed a partnership that would be feared in any league in the world. With 14 goals for Romelu Lukaku and 10 for Martinez, Inter find themselves with two fruitful sources in front of goal this season. This summer’s signing Hakimi has hit the ground running in Italy, with 6 goals and 4 assists from right wing-back, I don’t think there’s a wing-back in the world who would fit Antonio Conte’s wing-back system quite as well as Hakimi. Elsewhere, midfield duo Barella and Brozovic have notched up 5 and 6 assists respectively, showing that Inter Milan can produce goals from so many different areas of the pitch.

JUVENTUS TROUBLES

The Pirlo experiment at Juventus is a fascinating one, with his coaching qualifications rushed through with just days to spare before his first league outing against Sampdoria and being appointed the under-23 manager just weeks before moving to the head coach role, Pirlo found himself fast-tracked right to the very top and this turbulent start was just the beginning of the problems for the Italian great.

It’s no secret that the Juventus squad is an ageing one, something they addressed in the summer with the signings of Arthur, Chiesa, Kulusevski and Weston McKennie. But it’s the old guard that are still relied upon. With 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo topping the goalscoring charts with 16, there isn’t another Juventus player in the top 10 goal scorers in Serie A. Old centre-back pairing Bonucci and Chiellini are still in and around the squad, and make shift right-back Cuadrado still manages to play his fair share of games, all of whom are over the age of 30.

On-top of this, with COVID hitting the footballing world Juventus’ wage structure has been exposed for the shambles it is. Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo tops the list but it’s the scale of which he is paid in comparison to the rest of the squad that hits home the most, earning around 31 million Euros per year, in comparison to the second highest, Matthijs De Ligt, who earns 8 million Euros per year. This model is totally unsustainable in today’s climate. With Ronaldo being brought in to win the Champions League but that seemingly a dream at this point and now 4th in the league with a game in hand, have Juventus finally come unstuck?

FINALLY

The end of the season promises to be one of the most exciting finales in years for Italy, something football fans from all over will be keen to see unfold. Will AC be able to sustain their brilliant season so far? Will biggest rivals Inter beat them to the title using their bigger spending power? Perhaps the least surprising outcome would still be for Juventus to turn it around and win the title for the tenth time! Hopefully this is just the start for many title races to come in Italy, returning to former glories not only domestically but in Europe too.

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