It’s fair to say Massimiliano Allegri wasn’t given the warmest of welcomes when he arrived at Juventus last summer.
“The first day with Allegri and the President in the car, we were greeted at the training ground by spitting, eggs and kicks,”Bianconeri director general Giuseppe Marotta recalls. “It was a challenge to turn that attitude around.”
It was a task to which Allegri rose with aplomb, guiding the Turin giants to a fourth successive Scudetto and the Coppa Italia, as well as conquering the final frontier by masterminding a Champions League run which will see the Old Lady compete for the ultimate prize in Berlin on Saturday night.
While most pundits have Barcelona down as comfortable favourites, it’s worth noting that the Tuscan Coach has overcome these opponents before. In February 2013, a Milan side containing the likes of Kevin Constant and Sulley Muntari faced off against Andres Iniesta, Xavi and the rest.
No-one gave the Rossoneri a prayer, especially with Lionel Messi in the midst of a season which would see him go on to score 60 goals in 50 games. The Argentine is in similarly lethal form this season, but a look back to that night gives some indication of how Allegri may seek to subdue the diminutive genius.
Rather than attempting to have defenders rob Messi of the ball - an almost impossible task, as the likes of Jerome Boateng will testify - the Coach instead opted for the physical presence of Muntari and Massimo Ambrosini in midfield, with Kevin-Prince Boateng dropping back to help.
The idea was to starve Messi in the attacking third, concentrating on preventing the ball reaching the attacker, rather than stopping the player himself.
It worked. Where in the group stage Messi had received the ball an average of 33 times per game in the attacking third, the Rossoneri limited him to just 18, despite only having 28 per cent of possession. A frustrated Messi didn’t manage a single shot on target, and the Diavolo ran out 2-0 winners.
A similar approach was deployed by Joachim Low’s Germany in the 2014 World Cup final, allowing Argentina’s superstar to receive the ball just eight times in their third, meaning that while his dribbling and passing was better than his tournament average, he was working his magic far from Manuel Neuer’s goal.
With Carlos Tevez always willing to drop back and aid the significant physical contribution offered by Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, don’t be surprised to see a similar tactic used to thwart Barça’s main man in Berlin.
Allegri has also enjoyed success against his opposite number, Luis Enrique, as his Milan side defeated the Spaniard’s Roma twice in 2011-12.
On both occasions the Giallorossi enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but were undone by a physical Milan side which broke quickly before using Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s considerable presence to bully the Lupi defence. Ibra scored four goals in the two games, as Allegri’s men triumphed 3-2 and 2-1.
While that Roma side could not call on the talents of Messi, or indeed Luis Suarez or Neymar, it would not be a surprise to see Juve similarly surrender the ball for long periods before looking to break quickly and exploit Barcelona’s high line.
“We’ll need to be compact and keep it tight. We need to focus exclusively on knuckling down and working hard, not on what might happen,”Allegri confirmed this week.
“Marking Messi while he moves is a near impossible task. We must be smart in working around him.”
As his Milan showed in 2013, those are not idle remarks, but indication of a concrete plan which may just see the man who was greeted with eggs on his arrival soaked in champagne on Saturday night.
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