Pirlo and Allegri both in the firing line - for very different reasons

Andrea Pirlo rarely looks ruffled on the pitch, but Italy’s most influential playmaker of the modern era has admitted in his upcoming autobiography that the sight of Antonio Conte charging through the dressing room at half-time is one of the most threatening he’s experienced in his career.

Regardless of how things are going on the pitch, the Juventus coach will generally fly into a fit of rage and, according to Pirlo, hurl anything he can get his hands on at the walls. Unfortunately, the veteran midfielder made a schoolboy error when he selected the peg nearest the changing room door, and has felt the full force of it flying open as Conte comes hurtling through.

Pirlo and the rest of the team must have been running for cover on Sunday evening, after a first-half which was more of a stand-off rather than a showdown against AC Milan – the club Juve had wrestled the title away from last season.

The first 45 minutes had dragged along at a sedate pace, a world away from the usual hectic flurry of activity associated with Juve home games. This was in part down to the tactics employed by Massimiliano Allegri, with the plan being to stifle open football, the front three acting as the first line of defence.

As Bayern Munich demonstrated, pressurizing the backline cuts off the supply to Pirlo, which in turn forces the long ball and lost possession. Unfortunately, Milan’s inability to then hold on to the ball made for a poor spectacle.

With Mirko Vucinic employed as the lone striker and Claudio Marchisio in an unfamiliar role further forward to accommodate Paul Pogba in midfield, the Milan defence was rarely troubled.

In an opening period that had Conte pacing the technical area, champing at the bit to fling a few water bottles during the break, the only bright moment was a Pirlo free-kick which deflected off the wall, forcing Christian Abbiati to adjust sharply for a reflex save.

The Milan goalkeeper strained his calf muscle in the process and had to be replaced by Marco Amelia. Allegri then lost Massimo Ambrosini with an ankle problem at the break, with the captain replaced by the equally ineffectual Sulley Muntari as the Rossoneri stuck to their blanket defending.

Juve were in need of a Conte tirade and at least after the break they provided the spark the game needed. Just before the hour mark, Pirlo’s chipped pass into the area forced Amelia into a reckless charge from his goal that only ended in the keeper clattering into Kwadwo Asamoah.

Arturo Vidal - the embodiment of Conte’s philosophy of totally commitment to the cause - dispatched the penalty high into the net. Sadly, that was about it in terms of excitement, with Milan unable to change their style from Plan A despite throwing on Bojan Krkic to replace the anonymous Robinho.

Much had been made of the clash in the build-up, with Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani claiming his team were on par with Juventus. Yet by the end of the evening, the 18-point gap told a different story, even though this was Milan’s first league defeat of the calendar year.

Juventus could be crowned champions as soon as next weekend, if they win the city derby against Torino, and Napoli fail to beat Pescara. But even if that doesn’t happen, they only need four more points from the remaining five games to confirm that they remain the dominant force in Italian football.

One suspects Conte was as jubilant at full-time as he was angry during the interval, while Allegri will likely have been the reverse. Milan now have a real battle on their hands to ensure they finish third, never mind catch Napoli for the runners-up spot.

While Turin lacked the expected drama, there was plenty to be found in Naples and Florence where the home sides were made to work all the way.

Napoli needed a 94th minute goal from Lorenzo Insigne to see off Cagliari 3-2, while Fiorentina were in danger of throwing away all three points. The Viola having gone 3-0 at home to Torino, only to come back fighting, with Romulo grabbed the winner with four minutes remaining.

Napoli extended their lead over Milan to seven points, but Fiorentina are now just a point behind the Rossoneri. Allegri’s future at Milan is on the line after draws with the aforementioned duo and the latest setback.

As Pirlo revealed in his book, Milan gave him a pen when he brought decade at the club to a close – a “nice pen” he recalled, but “still only a pen”. So Allegri should be aware that sentiment means little, and the writing will be on the wall if he fails to deliver a top-three finish.