Milan the kingmakers as Serie A enjoys tightest title race in Europe
When the final whistle blows in Italy, broadcasters tend to leap from ground-to-ground for an instant reaction from the managers. One Sunday in early February, it just so happened that Gennaro Gattuso followed Massimiliano Allegri's postmatch interview. Milan had drawn away to Udinese, a result that felt like two points dropped after Davide Calabria's red card allowed the hosts to get back into the game and share the spoils. Meanwhile, Juventus had just thrashed Sassuolo 7-0 and looked ominous.
Asked to offer each other a piece of advice, Gattuso jumped in before Allegri could think of anything and made a suggestion instead. "Max," he said, "give us a few points."
The trouble for Gattuso is that Allegri hasn't got any to spare. The tightest title race in Europe this season is in Serie A; the only title race in Europe this season is in Serie A. Just when the momentum looked like shifting definitively and seemingly inevitably toward Juventus, the unexpected happened. The champions dropped points to relegation threatened SPAL. The belief, pundits like Beppe Bergomi argued, Napoli had lost sprung anew. Victory over Genoa afforded the Partenopei the chance to move within two points of Juventus, and it was a chance they did not pass up.
The sense of anticipation ahead of the "title fight" in Turin on April 22 is already feverish. It is being billed in some quarters as the calcio equivalent of Ali versus Frazier, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves. There are four league games between then and now, and Juventus have the small matter of two legs against Real Madrid to contend with, as well.
Milan promise to have a big say in where the Scudetto ends up too. They play Juventus and Napoli before the Tussle in Turin and are being cast as kingmakers. Put one to the sword and the other takes a major step either toward retaining their crown or usurping the throne, not that Milan are interested in who stitches the Scudetto on their shirts in May.
In 2018, they have quite improbably given themselves a fighting chance of reaching the Champions League.
Milan have as good a record as Napoli since the turn of the year and still boast a game in hand, which they will play next Wednesday against Inter. Only Juventus have done better over the second half of the season. That dramatic upturn in form is why Milan's sporting director, Massimiliano Mirabelli, has arranged for a new contract to be included in the Easter egg Gattuso opens on Sunday, regardless of what happens at the Allianz Stadium the night before.
It promises to be a pivotal evening. Juventus are likely to go into it behind Napoli, whose game with Sassuolo will finish just as they are warming up. Neutrals and Napoletani alike will be hoping Dries Mertens & Co. don't slip up in Reggio Emilia, as they did in April last year. Milan, on the other hand, would no doubt draw added motivation if Lazio were to falter against Benevento and Inter contrived to mess things up against Verona.
Both scenarios appear unlikely, however, especially with the games due to take place at the Olimpico and San Siro. And yet, we must not forget Benevento and Verona's state of mind. They're fighting for their lives at the other end, and the lesson of SPAL's 0-0 with Juventus before the international break is that no one can take a win against a relegation battler for granted.
Irrespective of the general context and the thrilling realisation that everything is still to play for in Serie A, Saturday's game between Juventus and Milan captures the imagination even in abstract. Think about it: This is the first time Leonardo Bonucci faces his old side and returns to Turin since his move in the summer, when he vowed to "shift the balance" of power back in Milan's direction. Behind him there is Gianluigi Donnarumma, who helped Milan claim their first piece of silverware in many a year by saving Paulo Dybala's penalty in the Super Cup 18 months ago.
Still standing in the way of him and the Italy No. 1 shirt is Gigi Buffon. Against Argentina, he showed us once again why age is nothing but a number, distinguishing himself in Manchester as the Azzurri's best player even in a 2-0 defeat. This is expected to be the 40-year-old's final game against the team he debuted against although on that subject, his successor Wojciech Szczesny said this week he'd have absolutely no problem with the veteran playing on for another season.
On the wings, it'll be tasty to see who has the bigger impact: Douglas Costa for Juve or Suso for Milan. Up front, Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain have shown up when it matters in big games, while Patrick Cutrone, fresh from his Italy debut, continues to make it difficult for Gattuso to drop him. His passion is so infectious. And there are signs of life from Andre Silva, who has managed to convince his manager to play with two strikers by scoring decisive late goals in wins against Genoa and Chievo.
It's an experienced Juve against a youthful Milan, and for all that it promises to tells us about the title race and the battle for fourth, we shouldn't forget it also is an indicator of what might happen in May's Coppa Italia final.
Cynics will highlight the fact that Milan have never won in Turin since the inauguration of Allianz Stadium. Worse still, they've always returned home empty-handed in the league, as well. You have to go back seven years to find the last time Milan emerged triumphant from Juventus' lair. As fate would have it, Gattuso scored the only goal. A sign of destiny perhaps, except the coach in the away dugout that day is now on the other side.
Allegri won the title with Milan that year, the Rossoneri's first since 2004. He is now on course for the fifth of his career, and on Monday he picked up his third Panchina d'Oro, Italy's coach of the year award.
"I'd like to thank all the coaches who voted for me. I'd like to wish them all good luck for the remainder of the season," Allegri said. A wry smile then spread across his face. "Sarri a little less," he joked.
Who exactly has the last laugh in a thrilling season remains to be seen.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.