One Goal Extinguisher

Inter continues their winning trail. The real Scudetto contenders?

I remember the derby big. I remember Andriy Shevchenko making his own stamp on goalscoring record against Inter by slotting 14 goals into Nerazzurri net. I remember AC Milan crushing their local rivals 6-0, when the torn-apart side featured the likes of Laurent Blanc, Javier Zanetti and Christian Vieri. I remember the infamous Champions League quarterfinal in 2005, when one of the flares thrown by frustrated Inter fans hit Dida on the shoulder. I enjoy the memories of that crazy goalfest game in 2006, when Inter almost threw away a 3-0 lead. I can clearly recall each and every Ibrahimović’s goal for both sides- and how the guy must’ve felt when he converted the penalty against his former black-and-blue teammates in 2010. Diego Milito’s hat-trick in 2012 and the endless brawls over two Inter penalties are also engraved in my head. But those memories are becoming more and more distant as time goes by. The future keeps scrolling forward. The times have changed.

Unfortunately, Derby della Madonnina doesn’t really offer much of an excitement anymore. I dream of it being big again, but it’s just cannot happen recently. Maybe the fear of a defeat is too big? Or maybe it’s just both teams drowning into a sea of mediocrity? Whatever the reason is, in the last three seasons, we’ve seen three 1-0 results, two 1-1 draws and one 0-0 draw in it: a clear message that, whenever the game really matters, no team is really willing to lower their guard. It’s actually centre-backs and goalkeepers, who’s been constantly excellent in those fixtures, prompting the fans to leave San Siro fairly frustrated. Or are they happy with that? Because even the last time around, at the height of Inter and Milan parallel slumps, the stadium two clubs share sold over 74.000 tickets – which is about 87% of all seats available at this gargantuan ground. And yesterday, just like many times before, they’ve added some impressive decoration to their usual repertoire:

What was going through Siniša Mihajlović’s head when he saw an enormous, stylized crest in black and deep blue colours covering the Rosso stand? After all, it’s Inter, where the Serbian spent the last two years of his illustrious career, playing 25 games and scoring 5 goals – all from his trademark free-kicks. When his playing days were over, Siniša has immediately joined Inter’s backroom staff, becoming Roberto Mancini’s assistant and a tutor to Zlatan Ibrahimović – the player, whose set-piece abilities have improved massively under the Serbian’s supervision. Even after departing from San Siro, Mihajlović’s link with Nerazzurri continued. Four years ago, after beating his former side 3-1 while in charge of tiny Catania, the former Red Star skipper was widely tipped to take control over Massimo Moratti’s club – but, it never happened. Two years ago, the man in question himself said he’d be willing to work in Milan again. And then, his dream has come true – only in the wrong club…

Once appointed by AC Milan, Mihajlović went on to win two clashes with his former employers. Even two red cards for Alex and Nocerino couldn’t stop him; on both occasions, his Rossoneri looked like the better side. However, this time, ACM had to win despite the absences of Andrea Bertolacci, Jeremy Menez and Luca Antonelli. The lack of this trio has seemingly made the team selection pretty straightforward. Yet, the Serb had one surprise prepared for the night. He has given another chance to utterly disappointing Riccardo Montolivo, who’s made a start ahead of ultra-solid Nigel de Jong. Without the Dutchman, Milan were supposed to play more ground passes rather than over-the-top balls de Jong specializes in. On the pitch, Montolivo was paired with a new signing Juraj Kucka. The Slovakian midfielder has received a lot of offensive duties – and so did many other rosso-neri players. Clearly, Mihajlović wanted a little switch in team’s mentality.

As for Roberto Mancini – his ideas have been known for a long, long time. He’s brought no less than four quality defenders to the club this summer – and, along with DMs like Geoffrey Kondogbia and Felipe Melo, this was supposed to render Inter’s goal unconquerable. If we were to judge from Inter’s results, he might come off as a manager who has nearly achieved that. However, the goal lost against Carpi was quite embarrassing – and so did several other defensive actions a week earlier, against Atalanta. Faced with that, alongside with João Miranda’s injury, Mancini went for a strange solution, picking Gary Medel to play as a centre-back ahead of Andrea Ranocchia. In the end, the Chilean had a fine game; but the most important perk of his new assignment was that he vacated a spot in midfield for a notorious substitute, Fredy Guarín. Overall, Mancini’s roster picks were marginally more accurate than Mihajlović’s – and it did come into effect later in the game.

Alas, the start of the game was all about Milan. After Montolivo’s pass that proved Medel’s readiness to step up and perform, Rossoneri picked the other wing to exploit – and it was rewarded when Murillo made a horrible pass right through his compatriot, Carlos Bacca. The ex-Sevilla striker picked up the ball, surged forward and set up a golden scoring chance for Luiz Adriano that’s been stopped by Handanovič. It’s been a horrific waste by the Brazilian and he tried to make up for it four minutes later by shooting from a difficult angle. Whenever Inter tried to push higher and get some control over the game by passing on Milan’s half, their left-hand side immediately opened up space for counterattacks. Mancini picked the simplest solution to it: he ordered his players to attack down the other wing, thus increasing the distance between the ball and his team’s most vulnerable area. Still, even out of trouble, Inter have clearly come off as second-best in the first 15 minutes.

