This was the biggest Milan Derby in a decade, the first time since 2011 that both local rivals were in the top two when they faced off at San Siro. After years of Nerazzurri fans mocking Yonghong Li and the tiny transfer budget, they find themselves with Suning ready to pack up their bags and the future uncertain. They won’t like to admit it, but the clubs and their fans are more similar than different. What we saw – and above all heard – this afternoon only confirms that.
They’ve all got very short memories and love to pile in insulting the very players and coaches who should be praised. Milan go unbeaten in a year with a squad that has nowhere near as much strength in depth or even quality in the starting XI as their rivals, yet suddenly people are turning on Stefano Pioli and calling for big changes. No, Pioli has not ‘bottled it.’ He never had a bottle to begin with, more like a magic lantern to get the results he has done out of this team in the last 12 months.
Inter fans have spent all season trying to find Samir Handanovic replacements, criticising his distribution, saying he is slow to get down and make saves. For all the 3-0 result, it was only 1-0 when Handanovic performed three world-class saves in the space of three minutes on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sandro Tonali. After all the years this goalkeeper stayed at Inter when he deserved a far better team and this is the thanks he gets?
Some called those saves the ‘Sliding Doors’ moment, when a game was transformed, maybe even a season. He lets one of those in, Milan are level, their tails are up, the momentum changes. Instead, Inter hold on, can play on the counter and win 3-0.
The Milan Derby could also be seen as the moment when the season changed, but the truth is this has been coming for quite a while now. The Rossoneri have already lost more games in 2021 than throughout all of 2020, Inter had all week to prepare for this fixture and Milan were in Belgrade on Thursday night battling to a 2-2 draw with Crvena Zvezda. The 2-0 defeat to Spezia is the Sliding Doors moment, allowing Inter to leapfrog them at the top with a victory over on-form Lazio.
After years of scraping around the edges of the top seven, you’d think Milan fans would be grateful to at least be challenging for the leadership more than midway through the campaign, having been crowned Winter Champions. Instead, they are already espousing apocalyptic visions of failing to qualify for Europe this season and finding their next coach after Pioli. Do they not remember where they were a year ago?
Everything is going Inter’s way this season, that is undeniable. They spent more money in recent years to bolster the squad, and bring in Antonio Conte, while crashing out of the Champions League in the opening round ended up boosting their Scudetto prospects, especially in such a cramped campaign.
Do Inter play the prettiest football in the world? Of course not, that has never been Conte’s style, nor has he ever wanted to be a Pep Guardiola or Gian Piero Gasperini. His approach is brute force, which is why Romelu Lukaku is the perfect centre-forward for the coach. When he activates Beast Mode, there is simply no stopping the Belgium international. He’s more than just power, though, as despite the ‘donkey’ mockery from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lukaku does have plenty of skill and is more likely to assist a teammate than Ibra. He talks constantly to his teammates and the coach, switching languages even when expressing irritation or joy. After the goal, he shouted: “I told you, dammit! Pass it to me. I told you!”
The 3-0 result in the derby won’t change the season, because it just confirms the trends that we’d been seeing since the start of 2021. We learned nothing we didn’t already know. Inter have a stronger squad and as the season wore on, the pressure grew for them to win the Scudetto or flop completely. Milan are not in that position, nor should they be. The aim is top four for Pioli and if he achieves that, it’ll be frankly a fantastic outcome. If Conte doesn’t win the title from here, well, that’s a very different scenario.
It's Inter’s title to lose, but we didn’t discover that this afternoon. It was always on the cards. Now let’s see how they do with the pressure of being favourites.