It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who said: “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” And yet this is what Milan did. In October, the world seemed a very different place for both the Rossoneri and the Nerazzurri, especially as the latter had just won the Derby Della Madonnina at the last gasp thanks to Mauro Icardi’s strike. It seems so distant now, as the trajectory of both clubs changed radically over the last five months.
As Inter approached the Derby back in October, things were not perfect, but they were better than they had been in some time. They were playing with tempo and even some expansive football had been seen under Luciano Spalletti, but above all, they were winning. Six straight victories in all competitions had seen them beat Tottenham Hotspur, PSV, Fiorentina, Sampdoria, Cagliari and SPAL.
The fixture against Milan was hyped up in the papers, with the Corriere Dello Sport saying that ‘Il Derby e tutto’ (The Derby is everything). This showdown was meant to take Spalletti’s men up to the next level.
Milan approached the game in mixed form, as they had beaten the likes of Sassuolo and Chievo, but drawn against Empoli and Cagliari, and the team did not seem to be clicking as it should. Gonzalo Higuain was not looking like the 20 goal a season striker they had hoped for and there were questions over Gennaro Gattuso and also whether the club would be able to spend anything in the January window. There is no doubt at the time that Milan were building for the future, but it seemed whilst they were struggling with the foundations, Inter were putting on the roof.
Since that night when the Argentine stole the show, making it yet another Icardi Derby, the fortunes have changed on both sides of the city divide.
Inter followed up the Derby win by beating Lazio 3-0 and then they stuck five past Genoa before the wheels came off. The ‘Inter of Discontent’ struck once again in the November to February period, as Spalletti scratched his head, as like Napoleon’s march on Moscow, it all slowed down in the snow.
It was at this time that the first rumblings began about Icardi’s contract, a saga that has hampered the Nerazzurri’s progress to this day. Ivan Perisic handed in a transfer request, but did not get his move to Arsenal, causing quite a stir.
Director Beppe Marotta had arrived, but his relationship with Spalletti seemed to be uneasy. The tactician’s grasp of PR and his inability to handle the Icardi situation seemed to exasperate the Inter hierarchy. The results continued to be poor, as Inter exited the Champions League and started to fall off the pace in Serie A. This culminated on Thursday night when the Nerazzurri went out of the Europa League to Eintracht Frankfurt, fielding no recognised striker and instead being forced to throw Primavera teenagers on.
Across the city, things took a very different turn. Gattuso continued to work hard with his players and show that he was not simply a pragmatic Coach, but one who could install the DNA of Milan whilst also producing some stylish football. The January transfer window was a triumph, as they managed to move Higuain on to Chelsea and instead brought in Krzysztof Piatek and Lucas Paqueta, who both hit the ground running. The Pole in particular has continued his incredible scoring record that he began in Genoa and has now notched six Serie A goals in seven games.
The feelgood factor is back in the red and black half with many legendary names passing comment on the progress of the team. Franco Baresi declared that ‘Milan are back’ and it was easy to see why, as they have won seven and drawn three of the last 10 games, taking them to third place, one point ahead of Inter.
The Derby will give the Rossoneri a real chance of distancing themselves from their neighbours and continuing their Champions League charge, perhaps even to catch Napoli, six points ahead in second.
There is no certainty in the Derby Della Madonnina, however, as this is truly a fixture that defies current form. Giovanni Trapattoni should perhaps have the last word on the match he experienced as Coach on both sides, as the game will be played on his 80th birthday. “The Derby is always unpredictable and has never made any favourites, but this time it's even more true.”