Serie A man Eric Giardini with an account of Italy’s hottest derby.
Saturday’s Derby della Madonnina between AC Milan and cross city rivals
Internazionale was widely tipped to be the league title decider. The matchup featured the top two clubs in Italy with the red-and-black half of Milan holding a two point lead at the top of the table. With so much on the line it was expected that the two clubs would play a hard-fought, lively, and entertaining match. Both sides spent the week exchanging jabs at each other.
Kevin-Prince Boateng claimed that although Inter seems confident, “closed in the dressing room they’re scared.” Samuel Eto’o tried to put the pressure on Milan by claiming that Milan was the favorite as they were in first and as such had more to lose than his Inter team. He also went on to state that no matter the outcome of the match, the league title was still up for grabs. Unfortunately, Inter played as though the match was as unimportant as Eto’o made it seem. Conversely, Milan played with passion and desire and, not surprisingly, they walked away from the San Siro with a 3-0 victory that extended their lead to five points with only seven matches in the season left.
Both squads were missing key players for the match as Zlatan Ibrahimović served the second match of his two-match suspension for punching Bari defender Marco Rossi, and Lúcio missed the match for an accumulation of yellow cards. As the match went on, it was evident that the absence of Lúcio was more of a factor in the match than that of Ibrahimović. It fact, it almost looked as though the Milan offense was released from the burden that Ibrahimović sometimes imposes when he’s in the lineup. With him in the side, it is as if Milan tries too hard to feed him the ball as opposed to having him as just one piece of many in the offense. The same problem arose during his time in Barcelona.
With the international break last weekend, Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri was able to successfully institute the tactics necessary to attack the weakness of Inter’s defense – the center back pairing of Ranocchia and Chivu – while correcting mistakes from the defeat at the hands Palermo two weeks ago.
Against Palermo, Allegri went with Antonio Cassano and Pato up front while leaving Robinho on the bench. With the strength of Inter’s defense found on the wings with Maicon and Zanetti, and the lack of the aerial presence that Ibrahimović provides, Allegri realized he was going to have to attack Milan through the center of the pitch. Neither of Inter’s center backs is going to win many foot races so Allegri went with the two speedy Brazilians, Pato and Robinho, up top with Kevin-Prince Boateng playing in the hole. This move paid immediate dividends as Pato was able to latch onto a rebound from a Robinho shot to score and put Milan up 1-0 in the first minute of the match.
One play in particular stood out and showed that Milan were taking the match much more seriously than Inter were and that, consequently, it was going to be a long night for Inter. Early in the first half, Clarence Seedorf played a ball up the line for Robinho that was heading out into touch. Maicon lazily ran over to the ball to usher it out while Robinho was in a dead sprint to try to keep it in play. As the ball finally crossed the line, Robinho made a clean challenge while going for the ball on his Brazilian compatriot which sent Maicon off the pitch and into the Inter bench and no foul was called. Normally, Robinho does not chase these balls down and definitely doesn’t go in on challenges, but in this instance he did. This resonated with the Milan players and told them that if Robinho was going all out for this match then they needed to match his intensity. And they did.
After that opening goal, Milan stayed on the front foot throughout the match and Inter was never really able to get things going. Milan, through Van Bommel and Gattuso (and later Flamini after Gattuso went off with injury in the second half) exerted their will over Cambiasso and Thiago Motta which prevented the link-up from the midfield to Inter’s attackers. Sneijder, Eto’o, Pandev, and Pazzini were all nonfactors and were anonymous for long stretches of the match. Milan’s attack, on the other hand, applied constant pressure on Inter’s defense. Seedorf and Boateng were able to do whatever they wanted and wove passes through the midfield to Pato and Robinho. For all the service that Robinho was given he really should have done better with his finishing. The score could have easily been 4-0 if it hadn’t been for the combination of Robinho’s lack of finishing and some key Júlio César saves.
Even before Chivu was sent off in the 54th minute, the match was well in hand for Milan. Pato grabbed his second shortly thereafter in the 62nd minute, and afterwards Milan was content to play keep-away from Inter up two goals and one man. The only real fireworks came after the 80th minute introduction of Cassano. He came on for Robinho and oddly took it upon himself to act as a cheerleader on the pitch instructing the Milan supporters to make noise. Cassano, in his 10 minutes of work, drew a penalty that he converted, received a yellow card in the celebration for removing his shirt, and received a second yellow card and dismissal for an unnecessary foul in the second minute of stoppage time.
It is easy to point to Pato as being the Man of the Match with his two goals, which he dedicated to his new girlfriend Barbara Berlusconi (always risky dating the boss’ daughter), but I think we need to look elsewhere.
As much as I disapprove of Van Bommel’s style of play, he effectively negated Wesley Sneijder which is no easy task. Along with Gattuso and Flamini, he was able to step in and intercept passes, make tackles when needed, and overall provide a shield in front of the Milan backline which was rarely troubled throughout the match.
With seven matches remaining, Inter is not completely out of the title hunt, but their title aspirations are on thin ice. While the two clubs have a similar strength of schedule down the stretch, and both are in the semifinals of the Coppa Italia, Inter has Champions League fixtures to worry about and that might well be the difference.