Inter’s 2-0 win in the Milan derby dispelled any lingering doubts over their domination of the league campaign
If ever anyone had any doubts about the current domination of Internazionale in Serie A, they were definitively dispelled by their emphatic 2-0 win over Milan in a thrilling city derby at the end of January.
For much of this season, Inter have looked as if they will soon run far and away with another scudetto and, after this latest triumph, their escape to final victory has already begun.
It would be hard to imagine a more total win than that registered by Inter against their city cousins. Suffice to say, this was a game in which Inter played for 70 minutes with 10 men, in which they twice hit the post and in which Milan missed a penalty. Despite all that, they still won 2-0 thanks to an opportunist 10th-minute goal from Argentinian striker Diego Milito and a precise 65th-minute free-kick from new boy Goran Pandev.
Put simply, in the opening 20 minutes – before the dismissal of Wesley Sneijder – Inter had looked sharper, fitter, more hungry and more dangerous. Not for the first time this season, they proved that they are truly “up for it” when it comes to crucial games. Twice during the autumn Champions League group stage, away to Dinamo Kyiv and at home to Rubin Kazan, Inter were in a do-or-die situation – and twice they delivered the goods, winning both games.
You might have expected Inter’s talented coach, Jose Mourinho, to have been more than pleased with a good night’s work. Well, he probably was, but in the aftermath of the Milan game he chose to give another example of his well-proven ability to deflect attention from his players, thanks to his recurrent bouts of polemics: “We cannot call the championship contest over because I have now understood that they won’t let us finish it off,” he said. “I smell a bad smell, I have a strange taste.
“In our last two games, we have had first two penalties blown against us and then two players sent off. This didn’t happen by chance. But that’s your problem. It’s your championship. I’m a foreigner. One day I will leave.”
So, what was he talking about? The two penalties had come in a 2-2 draw away to Bari one week earlier. In truth, if one of the penalties was debatable, the second was sacrosanct. Likewise, referee Gianluca Rocchi had little option but to send off Sneijder in the Milan derby given that the Dutchman indulged in sustained, sarcastic applause right in his face. As for the other sending-off, that of Inter’s Brazilian defender Lucio, it came so late in the game – the 92nd minute – that it made no difference.
In truth, Mourinho’s polemics illustrate much about the context of the game. The start of the new year had unveiled a sparkling Milan side which seemed to have moved on from an autumn revival to become a serious title challenger to Inter. While Inter were struggling to beat Chievo 1-0, Siena 4-3 and then drawing 2-2 with Bari, Milan were beating Genoa 5-2, Juventus 3-0 and Siena 4-0.
Riding for a fall
If ever Inter were riding for a fall, this seemed like the moment – or so the Milan fans, still smarting from a 4-0 drubbing back in August, might have hoped. On top of that, there was the league’s decision to allow Milan to reschedule their midweek Italian Cup quarter-final with Udinese, helping them to stay fresh for the derby game.
In the end, it all counted for nothing. By the close of January, Inter were eight points clear of joint-second Milan and Roma. If the title contest were a boxing match, the referee would be entitled to stop it.
If Milan limped out of the derby licking their wounds, their pain was small fry compared to the agonies being endured by Juventus down the road in Turin. On the night before the Milan derby, Juve had crashed 2-1 at home to Roma. Salt was rubbed in the wound by the fact that Roma are coached by Claudio Ranieri – who was controversially sacked by Juve last May and replaced by Ciro Ferrara with two Serie A games still to play.
Lest anyone think that Ranieri was willing to let bygones be bygones, he told TV cameras after the game: “I was pleased to say hello to the Juventus players and staff. As for the directors, I have nothing to say to them.”
That defeat by Roma represented Juve’s seventh loss in nine games since early December, when, ironically, they had pulled off their biggest win of the league season, beating Inter 2-1 in Turin. Since then not only had Juventus lost five of their last six Serie A games but they had also been dumped out of the Champions League in a 4-1 drubbing by Bayern Munich.
For weeks, it had seemed merely a question of time before Ferrara would be sacked. Defeat by Roma was clearly the end of the line for him, even if he was still in charge when the team lost yet another match five days later, beaten 2-1 by Inter in an Italian Cup quarter-final tie at San Siro.
To some extent, Ferrara’s time on the Juventus bench, not to say his agony, had been prolonged by the difficulties in finding a suitable replacement. The club had been keen to avoid making a short-term, stop-gap appointment. Their original long-term choice was current Russia and ex-Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink, but when it became clear that he would require a salary of around £6million per season the club changed tack.
Their next choice was the current Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez, but it became obvious that Benitez either could not or did not want to separate from Liverpool just yet. Come next June, it may be a different matter.
Thus the club settled on an old warhorse, 56-year-old Alberto Zaccheroni, a coach who has handled Udinese, Milan, Inter and Lazio, winning the Serie A title in 1999 with Milan. In theory, “Zac” will be keeping the seat warm for Benitez; in practice, he will hope to hang on into next season by regenerating Juventus.
Judging by Juve’s 1-1 home draw with Lazio in Zaccheroni’s first game in charge, he has plenty to work on.