AC Milan look to upset Juventus in Coppa Italia with Sassuolo support
A big screen will show the Coppa Italia final in Sassuolo's piazza Garibaldi on Saturday night. Thousands of fans will gather to watch events at the Olimpico in Rome, which in itself is quite curious given their team isn't playing.
The Neroverdi were knocked out of the competition at the fifth-round stage by Cagliari back in December. They will instead watch champions Juventus take on AC Milan in a repeat of the finals of 1942, 1973 and 1990.
You can understand Sassuolo's owner, Giorgio Squinzi, tuning in. He's a big Milan supporter and there have been calls for him to relieve Silvio Berlusconi of his shares in the club.
Berlusconi recently expressed his preference via a video message posted on his Facebook page that Milan remain in Italian hands. You get the impression that another Squinzi would be his dream successor. Sassuolo are the team -- a young, gifted, almost entirely Italian team -- that Berlusconi wants at San Siro, just on a grander scale.
This Saturday, however, Squinzi will feel conflicted. While his heart will undoubtedly beat for Milan, his head will be cheering on Juventus. All of Sassuolo will be behind the champions of Italy and not just because of the special relationship between the clubs. One acts almost as a finishing school for the other, nurturing the talent of Simone Zaza, Domenico Berardi and in the future maybe Stefano "the new Marco Verratti" Sensi, too.
Their alliance is instead explained by the fact that if Milan lose, Sassuolo will qualify for Europe for the first time in their history. Coming a decade after celebrating their promotion from the fourth division, many feel they are more deserving of a place in the Europa League than the dysfunctional Milan. Impeccably run, they make plans and stick to them. It's why their coach, Eusebio di Francesco, extended his contract until 2020. "I will not go where there is confusion," he explained amid speculation linking him with the Milan job, where confusion reigns.
A major part of Sassuolo's rise through the divisions can also be found sitting in the Juventus dugout. Massimiliano Allegri was in charge when they were promoted to Serie B for the first time. Milan sacked him after Sassuolo came back from 2-0 down to beat them 4-3. Berardi famously got all their goals. Prior to the game, Berlusconi had already long started belittling Allegri. Busy on the campaign trail, he was overheard saying that his then coach "doesn't have a clue" about football.
On the contrary, what has happened since makes him look like a mastermind. Allegri has won the Scudetto twice. He guided Juventus to the Champions League final and after bringing the Coppa Italia back to Turin for the first time since 1995, he could make history on Saturday by becoming the first coach to do the so-called doppio bis -- or double-double. Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone. People forget Allegri left Milan in the Champions League. They were still in the round of 16, preparing to face Atletico Madrid, who swiftly eliminated them. That now feels like an awful long time ago and unless Milan upset the odds and shock Juventus to end 13 years of bad luck in the Coppa, they will be out of Europe altogether for a third straight season.
The scale of the task awaiting them is evident just by glancing at the league table, where they are separated by 34 points. Quite depressingly, Milan finished closer to the relegation zone than they did to Juventus. During the past five years, the Old Lady has become their femme fatale. They have suffered eight straight defeats to her, the worst streak in the history of this rivalry.
Tellingly, the last Milan coach to be victorious against Juventus was Allegri and La Stampa believes that we should at least consider the possibility that, upon his dismissal, he then worked some bad magic and put the same sort of curse on his former club as Bela Guttmann did at Benfica. One imagines Berlusconi and chief executive Adriano Galliani will tell themselves that before looking in the mirror and acknowledging that their mismanagement is principally responsible for Milan's decline.
Juventus are the super favorita on Saturday and understandably so. It's theirs to lose. "We've got to be humble and know that in games like these the best team doesn't always win," Paul Pogba told Sky Italia. "Everyone is saying that [this is the most unbalanced final in years]," Andrea Barzagli explained at Juventus' media day. "But I fear this game because I expect a show of great pride from Milan."
Footage has emerged of Berlusconi appealing to it on a visit to Milanello some time before Sinisa Mihajlovic got the sack in April. "We can't keep making a fool of ourselves," he said. "These gentlemen here are the ones who allow us to live. They give us money as sponsors and have just told me that if you carry on playing like this they won't give us any more. I won't either. And maybe it's better that I don't. You will have to go to court. Do you know how long a civil trial lasts in Italy? Eight years on average."
The Coppa offers a road to perdition, a shot at redemption. Milan haven't won it since 2003 and doing so would return them to continental competition. The players must remember how well they competed when they last met Juventus. Alex surprisingly got them in front and Milan tested Gianluigi Buffon enough to make him the man of the match. Juventus' captain will be missing on Saturday so Neto will deputise between the posts in his role as the team's cup keeper. Leonardo Bonucci is suspended and both Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio are out injured.
The question is: Are Milan capable of getting themselves into a position to take advantage? If Mihajlovic were still devising the game plan, confidence in a successful outcome would be marginally higher. Cristian Brocchi, Milan's fourth manager since Allegri's dismissal and the third without any senior level experience, has looked out of his depth and does not inspire the same cautious optimism. Making the most of their time in Rome, both teams have an audience with the Pope on Friday -- and there can be no doubt as to who is in greater need of a miracle.
In all likelihood, there will be two parties on Saturday night. One in Turin and another in Sassuolo. It's up to Milan to spoil them.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.