The choreography produced by Milan’s Ultras for Sunday’s derby had been months in the making. As kick-off approached, a colossal depiction of Hellboy was unveiled: stretching from the top of the second tier in San Siro’s Curva Sud all the way down to ground level. The demon crashed his fist on to a pile of skulls, interwoven with an Inter scarf. “Send them to Hell,” read the accompanying slogan.
The banner left on display in the same section at full-time cannot have taken quite so long to prepare: a single word spelled out in letters as tall as your average fan. All it said was: “Shits.”
Milan had lost 3-2, and despite very nearly clawing their way back level during a spirited finale, could have few complaints. Inter played the better football, created more chances and twice held a two-goal lead. Even Gennaro Gattuso conceded during post-game remarks that his team had been outmanoeuvred and outfought.
Whoever would have predicted such an outcome on Thursday night, after Inter fell out of the Europa League with a 1-0 home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt? That was their fifth reverse of this calendar year. Milan’s only loss in 2019 had come away to Juventus. Eight points behind their neighbours at the start of January, the Rossoneri now sat a point ahead of Inter in third place.
Where Milan recently acquired a match-winning centre-forward in Krzysztof Piątek – scorer of eight goals in nine appearances since his transfer from Genoa – Inter effectively lost one. Mauro Icardi grabbed the only goal when these teams met in October. Sunday marked the ninth consecutive game he has missed since being stripped of the captaincy.
It was not only up front that Milan appeared to hold an advantage. Gattuso’s defence had been the stingiest in Europe’s top five leagues since the start of December. The manager was at last getting the best out of Tiemoué Bakayoko, combining him with Franck Kessié in a physically imposing midfield. Lucas Paquetá offered guile and vision alongside them. Inter, by contrast, have been decimated by injury. Teams are permitted to name up to 12 substitutes for a Serie A match. On Sunday, the Nerazzurri had seven.
Luciano Spalletti’s first great success might have been in convincing his players that the situation was less dire than outside commentators were suggesting. “After the game against Eintracht Frankfurt, I had my players re-watch the [October] derby win over Milan,” he explained. “There were only three players missing from that team – [Sime] Vrsaljko, [Radja] Nainggolan and Icardi.” Those are significant absences. Icardi had scored all of Inter’s last five derby goals, dating back to 2017, while Nainggolan was Spalletti’s top recruit last summer. Still, the point was well made. And, more importantly, well received.
Inter showed no signs of an inferiority complex as they attacked Milan from the first whistle. They took three minutes to open the scoring, Lautaro Martínez heading down an Ivan Perisic cross for Matias Vecino to drive home from close range. Notionally playing as part of midfield three, he was granted licence to push forward by Spalletti here: at times operating more like a No 10. It is a role we are unused to seeing him in, and Gattuso was slow to adjust.
When Inter extended their lead through Stefan De Vrij at the start of the second half, the derby appeared to be won. Milan, though, responded with a similarly well-taken header by Bakayoko six minutes later. Gattuso sent on Patrick Cutrone – a striker – to replace the left-back Ricardo Rodríguez. With Samu Castillejo already on for Paquetá, Milan had five forwards on the pitch. The game became stretched, but Inter were gifted an opportunity when Castillejo tripped Matteo Politano in the Milan box. The clumsiness of the mistake was compounded by its needlessness. Politano had not been running through on goal but moving back out of the penalty area as he fought to keep control of the ball.
Martínez converted his spot-kick to make it 3-1. Still, this derby was not done. An in-swinging cross from Suso was deflected by D’Ambrosio back towards his own goal. Samir Handanovic kept the ball out with his knee, but Mateo Musacchio buried the rebound.
There followed a helter-skelter finish. Handanovic kept out a point-blank Castillejo header. D’Ambrosio made amends for his part in Milan’s second goal by putting his body – even the most sensitive parts – on the line to block a shot from Cutrone.
The full-time whistle was met with delight and despair. Victory vaulted Inter back above their neighbours into third. Defeat was hardly catastrophic for Milan on a weekend when fifth-placed Roma and sixth-placed Atalanta collected one point between them, but they have failed to beat Inter now in any of their last six Serie A meetings.
A scuffle between Kessié and Lucas Biglia on the bench after the former was substituted added a further negative note. Both players came out and spoke to reporters together afterwards, insisting it was simply an outburst of tension in a keenly-felt match. Each took responsibility and said they should have known better. It is also true that Kessié had been subjected to moments of what sounded like racial abuse from pockets of the stadium.
Even the victors, in any case, still face questions. Spalletti got his tactics spot on here, but has he really fixed all that ails Inter? The Icardi situation remains unresolved, and the manager hardly defused the tension with his pointed post-game references to the fact that Nainggolan, unlike the Argentinian, had come to watch and then to celebrate with team-mates in the changing room.
On the other hand, positive results can only strengthen the club’s position. Inter, despite their meek European exit, have now won six out of eight league games without Icardi. With him, it was 10 out of 20.
Correlation is not causation, and even if the player never kicks another ball for Inter it is still in everybody’s interests to achieve some sort of peace and work towards achieving a sale to suit all parties in the summer. The forthcoming international break will offer everyone a chance to pause and reflect.
• There will be no unbeaten season for Juventus. The Bianconeri rested many starters away to Genoa, including Cristiano Ronaldo, though a comedown was likely in any case given the energies expended against Atlético. Still, it was rather poetic that the opener should be scored by a former Juventus player, Stefano Sturaro, making his first appearance for the Grifone, and with practically his first touch.
• Scary moments for David Ospina in Napoli’s win against Udinese. The goalkeeper was caught in the face by Ignacio Pussetto’s knee while contesting a cross at the start of the game and remained down for some time. He eventually played on, but subsequently collapsed in the 41st minute with the ball nowhere near. Ospina was finally taken to hospital for a CAT scan, which happily came back all-clear. The question of how on earth he was cleared to continue playing in the first place, however, must be addressed.