"Perhaps," suggested Ciro Ferrara, the head coach of Juventus, "the Christmas break has served to make everybody calm down a little." He was talking ahead of tonight's visit by AC Milan to Turin's Stadio Olimpico and the thought occurred to several of the reporters listening to him that his trademark spectacles might be assuming a rosy tint as he uttered those words.
Calm? At Juventus? Since returning from their winter rest, Juve's players and coaching staff have been reading about almost daily sightings of the veteran Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, in Italy, and about the sumptuous offers he has supposedly received to replace Ferrara should Juventus carry their poor form of November and December into 2010. A victory against Parma in midweek at least gave Ferrara three points with which to start the new year. It may, moreover, have kept him in employment for today's high-profile confrontation. But calm?
Juve's 2-1 victory featured a red card, for Martin Caceres, and the points were secured only by virtue of an own-goal. Ferrara's long injury list also grew, with David Trezeguet joining a roll call that already includes Vicenzo Iaquinta, Mauro Camoranesi and Gigi Buffon. On Friday, Sebastian Giovinco pulled up with a complaint in training. Momo Sissoko, the Mali midfield player, has departed for the African Cup of Nations and Caceres is suspended.
Milan have compromises to make, too, with fitness doubts over Alexandre Pato, Clarence Seedorf, Gianluca Zambrotta and Massimo Oddo, but Leonardo, their head coach, has had a happy January so far in terms of swelling his resources. David Beckham made his first appearance since rejoining the club from LA Galaxy in the 5-2 win over Genoa last Wednesday and the King of the Comeback performed with distinction. More surprising, perhaps, was that Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored that night.
The Dutchman's contributions since arriving from Real Madrid last August have been so fitful that the club was assumed to be ready to move him on at the earliest opportunity. Huntelaar will appreciate more than anyone Beckham's return. The Holland international is not a centre-forward who typically creates a great deal for himself outside the penalty area. What he can do well is put himself on the end of crosses. Beckham's talent in providing those is famous, and remains an important part of his game, even at 34.
Pippo Inzaghi, the Milan striker, would attest to that. He profited several times last season from Beckham's centres. Marco Borriello, injured the last time Beckham was at Milan, will also anticipate benefits from playing in the same team as the Englishman. And Borriello is in form. He now has six goals for the season after his brace against Genoa. All told, the visitors have much the happier momentum going into this fixture. And in the battle of the novice coaches, Leonardo is on top. The doubts about his readiness for taking on a first job in senior management were back in October being cast around as noisily as those same concerns now stalk Ferrara. No longer.
"I can only be satisfied with the work Leonardo has done so far," said Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani. "I never doubted him." Today, Galliani added, would be an important milestone. Milan's young coach has had a mixed record in his examinations so far: a heavy defeat by Inter, but a win and a draw against Real Madrid. "I regard Juve-Milan as the real derby of Italy," said Galliani, "because Juventus are the team with most scudetti, Italian titles, and Milan are the team with most trophies overall. Whoever wins this one stays chasing Inter in the top, and we still have a game in hand."