x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Juventus, Milan and Napoli turn attention back to domestic issues, writes Ian Hawkey.

AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli left it late to equalise against Ajax. EPA
AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli left it late to equalise against Ajax. EPA

After a week of slip-ups, scrambled equalisers and blatant shortcomings in the Uefa Champions League, Serie A’s representatives in the competition could hardly help but be reminded of what Antonio Conte, the coach of Juventus, had gloomily predicted six months ago.

“It will be a long time,” he said, “before a team from Italy can win the European Cup again.”

His team had just been knocked out by Bayern Munich, who can expose deficiencies in any opponent.

But what was alarming for the trio of Italian clubs in the second week of the group phase is how brusquely each was put on their back foot. Napoli, AC Milan and Juve all fell behind in their midweek encounters.

Napoli, at Arsenal, showed few signs of recovering, and the manner in which Milan and Juve scraped a point each has left both keenly aware of their vulnerabilities as they go into tomorrow’s confrontation with one another.

Milan are making a habit of resolving tricky setbacks very late, indeed. Just as Mario Balotelli’s 94th-minute penalty earned a European point at Ajax on Tuesday, two last-gasp Milan goals against Bologna last weekend brought them back from a 3-1 deficit.

Coincidence? If so, it’s an increasingly eerie one when you note that Milan only drew with Torino thanks to two goals in the last four minutes, and were blanked at home by Celtic until the 81st minute, an own goal eventually breaking the deadlock before Sulley Muntari, five minutes later, put a deceptive gloss on their 2-0 success.

Massimiliano Allegri talked of “deliberate tactics”, based on a low-risk, cagey first hour against Ajax, and with a look out of the corner of his eye at the club’s treasurers, linked that to a shortage of available players to freshen up his approach.

If energy conservation has become a pressing issue in early October, then the next nine months are going to be testing. As for the next 90 minutes against Juve – a fixture as charged for milanisti as the local derby with Inter Milan – Allegri certainly has his resources stretched.

Balotelli is absent, serving the last game of a three-match domestic ban, and injuries curtail Allegri’s other attacking options, with Stephan El Shaarawy, Giampaolo Pazzini, Kaka and Valter Birsa all out of contention. Nor are Milan amply covered at the back, with Matias Silvestre and Daniel Bonera still recovering fitness. There the strain is also beginning to show, particularly on central defenders Philippe Mexes and Cristian Zapata, who have been struggling to impose themselves in the air.

Of the 12 goals Milan have allowed, seven have come from headers,

Juve’s Conte will have registered that, and may be tempted to give the tall Fernando Llorente a start at centre-forward.