In its 95-year history, the San Siro has seen it all. From World Cups to Champions League finals, few Milan derby clashes have had as much riding on them as the one the San Siro hosts on Sunday when top of the table Inter face second placed Milan. The two Milanese clubs will battle to get one hand on their first Serie A title in a decade.
Derby Day in Milan
Despite a decade of under achievement and turmoil at both of the city’s club, the Milan derby has remained one of football’s most enticing fixtures. The greatest era of Italian football saw this fixture put German World Cup winning trio Matthaus, Brehme and Klinsmann against the Dutch masters Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard. A decade ago, an Alexander Pato brace set Milan on their way to a 3-0 win over Inter to begin a crucial run of run-in victories that saw Milan crowned champions at the expense of their local rivals who had won the previous four Serie A titles.
Since those heady days, both Milan clubs have struggled while Juventus have won a record nine straight titles with Napoli and Roma their most regular challengers. Milan have struggled with ownership troubles and a high turnover of both coaches and sporting directors, with the seven-time European Champions last qualifying for the Champions League back in 2013. Inter have suffered similar problems since Jose Mourinho lead them to a historic treble in 2010. They have gone through frequent ownership changes and a staggering 13 managers.
With both clubs struggling and committed to building a new stadium with a possible opening date in 2022, it seemed the San Siro would bow out of world football on a whimper. However, this season has seen the Milanese giants dominate Serie A, and Sunday’s derby encounter will go a long way to settling which one will be crowned champions.
Conte’s Inter Revolution
Antonio Conte has never been someone who did things quietly, and his Inter revolution has been a typically combustible affair. After a decade in the shadows, Inter made a huge statement of intent in 2019 by bringing the former Italy coach in and they soon emerged as the biggest rivals to all conquering Juventus. Inter backed up Conte’s arrival with the addition of record signing Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker quickly shook off a a troubled spell with Manchester United by banging in 34 goals in his debut season at the San Siro as Inter finished second in the league and made the Europa League final. However, Conte ruffled feathers in the Inter boardroom by questioning the clubs ambition, despite the huge outlay on new players. Despite failing to add a trophy and the bust up, Inter wisely kept faith with Conte and it’s now close to paying off.
Despite an early exit from Europe and league defeat to Milan, Conte’s side now sits atop of Serie A. Again, progress didn’t come cheaply with Inter spending big on right wing back Achraf Hakimi and making Nicola Barella’s loan deal a permanent signing. Hakimi, who was a sensation at Borussia Dortmund last season, has been in excellent form again while Barella has again excelled in midfield alongside Marcelo Brozovic. Conte has shown an unexpected adaptability, nuancing the 3-4-3 system that brought him success at Juve and Chelsea into a 3-1-4-2 with Lautaro Martinez forming a deadly pairing with Lukaku.
Not everything has worked for Conte; notably the addition of Christian Eriksen who remains a tactical misfit. While Alexis Sanchez has improved since leaving Old Trafford, he remains a shadow of the player who tore it up in Serie A with Udinese. The pressure on Conte to deliver after such an expensive two years is immense. However, Inter will go into the derby with a one-point lead at the top of the table.
Renaissance for the Rossoneri
When Stefano Pioli was appointed manager in October 2019, Milan were entertaining genuine relegation fears and most saw Pioli as a placeholder appointment with RB Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann seemingly lined to join at the end of the season. The early weeks were bumpy for Pioli, with a 5-0 hammering from Atalanta as a particular low point. However, the experienced manager brought order from chaos and Milan stabilized, finishing sixth in Serie A and reached the Copa Italia semifinals.
The improvement won Pioli an extended stay in the hot seat, but despite renewed optimism, few Milan fans expected what followed in the first half of the season. Milan won their opening four games, including victory over Inter. In all, they went 15 games unbeaten in Serie A to storm to the top of the table. Champions Juve ended the unbeaten run and last weekend’s shock defeat to Spezia finally saw Milan surrender the top spot. However, they are just one point behind Inter heading into the derby.
Pioli deserves much of the credit for the dramatic sea change, introducing a double pivot in midfield in which Franck Kessie has excelled alongside Ismael Bennacer. The pair has provided both defensive protection and a fluid transition into attack. Milan bought smartly in the summer bringing back veteran defender Simon Kjaer, young midfielder Alexis Saelemaekers and winger Ante Rebic back after successful loan spells. They also added Sandro Tonali on a loan to permanent deal. However, the move that has come to define Milan’s change in fortunes is inevitably the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Many questioned the logic of bringing back a 38-year old in January 2020, who hadn’t played in Europe since departing Manchester United in 2018 for what looked like a last hurrah at LA Galaxy. Ibrahimovic was part of the last Milan title winning side having previously won three with Inter, but bringing in ageing superstars to prop up the team was part of the problem that lead to Milan’s decline. However, he has proved his critics wrong, notching 11 goals in half a season last term, while bringing leadership and character to an inexperienced team. This season, he has already bagged 14 goals in Serie A while his strength and hold up play has added a new dimension to Milan’s attack. He reached the personal milestone of 500 club goals in a recent win over Crotone.
Gladitorial Encounter on the Cards
If the recent Coppa Italia tie between these two was anything to go by, this will an epic game and fierce encounter. Milan lead at halftime via an Ibrahimovic goal, but the Swede ended the half in a bitter exchange with Lukaku that carried on down the tunnel. Ibrahimovic saw a red card in the second half and Inter stormed back to win 2-1, with Lukaku getting the decisive goal from the penalty spot.
The key battle will be in midfield where Barella and Brozovic will go toe-to-toe with Bennacer and Kessie. Meanwhile, Milan playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu will need to see off the attentions of a revitalized Arturo Vidal at the base of Inter’s midfield. Lukaku versus Ibrahimovic is the headline, and it would be a shock if neither man scored. If as expected this goes down to the wire, both teams have options on the bench: Eriksen may be out of favor, but he’s capable of unlocking the door late in the game. Meanwhile, Milan have added a wildcard to their bench in veteran striker Mario Mandzukic.
Out of Europe and the Coppa Italia, Conte and Inter need to win the title to justify their heavy investment. At the start of the season, Milan may well have settled for a top four finish and they’re still going in the Europa League. However, losing the title to Inter would be a pill too bitter to swallow. If this clash ends in a draw, others, notably Roma, will feel they can still win Serie A. Despite their problems, Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo haven’t gone away. With the title in the balance, one thing is certain: The two Milan giants are back.