Milan’s Zlatan-less Juventus challenge

Judging by Milan’s anger at the rejection of their appeal to reduce Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s three-match ban in the hope that he would be available again for Saturday’s eagerly anticipated top of the table clash with Juventus at San Siro, one could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that they don’t believe they can win without him.

“The game for the Scudetto will be without Mister Scudetto,” wrote La Repubblica. Ibrahimovic’s 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? There’s absolutely no doubt Ibrahimovic is Milan’s 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, Friday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport offered a reminder of how Ibrahimovic’s 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 Ibrahimovic’s absence before. They’ve 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 wouldn’t want their best player on the pitch? But it’s not the end of the world, not when one also considers that Ibrahimovic hasn’t had much luck playing against his former club. Indeed, he has scored just once in his last seven encounters with Juventus.

Last weekend’s 3-1 win at Cesena offered proof that Milan can still deliver in Ibrahimovic’s absence. True, the opposition were weak, but that shouldn’t take anything away from a quality performance. Silvio Berlusconi believed it was the best first half he’d seen from Milan in years.

Juventus, however, represent an altogether different proposition. They’ve 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 they’ll 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” – it’s worth pausing here to sing the praises of the team’s 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. It’s quite a turnaround.

The question is: Can they keep Milan out again? That’s been the basis of much of the pre-match debate. There’s 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 they’re quick, mobile and give defenses fewer reference points.

It promises to be another fascinating match, not least because it’s one of paradoxes. Juventus have raised their game in the big matches this season but dropped points in the littler ones. With Milan, it’s 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, it’s likely to have a telling psychological impact on the title race.