Nerazzurri were fairly lucky there – and their luck continued. 17 minutes into the game, a swift forward run by Giacomo Bonaventura has been followed with an excellent through ball to Luiz Adriano. The Brazilian was surely through on goal, easily outpacing Juan Jesus, but he tried to take a shot with his right foot instead of using the left one to move away from his defender. How many overpaid, overpriced players we’ve seen this season utterly failing to utilize their weaker foot when they absolutely needed to? Disgusting – and you could see it on Bacca’s and Bonaventura’s faces how upset they were with this failure. They had a good reason: after dodging the bullet twice, Inter players have gained focus, started to close up the space for the enemy to run into and in the end, despite a shaky start, players like Santon, Jesus or Murillo all had a respectable performance. The second part of first half belonged mainly to Mancini’s team, albeit without any good attempts on goal to back it up.

Once the break was over, the teams enjoyed a fairly scrappy restart. Both Luiz Adriano and Mauro Icardi were frustrating to watch, not making any runs whatsoever and thus turning the match into a 10 vs 10 struggle. Jovetić missed one half-decent chance that was blocked and the match seemed to heading for a 0-0 result. However, eventually, Inter have figured out a clever winning strategy. After yet another failed attempt of an attempt of an attack by Milan, they’ve played few Barcelona-style passes in their own penalty area, luring opposition’s frontline into a very high pressing. Handanovič, Medel and then, Santon worked together to move the ball out of danger, eventually bringing it to Guarín, who, prior to that moment, has been completely invisible. The Colombian evaded De Sciglio’s marking by cutting inside at about 30 years out – and then, he proceeded to demonstrate how you’re supposed to use your left foot properly. If the game was a snoozefest, this was the awakening.

Mihajlović’s reaction was swift, quite obvious and nevertheless, powerful. Four minutes after conceding, he put Mario Balotelli into the fray. Yet another, ex-Inter player to join Milan, he’s been greeted with a shower of whistlings. However, Balotelli is Balotelli – if there’s a player, who’s ever been able to thrive on other people’s hate, it’s him. Appeased and nurtured in England, he was consistently dreadful; insulted and taunted by Nerazzurri’s crowd, he immediately created a danger with a good free-kick cross that got barely cleared. That wasn’t the end of it; Mario was so determined, he actually even started to win take-ons – something he was never known for. 75 minutes in, Balo’s cross inside of the box was barely intercepted by Murillo; three minutes later, after a spectacular shot from outside of the area, Handanovič has been aided by the post. What would’ve happened if this driven Balotelli played from the word go? ACM’s boss will probably ponder that thought for a while in the next few days.

The final ten minutes were sort of a thriller. Handanović needed to stop Super Mario once again, this time after a direct free-kick. The cameras kept showing anxious Inter fans, as Rossoneri continued to knock at their rivals’ door. Mancini, certain that his forwards won’t be able to produce another goal, subbed off Ivan Perišić (poor début by the Croat) for Ranocchia. Soon afterwards, Kondogbia has soon bought some precious time by winning a corner but once it’s been wasted, we’ve seen a disheartening line of 7 Inter players tracking back in line to form a ridiculously stern backline. Once again, they were lucky: by this point, most of Milan players were simply too exhausted with the fight to capitalize on their advantage. Balotelli shouted and punched the air in frustration, but his partners simply didn’t have the legs anymore. The best he could do was winning several free-kicks – but with him, taking them all, there was lack of physical presence in the enemy area for finishing purposes.

Good but not good enough – Mario was unable to equalize.

Milan lost the game – but there were still some positives. Romagnoli and Zapata both had nearly flawless 90 minutes, making Icardi look like a Sunday league footballer. For a man, who initially was thought to be a horrible addition, Juraj Kucka played a decent game too, at least making somewhat of a link with the forwards which could’ve not been said about other Rossoneri midfielders. Carlos Bacca had his typical, high-level performance – but most of it’s fruits have been spoiled by dreadful Luiz Adriano. Mihajlović still has to figure out what to do with Keisuke Honda’s invisibility and Mattia De Sciglio’s concentration; those two are currently as far from Kaká’s and Maldini’s football heights as Moon is from Earth. Other than that, he probably needs to stop putting in Poli and Cerci as life wheels to his team because they’re not good enough to make any difference. And, of course – Balotelli simply has to start next Saturday, against Palermo. He deserves it.

As for Mancini and his side – we probably should wish him good luck at keeping all players content with their playtime, as he’s got a bench full of hungry, football-deprived lads that deserve much more chances than they’re going to get in Nerazzurri shirt. Apart from Icardi, the Sundays’ lineup looks quite impressive, but it’s not going to survive for much too long if Felipe Melo keeps playing like he did in derby. The Brazilian was on a brink of seeing the second yellow card for the most of the game – and if he gets suspended, I don’t really see a quality sub that could fit into his slot. Or maybe Perišić would do the trick? The Croat played even more as his Wolfsburg self, being extremely team-oriented but also not so creative when some flair was needed. In a post-game interviews, Mancini himself was very careful with praises: “We’re a young team so you’re going to get the odd mistakes.” True. Inter might’ve cashed in 3 points – but nevertheless, the doubts about the team are still there…

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