Inter maintained their perfect start to the season, but for defeated Milan, the form of Mario Balotelli was a minor cause for celebration.
Having beaten historic cross-town rivals, ilan, in last night’s derby, Inter Milan now find themselves top of Serie A for the first time in exactly five years. Inter’s 1-0 win, thanks to a goal from Colombian Freddy Guarin, came at the end of an intense, high quality game in which a draw would arguably have been a fairer result.
This is only the third day of the season and these are early days but already the signs are there. Namely that this season the reigning champions Juventus will not be having things all their own way. It is not just Inter’s three consecutive wins nor their eight point lead over Juventus which prompt this consideration.
It is more the sensation generated by Sunday night’s game that the two Milan clubs have got themselves back on track and are both looking hungry and sharp. What is more, both of them have the advantage of not being involved in European competition whilst Juventus, with just one point from their opening three games, now have to gird their loins and prepare themselves for an opening Champions League tie, away to Premiership leaders, Manchester City, on Tuesday night.
Whilst the Inter fans are entitled to be getting just a little excited, coach Roberto Mancini was sensibly keeping all feet on the ground, saying:
“This was an important win but don’t start talking to me about the title because that is so far away…Anyway, there are teams like Roma, Juventus and Napoli which have stronger squads than us. You will have to wait for at least another two months before the championship race settles down…”
Yet, there were some very encouraging signs from his new look Inter, indicating that the club’s summer tranfer spree was right on the button. First and foremost, last minute buy, Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo, ex-Galatasaray and ex-Juventus, in his debut game for Inter looked to be exactly what this reshaping side requires. It is not just that Melo is an aggressive, tough midfield ball winner, it is even more that his commanding presence makes him look like a steady anchor around which Mancini will be able to build. He might not be Yaya Touré at Man City or Roy Keane at Man Utd but that is the direction in which he seems headed.
Furthermore, Montenegrin “Jo-Jo” Jovetic, the man who saved Inter’s bacon with last minute goals in their first two games of the season, also looks like a man with a point to prove after two injury interruped seasons at Man City. Time and again last night, his willingness to run at the Milan defence caused serious problems.
As for the other Inter “new boys” – Croat Perisic in attack, Brazilian Murillo in defence and Frenchman Kondogbia in midfield – they all showed enough, after admittedly quiet starts, to show that they may have a lot to say this season. Mind you, Inter owed plenty to two of their established stars, namely Slovene goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and Colombian goalscorer, Guarin.
Ironically, Guarin, a player of immense potential, has often seemed to be on the way out of Inter – remember the huge fuss prompted by reports that during the January 2014 window, Inter were willing to swap him with Juve’s Mongtenegrin Mirko Vucinic. Faced with fan disapproval, that deal was abandoned. Right now, Mancini is probably grateful.
As for goalkeeper Handanovic, he made at least two match-winning saves, first against Brazilian Luiz Adriano and then against Mario Balotelli. Mention of the last named Balotelli, too, prompts us to report that the prodigal son, who replaced Colombian Carlos Bacca after an hour, was arguably Milan’s best player on the night, hitting the post, prompting that Handanovic save and, above all, looking focussed throughout his his half hour on the pitch.
If “Balo” continues on in this form, then it will be only a matter of time before he plays himself back into Antonio Conte’s Italy squad for the Euro 2016 finals in France. Up front, too, the Adriano-Bacca partnership looked very useful whilst the new look Milan midfield of Slovak Juraj Kucka, Riccardo Montolivo and Giacomo Bonaventura promises much.
All in all when Milan’s Serb coach, Sinisa Mihajlovic, said afterwards that he was happy, if not with the result, then at least with his team’s performance, it was easy to believe him. There could be better days ahead for this Milan side.
Which is what coach Massimiliano Allegri must be hoping for his Juventus. In a 1-1 draw with Chievo, the Old Lady suggested that she might be in a belated, mid-life crisis. In reality, this was a game that Chievo should have won. Not only did the Verona side concede a late (correct) penalty but twice in the second half they went close to going 2-0 up, first when Juve captain Gigi Buffon made a prodigious save from Chievo defender, Slovene Bostjan Cesar, and then when an apparently valid goal from the same Cesar was overruled by referee Marco Guida.
Starting with tomorrow night’s Champions League tie in Manchester, Juventus badly need to get their season back on track. At the moment, this Juventus bears little or no resemblance to the all-dominant side which cruised it way through much of last season. In the meantime, they are already eight points behind Inter.