Alarm bells have been ringing in Italian football, with just a solitary representative from Serie A making it through to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. In the past, three clubs from what was once Europe’s most glamorous football league have regularly competed in the knockout stages. And it is only four seasons ago that Internazionale won the competition, beating the current holders Bayern Munich, in the final.
Serie A may have lost some of its lustre, but the Milan derby, Derby della Madonnina, still attracted more than 79,000 people to the cold and misty San Siro stadium. In the days leading up to the game, there was a hint of controversy – Inter’s fans hurled abuse at Napoli a week ago and the Italian football authorities wanted to partially close San Siro’s Curva Nord. This was retracted at the eleventh hour.
This was the 159th derby. Inter had won 59 and Milan 49 of the previous encounters. In the past decade, Inter have won 10 and Milan eight. Inter have won three of the last four meetings, the last Milan victory was in 2010-11. It’s a derby that dates back to 1908.
Inter, who failed to qualify for any kind of European competition in 2012-13, almost unheard of for the Nerazzuri – the last time was 1999-00. Milan, by contrast, entered the Champions League and navigated their way through a group that contained Barcelona, Ajax and Celtic.
But back at home, Milan have been in turmoil. Before meeting their “flatmates”, Inter, they were in 12th position – compared to Inter’s fifth – and the Rossoneri’s fans have let the club’s suits know exactly how they feel about that. There could be more trouble on the horizon – in the past week, rumours suggest Milan have one eye on former Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas as their head coach next season!
Not that Inter’s form has been too convincing recently. They started the season unbeaten in their first six games, including a 7-0 thrashing of Serie A new boys Sassualo. They lost just twice in 16 games, against Roma at home and Napoli away. But they went into the derby without a win in four, with three draws against Bologna, Sampdoria and Parma and that loss in Naples.
Milan’s big problem has been their away form. Their only win on the road was at Catania, who will arguably be returning to Serie B next summer. Notwithstanding the behind-the-scenes problems at Milan, the team relies too much on the wayward Mario Balotelli and the returning Kaka, who has, incidentally, been in good form since he surprisingly returned to the club.
Inter’s multinational starting eleven did not include a single Italian – so, it’s not the just the English Premier that has this problem – but had four Argentines, two Brazilians, a Colombian, a Portuguese, a Japanese, an Algerian and a Slovenian goalkeeper. Milan had six Italians, a Colombian, a Brazilian, a Dutchman, a Guinean and a Ghanaian.
Inter started the more lively side, with Inter’s top scorer, the Argentine Rodrigo Palacio, forcing Christian Abbiatti into a good save. Palacio has performed heroics this season, acting as a lone striker and netting nine goals in Serie A. At the other end, Kaka’s shot was parried by Inter keeper Samir Handanovic.
Milan took over, taking advantage of Inter’s poor passing, which was greeted with frustration by the fans. But just before half-time, Palacio (what is that thing dangling from his hair?) tried to turn and Cristian Zapata ploughed into him. It looked a clear penalty, but the referee wasn’t buying it. Palacio came in for some more rough treatment as the half ended, Jonathan Constant and Sulley Muntari the main culprits.
The tense first period gave way to a better second period, and Inter went close when veteran Argentine defender Hugo Campagnaro’s header was cleared off the line by Zapata. The introduction of Mateo Kovacic made a difference for the “home” side, his energy causing Milan some problems. Milan’s Nigel De Jong (wasn’t he especially rough in the last World Cup final?), left his mark on Kovacic, earning himself a yellow card. Another player who showed plenty of enthusiasm was Inter’s Japanese winger, Yuto Nagatomo.
Four minutes from time, Inter snatched the winning goal, and what a moment of class it was. Fredy Guarin played the ball inside from the right to Palacio and he elected to back-flick the ball between himself and Zapata – an audacious goal! As Inter celebrated, Balotelli – unsurprisingly – was booked. There was more misery for Milan when Muntari was red-carded in the final seconds. Final score: Inter 1 Milan 0. The city was blue and black – until May, at least.
The win keeps Inter chasing that elusive Champions League spot, but for Milan, it could be that AC will be welcoming AVB before too long. They may need more than that to restore their once-proud status in Europe.