Inter Enjoys Princely Derby Win

From Paolo Baldini, theguardian uk, January 16, 2012

The derby before the derby had ended in a draw, yet Milan’s supporters still arrived at San Siro on Sunday evening claiming a victory of sorts. Neither the Rossoneri nor their neighbour Internazionale had been able to conclude a deal for Carlos Tevez, but Milan had at least managed to get one over on a more distant rival. Their move for Tevez had collapsed only after Alexandre Pato decided the riches on offer at Paris St Germain were no match for life with the Italian champions.

“Madonnina 1 Eiffel Tower 0” read one of the many bed-sheet banners hung over the railings in the Curva Sud. The Madonnina, a golden statue of the Virgin Mary which stands atop Milan’s Duomo cathedral, might be one of few other assets in the city which even PSG’s newfound wealth could not procure. But if those supporters had begun the night celebrating a perceived triumph over Qatar’s crown prince, their night was soon to be ruined by an Argentinian one.

Barely a month has passed since Diego Milito – Il Principe, as he has long been known – was awarded the 2011 Bidone d’Oro (the Golden Dustbin), the award handed out each year to the supposed worst performer in Italian football by Radio Rai 2. It was a harsh verdict on a player who had spent much of the year struggling with injury but nevertheless reflective of his drastically diminishing returns. After contributing 30 goals to Inter’s treble-winning 2009-10 season, Milito had managed just eight in the ensuing campaign.

High-profile misses against Lille, Atalanta and Trabzonspor in the early part of this season suggested that this might be more than a passing phase for a player who turned 32 in June. Having opened the season with two goals in the defeat to Palermo, Milito would manage just one more over the next 10 league games. Even as Inter’s form began to pick up, his own did not. Rather than filling the void left by Samuel Eto’o’s departure, he seemed to have been sucked into it.

But then, without warning, the Prince returned. A smart first-time finish against Lecce during Inter’s last game before the winter break was followed by an utterly dominant display against Parma – Milito scoring twice and setting up another in a 5-0 rout. But it is one thing to register such performances against teams from the bottom half of the table, quite another to be decisive in a Milan derby. Against both Lecce and Parma, Milito enjoyed chance after chance. Against the Rossoneri he would get only one.

If 2011 had been a dark year for Milito, then it had been another utterly remarkable one for his compatriot Javier Zanetti, the 38-year-old enjoying more playing time in Serie A – 3,411 minutes – than any other player over the course of the calendar year. So far in 2012 there are still no signs of a slow-down, and it was he who squared the ball for Milito in the 54th minute after evading two Milan challenges during a mad dash down the right.

Both Inter players will have been grateful, too, to a horribly mistimed intervention from Ignazio Abate, who failed to cut out the pass and consequently left Milito unmarked as he ran on to the pass on the far side of the box. The striker took full advantage of the time afforded him, delaying his shot to the point where Abate almost recovered, before dispatching it expertly across Christian Abbiati and in off the far post.

Milan, who had dominated the first half without ever really threatening to score – their attempts on goal restricted largely to shots from outside the area (one of which, from Mark van Bommel, did admittedly strike the woodwork) – could summon no response. Pato had been unexpectedly named a starter alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic but his night was summed up by the moment midway through the first half when he received a pass in a promising position on the left and with his first touch knocked it out for a throw-in.

Ibrahimovic was little better. The Swede has led the way once again this season for an attack that leads Serie A with 37 goals, but he was superbly marshaled by Walter Samuel and never even threatened to extend his recent scoring streak. “Ibrahimovic was coming off seven goals in six games,” noted Luigi Garlando drily in Gazzetta dello Sport. “When you think you’re a god, taking a rest on the seventh is natural.”

Despite enjoying 67% of possession over the course of the game, Milan only really threatened following the introductions of Robinho, Clarence Seedorf and perhaps most notably Stephan El Shaarawy in the closing stages. Having signed a lucrative contract extension to 2014 during the week the manager, Massimiliano Allegri, must take some blame as his team selection failed to convince. Short on midfielders after a string of injuries and short of key creative influences in Antonio Cassano and Alberto Aquilani, he gambled with Urby Emanuelson behind the attack but the Dutchman always looked out of his element.

But any criticism coming Allegri’s way must be offset by praise for Claudio Ranieri. If Inter have recovered from 15 points off first place on 9 December to only six this morning, then it is a testament to the manager first and foremost – Ranieri taking over a team that had looked utterly rudderless after the ill-fated tenure of Gian Piero Gasperini and turning things around to the point where even a title challenge is no longer unthinkable.

Just as he did at Roma during that remarkable 2009-10 season – when he took over a club with no points from two games and took them to within two points of denying José Mourinho’s Inter their treble – Ranieri has focused on fixing the defence first and then building from there. More remarkable than the fact that Inter have now won six games in a row may be the fact they have conceded just one goal in that spell. This is a team who had previously given up four to Palermo and three each to Novara and Napoli.

Despite the previous ill-will between the two, Mourinho himself had texted Ranieri to say good luck before Sunday’s game and the Portuguese might even have admired Inter’s approach. It was he, after all, who had proved against Barcelona that possession is not everything. Ranieri demanded that his team be well organised first and foremost – keeping men behind the ball at all times.

He had resisted the temptation to restore the fit-again Wesley Sneijder after three months out, persisting with the same 4-4-2 line-up that had proved so successful in the Dutchman’s absence. Even his two strikers bought into the spirit of self-sacrifice. “Allegri complained that we always had 10 men behind the ball?” mused Giampaolo Pazzini afterwards. “Well, they could have done the same.”

Beyond tactical astuteness, Ranieri has demonstrated a greater understanding of his players’ needs – granting them the longest winter break of any Serie A side (Inter only returned to training on 2 January, to much criticism in the press). With rivals, including Milan, sending their own players away on potentially draining tours abroad, it is perhaps no surprise that Inter have looked that little bit more fresh over 2012’s first two rounds of fixtures.

That said, Ranieri’s success in this game probably ought not to have come as a surprise to anybody – the manager having never lost a derby in Italy, his record now standing at nine wins and four draws (seven wins and one draw if you only count his time coaching in the top-flight). Nor, perhaps, should his success in turning round a team that – for all that they are aging – still boast so many world-class talents. The challenge will be to convince his many doubters that having provided the quick-fix, he can also provide the long-term glory.