When Leonardo assumed the coaching reins at Inter Milan in December, the defending Serie A and European champions trailed eternal rivals AC Milan by a mammoth 13 points. Their title dream looked well and truly gone, but three months later – and on the eve of the 203rd Derby della Madonnina – I Nerazzurri have clambered back to within two points of the summit. With eight fixtures remaining, a sixth successive crown suddenly does not seem so out of reach.
“It will be completely our fault if we lose the title,” said Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, and the Swedish international would no doubt feel the pangs of guilt more keenly than most. Having let his frustration show during last month’s meeting with Bari, he will miss the showdown with his former employers through suspension, forcing Rossoneri coach Massimiliano Allegri to shuffle his options as he aims to halt Inter’s resurgence. Here, FIFA.com takes a closer look at how Milan will go about consolidating their advantage and what Leonardo has done to turn their rivals around, with the derby result sure to have a major bearing on who clinches this year’s Scudetto.
The clubs last crossed paths on 14 November, when an Ibrahimovic penalty earned Allegri’s men a 1-0 success. Beyond his winning goal, the summer loan signing from Barcelona put in a superb shift as the focal point for Milan’s attacks and emerged as a genuine leader on the pitch, convincing Allegri to alter his tactical approach. Looking to build his side around Ibrahimovic as the spearhead up front, the former Cagliari coach chose to pack his midfield with experienced spoilers such as Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Thiago Silva and Mathieu Flamini. Even after the January capture of Antonio Cassano, who is yet to fully find his feet, Milan’s play has relied heavily on the disruptive qualities of that quartet, leaving Ibrahimovic free to make the difference further forward.
Doubts about the effectiveness of that system have nonetheless spread since Milan’s UEFA Champions League exit at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur, while injuries – particularly to Massimo Ambrosini – and suspensions have disrupted their previous balance. Ibrahimovic’s two-game absence at such a crucial moment of the season could prove especially damaging, with the sole consolation for Allegri being that he never wrote off Inter’s title chances to begin with. “Inter will find their way back into the Scudetto race,” he warned ahead of the last derby meeting. “We can’t let up our efforts.”
Those words have proved prophetic and I Nerazzurri have steadily rediscovered their swagger after their difficult start to the campaign, when departed coach Rafael Benitez faced a considerable list of obstacles. Indeed, not only was the Spaniard tasked with re-motivating a side that had won everything the previous season, as well as replacing charismatic predecessor Jose Mourinho, his squad was permanently crippled by injuries, with sometimes as many as 13 absentees at once.
Those players gradually began returning after Benitez was shown the door in December, while promising youngster Andrea Ranocchia was recruited to fill in for Walter Samuel, out for the rest of the season. Leonardo has also been granted a wish denied Benitez in the form of winter signing Giampaolo Pazzini, a clinical centre-forward whose arrival has helped open up spaces for his more expressive colleagues Samuel Eto'o, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito. Much of the credit for Inter’s revival still belongs to the man in the dugout, however, the Brazilian having won over the dressing room thanks to his communication skills, strong rapport with the players and a more attacking philosophy than the men who preceded him.
Those qualities have helped Inter pick up points over the past few months and the club have avoided the trap of becoming obsessed with the gap at the top of the table. They also made sure of winning their two games in hand to eat away at Milan’s lead, having missed fixtures during their victorious FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2010 bid.
With the frontrunners dropping points in their last two outings, Leonardo’s charges now know victory on Saturday would lift them to the summit. “We had a mission: to take as many points as possible to be in a position to catch up on derby day,” commented Dejan Stankovic, thrilled at recent events despite his own lack of a guaranteed starting berth. “We’ve achieved something incredible with Leo.” The club’s dramatic passage into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals has raised confidence as well, Inter pulling off a late win at Bayern Munich after their hopes were dented by defeat in the home leg. In fact, despite all their earlier problems, I Nerazzurri could still match their treble feat from last term.
Allegri realises that the momentum has shifted between the sides, but it could just as easily swing back in the opposite direction this weekend. The San Siro will be packed to the rafters and could probably be filled several times over, with both sets of supporters keenly aware that the derby has always had its own dynamic. Three points may be all that awaits the victors on paper, but the true prize could prove to be the Scudetto crown itself.