Sunday’s encounter between Milan and Juventus is monumental for a number of reasons. The most pressing of those is the seven-point gap that separates these two old rivals in the Serie A table, but there’s another particularly interesting sub-plot to look out for at San Siro this weekend.
Hosts Milan head into the latest round of fixtures in second place, two points behind defending champions Inter, who also have a game in hand over their local rivals. Victory over Juve would take the Rossoneri 10 points clear of the Old Lady, with only 15 matches of the season remaining.
That would be a significant advantage in Milan’s bid to leave the Bianconeri trailing in their wake. Yet a win for the visitors would bring them to within four points of Stefano Pioli’s side, while also taking their current unbeaten run in Serie A to nine matches, with seven victories.
Both teams’ chances will be significantly affected by the key midfield battle between Sandro Tonali and Manuel Locatelli. The two Italy internationals carry much hope for the future for both club and country, and this weekend’s encounter represents something of a yardstick for their respective development ahead of the 2022 World Cup at the end of the year.
Still only 21, Tonali was dubbed ‘the new Pirlo’ in the early days of his career, drawing comparisons to the Azzurri legend not only for his style of play, but also for his flowing dark locks. That kind of tag always brings undue pressure, often preventing players from developing in their natural way when compared to legendary figures within the game.
Tonali certainly failed to live up to most people’s expectations during his first season at Milan, which was on an initial loan from boyhood club Brescia, who he joined at the age of 12. The Lodi native made his professional debut just five years later, before taking a pay cut to secure his dream move to Milan.
Despite struggling last term, Tonali has adapted well this time round. He has adapted to the double pivot favoured by Pioli, with the Rossoneri coach also taking credit for bringing his talented midfielder on through his tough training regime. It’s been an impressive journey at San Siro so far, and one that Locatelli will, in some ways, be hoping to replicate.
This is because Locatelli, like Tonali was, is on an initial loan deal at Juve, although it is for two years rather than one. The Bianconeri do have an obligation to buy, but Locatelli must impress in order to retain the Old Lady’s trust. He has to prove himself, and will be desperate to do that when he comes up against the team who let him leave for Sassuolo in 2018.
Locatelli turned 24 earlier this month, and is now thriving in the heart of the Juventus midfield. His performances have been central to the Old Lady’s rise up the table over the winter period, as Max Allegri’s return begins to pay the dividends most observers thought it would.
That makes Sunday’s fixture huge in a myriad of ways, whether you’re looking at the immediacy of the points gap, the more generalised standing of these two massive clubs within Italy’s present footballing landscape, and the chances of these two men when it comes to starring for the Azzurri in Qatar.
Roberto Mancini will be keeping a close eye on this game, with Italy only scheduled to play eight more times before their World Cup preparations start in earnest. If Tonali can prove that at three years Locatelli’s junior, he has the mettle to control a massive contest such as this, it will boost his claim to being included in the Azzurri squad no end – after missing out on Italy’s Euro 2020-winning campaign.
Likewise, if Locatelli can replicate his recent form with a huge display away to Serie A’s second-placed side, it will put Mancini on notice that he is ready to reclaim the starting berth place he lost to Marco Verratti at the Euros. Locatelli started the first two group games, scoring twice against Switzerland as Italy won both matches 3-0, but was replaced by Verratti after the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder returned from injury.
With Jorginho’s place secure, and Nicolo Barella also looking like a mainstay in Mancini’s XI, it’s going to be tough for either of these players to break into the starting lineup. Chances often arise at international tournaments though, as Locatelli proved in the summer, and both men must be ready to step up if called upon.
Tonali was suspended for Milan’s controversial last-gasp defeat to Spezia on Monday, which prevented the Rossoneri from entering this weekend as the league leaders. Locatelli, meanwhile, played 90 minutes in Juve’s 4-1 Coppa Italia victory over Sampdoria on Tuesday. Although Tonali ought to have the fresher legs for Sunday’s battle, Locatelli will be buoyed by the praise he has received for his standout performance in Juve’s cup triumph.
It remains to be seen how those variables affect their respective displays on Sunday, but whoever gains the upper hand at San Siro this weekend will do both themselves and their clubs the power of good in the process.