Juventus’ dominance challenged by resurgence of Milan clubs

AP – Like 2020 in general, it’s been a strange year for the Serie A.

For the first time since 2009, both Milan clubs are at the top of the Italian league standings heading into the winter break.

Inter Milan went on to win the title that season, with city rival AC Milan claiming it the following campaign.

Neither have won it since, in a nine-year domination of Serie A by Juventus, but Milan end the year one point ahead of second-place Inter.

Juventus uncharacteristically find themselves in sixth, trailing Milan by 10 points — albeit having played a match less.

Milan can’t quite claim the symbolic title of ‘Winter Champion’, however, as that goes to the team top of Serie A at the halfway stage. With the season having started later than usual, because of the the coronavirus pandemic on the last campaign, only 14 of the 19 rounds making up the first half of the season have been played.

AC Milan’s Hakan Calhanoglu celebrates with teammate Ante Rebic during a Serie A match at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy. PHOTO: AP

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

MESMERISING MILAN

Milan have collected 34 points from their first 14 league matches, exactly double the number they had at the same stage last year.

It is also the only unbeaten team across Europe’s top five leagues, with 10 wins and four draws and within touching distance of a record.

Milan are only the second side in those five leagues to have scored at least two goals in more than 15 successive matches reaching back to last season. The Rossoneri have done so in 16 and are closing in on Barcelona’s record of 18, set in 1948.

The key difference between this year and last is that Milan now has veteran forward Zlatan Ibrahimović.

They were 12th when Ibrahimović returned in January, eight years after his departure — and that of others — sparked a spiral of decline.

Ibrahimović has helped transform the club not only with his goals on the field but also his leadership qualities off it.

The 39-year-old has played less than half his team’s matches this season as he has been sidelined with the coronavirus and injuries, but has scored 10 goals in his six league matches.

Ibrahimović also helped coach Stefano Pioli bring out the best in Milan’s young players. So youthful is Milan’s squad that this season they have been fielding the two youngest starting lineups in Serie A since at least 2004-2005.

“Pioli told me that there (Sweden) I have two children but here I have 25 and they need me,” Ibrahimović said in a recent interview, when asked if he had thought of going to his native Sweden when he was injured.

FLAILING JUVE

Things are not going to plan at Juventus for new coach Andrea Pirlo.

Pirlo was tasked with turning Juventus into a more attractive side and ending the club’s quarter-century wait for Champions League success, despite it being his very first coaching position.

But the Bianconeri are faltering in Serie A, which they have dominated for the previous nine seasons.

Under the 41-year-old, Juventus are having one of its worst starts since 2010 and are 11 points worse off than they were after 13 matches last season under predecessor Maurizio Sarri.

Their problems are drawing matches it would have previously won. Pirlo’s side have already drawn six matches — more than any of the last eight seasons apart from 2014-15.

The defending champions also appear to have become too dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo and struggle when he has an unusually sub-par performance.

Ronaldo and his teammates ended the year with what Juventus captain Leonardo Bonucci said was the team’s worst performance of the season as they lost 3-0 at home to relegation-threatened Fiorentina.

Much of Juve’s — and potentially Pirlo’s — fate could be decided next month when they travel to San Siro twice in the space of 11 days for key league matches against both Milan clubs.

IN-FORM INTER

The team likeliest to deny Milan the Serie A title appears to be bitter rival, Inter.

Inter have regularly finished in the top four in Serie A over the past few seasons, while Milan have not finished higher than fifth in the league since 2013.

They have quietly continued racking up the wins and are on a streak of seven successive league victories.

After finishing just one point behind champions Juve last season, Antonio Conte – who started Juve’s unprecedented era of dominance – could be the man to end it.