Week 20’s key fixture saw first place Juventus entertain third place Udinese. Pre-match describing the game as worth six points in the title race, Antonio Conte admitted in the wake of the subsequent 2-1 win of the trepidation that he had carried into this fixture.
Indeed, where counterpart Francesco Guidolin humbly suggested that most of the game would see Udinese defending, that in itself was the risk to Conte. The Zebrette like few before to have visited the Turin side’s new stadium carried the significant threat of a counter-attacking style of play capable of taking points away from the Bianconeri.
As was the case in Udine just before Christmas, Conte opted to counteract this trait of the Udine side by mirroring Guidolin’s 3-5-2 shape on the pitch. Whilst the midweek Coppa Italia win over Roma demonstrated the players’ growing confidence in this plan B tactic, their performance on Saturday confirmed the more disciplined aspects they were able to provide in it.
Also significant to the result and as to why the game swung generally in the home team’s favour was the interesting side-story that both Coaches faced the challenge of encountering each other without key personnel. Where Mirko Vucinic was out injured and Claudio Marchisio and Simone Pepe were only fit to make the Juve bench, Udinese were without Giampiero Pinzi and Africa Cup of Nations participants Mehdi Benatia, Kwadwo Asamoah and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu.
Both teams had relied through the season upon these respective absentees, particularly in midfield, to provide a mixture of energy, running and incisiveness at both ends of the pitch. As the post-match questions both Coaches faced suggested, it was Conte who proved the most apt in finding a solution.
Where Guidolin was taken to task on his tactics and of his struggles to balance the middle of the park aptly, Conte was talking about Emanuele Giaccherini’s performance in the surprising role of mezz’ala – attacking central midfield. Indeed, whilst not the most statistically effective performance from the diminutive footballer – seven others in the starting XI were more accurate with their passing for example – it was one that demonstrated a new tactical flexibility to his game.
“He has intensity, rhythm, technique, can beat his man, hardly loses the ball, fits well between the lines and his timing is right,” exclaimed Conte afterwards.
Giaccherini was, as Il Corriere della Sera suggested, more comfortable in the middle than out wide, whilst Conte’s praise was perhaps due to his intelligent movement across the midfield that ensured in both key defending and attacking situations that Juve maintained the numerical advantage the Coach had planned for.
La Gazzetta dello Sport remarked of his ‘tears from midfield’ as important to opening space for Andrea Pirlo to pass into during the game. His movement in the middle was intelligent and underrated. Combined with the work-rate he has previously shown this season, his performance evoked comparisons with names of old at the club whose contribution was equally as important to the club’s history of success as its more famous names.
“His example should give encouragement for us to focus on players from smaller teams,” suggested Conte. “If you look at the lower Leagues you can find beautiful fairy tales. In my day this was true – I remember Angelo Di Livio, Moreno Torricelli…and I arrived from Lecce.”
Conte was referring to the value Giaccherini represents for the Old Lady. Indeed, €3m – even for a half share – compares nicely with €9m Eljero Elia and €15m Milos Krasic at the moment and it also adds to the truth in Conte’s comparison of the midfielder with his old teammate Di Livio.
Whilst the duo have parallels in their respective careers – forging a reputation at lower-League level and only making Serie A debuts well into their 20s – it is the determination and attitude that Giaccherini is demonstrating that is where the similarity is most significant going forward. Indeed, upon retiring, Di Livio reflected that the reason he was able to both forge a reputation in Turin as an equally dogged and tactically intelligent player and that he was able to play to the age of 39 was because of his work-rate and the belief that, at whatever age, there is room to improve as a player.
The praise surrounding Giaccherini’s emergence – and indeed the surprise that it has come as an alternative to Marchisio – has arrived alongside the belief that it is fully merited because of the player’s application in training. Whilst it remains early to suggest Giak can go on to have the same impact as Di Livio and that Juve can come to rely on him in quite the same way, the characteristics are developing in that way, as consecutive contributions against Atalanta, Roma and Udinese all now highlight.
Elsewhere, Inter’s attempts to equal Jose Mourinho’s club record of eight consecutive wins ended in disappointing style as they became the first team to lose away to Lecce all season. It proved particularly frustrating for Wesley Sneijder who argued with teammates, received an earful in return from Giampaolo Pazzini and was substituted at half-time to then hear his Coach admit that fitting him in at the moment is difficult.
Frustration also allegedly got the better of Francesco Totti. Goaded before the match by Alessandro Diamanti, Totti was reportedly involved in an on-pitch clash with Andrea Raggi that forced the defender off injured. A furious Raggi was reportedly then escorted away down the tunnel when he had tried to furiously explain to nearby journalists as to why he had come off.
No such anxiety for Zlatan Ibrahimovic who with 11 goals in his last 10 appearances is approaching a period of the year that is notoriously statistically difficult for him to score in. He is enjoying his best goal-scoring form since arriving in Italy in 2004.
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