In a weekend where the top five teams in Serie A all won, its easy to find storylines. Inter’s seven straight win in Serie A, or Dries Mertens scoring a hat-trick, or Paulo Dybala’s false nine role. But the place to start is AC Milan against Udinese; not for its quality, though. This was a hard fought, hard won and much needed three points for Milan.
Serie A Weekend: Juve, Napoli, Inter and Milan Winners
Milan Win at the Death
When Milan travelled to Udinese, they would have expected a team like their opponents to play with their backs against the wall. The relegation fighters sat just above the relegation zone when this game started, hoping to get points off of Gennaro Gattuso’s fourth-place outfit. At half-time, they had done half the job well; the only note of the first half being Gonzalo Higuain going off with what looked like a back injury.
In the second half, it was more of the same game as the first. Milan had most of the possession in the game, but it’s hard to do anything with Franck Kessie and Tiemoue Bakayoko as your only central midfielders. They tried and they tried and might have thought it would go to nothing, but it was all worth it.
In the 97th minute, yes, the 97th minute, the ball was ping-ponging around in the Udinese box before eventually finding its way to Alessio Romagnoli. The captain then smashed the ball into the side netting for the crucial winner, the three points bringing Milan back into the top four, level on points with fifth-place Lazio.
The weekend got started on Friday night with Napoli smashing Empoli 5-1 at the San Paolo. Napoli are really taking to Carlo Ancelotti, playing his preferred systems instead of their 4-3-3, and accepting a healthy squad rotation. This time, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne started up front together and the diminutive duo were in the goals straight away.
Insigne scored in the ninth minute and assisted Mertens’s first goal in the 39th. It was more of the same after the half, Mertens bagged two more goals and an assist as they romped Empoli. That’s seven Serie A goals for Mertens as he continues the form he has been in over the last two seasons even without Maurizio Sarri.
First up on Saturday was Inter Milan, who took on Genoa at the San Siro and, much like Napoli, thoroughly dominated. Inter had 62% possession, 20 shots, and five goals in an outstanding performance, all without Mauro Icardi, who has been doing a lot of scoring in his own right this season.
This game though was all about Joao Mario, a man discarded by Luciano Spalletti last season and even loaned to West Ham. It all seemed forgotten on Saturday. Joao Mario played a part in almost every goal, even getting his own for his efforts. For someone playing at West Ham last season, this was a big performance to prove his worth to the squad and the aforementioned Spalletti.
These two wins meant both Inter and Napoli sit level on 25 points. There are two strong sides there waiting for Juventus to slip up but it didn’t happen this weekend. Juve had a home game against Cagliari to warm up for their Champions League game midweek against Manchester United.
The formation has worked quite well in recent weeks as Dybala has started as the central striker in their last three games, all wins. Since Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi made the false nine role popular, it has been tried by various teams to, frankly, little success. But few have had someone as talented as Paulo Dybala try the role, and no one has also had Cristiano Ronaldo in that team.
Those factors could make the system work really well. When it worked at Barcelona, it was because they had Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and later David Villa running in off the creative play of Messi. If Dybala can do something similar the formation will create loads of chances for Ronaldo, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic coming in off the wings.
In this case against Cagliari, it produced a comfortable 3-1 with goals from Dybala and Cuadrado, along with an own goal. The win took Juve up to 31 points through 11 games; only two points dropped all season.