There was no doubting where the power lay in Italian soccer last season as Inter surged to their first Scudetto in 11 years. Antonio Conte’s team were a force of nature as they won 16 of their final 19 fixtures to finish 12 points clear of the rest. At that point, it appeared the Nerazzurri were placed to dominate for years to come.
However, things unravelled quickly, as Conte left soon after getting his hands on the Serie A title. Inter’s financial troubles saw them cash in on Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, while Simone Inzhagi was hired from Lazio. Inzaghi is a good coach, proven at the top at the top level of the Italian game, but he’s not Conte.
On top of this, AC Milan have continued to build on what was an encouraging, if ultimately fruitless, 2020/21 campaign. With the first Derby della Madonnina of the new season approaching, AC Milan have a seven-point lead on Inter having dropped just two points from a possible 33 in Serie A.
Stefano Pioli’s team look ready to win a Scudetto just as Inter were last season. AC Milan are strong all over the pitch, but are most impressive in the centre of the pitch where they have Franck Kessie and Sandro Tonali, two of the most exciting young midfielders in all of European soccer.
Brahim Diaz has taken another step in his development into one of Serie A’s best playmakers while 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic now has support in the form of Olivier Giroud. Between the two veteran forwards, Pioli has the depth to maintain a title challenge over a whole season.
After two seasons of building, Pioli’s AC Milan now appear to be fully formed. Inter, on the other hand, are stuck in a managerial transition between Conte and Inzaghi. The solid defensive basis that sustained the Nerazzurri under Conte has been weakened with Inter keen to play a more expansive game with the new man in charge.
Edin Dzeko and Hakan Calhanoglu, who made the summer switch from AC Milan as a free agent, have shown glimpses of their ability in their first three months as Inter players, but Inzaghi has yet to find the right balance. There is still a lot of talent at San Siro, but Inter appear to be stuck in ideological no man’s land.
Conte may have been a success as Inter head coach, but he has left behind an ageing squad that will take the San Siro outfit time to rejuvenate. AC Milan, however, have one of the brightest groups of young players anywhere in Europe, even if they are still dependent on Giroud and Ibrahimovic to lead the line.
“We have two great qualities at Milanello which is the daily work where the players give their all to keep growing,” Piolo recently explained. “We are doing great performances but we can do even better both individually. Then we are balanced, we don’t get too excited or depressed when things don’t go as they should have. This is the best path for a team that knows they are doing well but can do something more.”
This is the exciting thing for AC Milan fans - while their team is succeeding in the present, the future might be even more fruitful for their club. Players like Diaz, Kessie, Tonali and Rafael Leao are still growing and learning and could form the core of the Rossoneri for a long time to come. This could be the start of an Italian soccer dynasty.
It might still be early in the season, but there would be significant symbolism to an AC Milan win on derby day this Sunday. This would open up an 11-point gulf between the two Milanese clubs and would reinforce the idea that Pioli’s team will be the ones setting the pace once Napoli fall away.
However, an Inter victory would prove that there is still enough in Inzaghi’s team to compete at the top of Serie A. While the Nerazzurri have struggled for consistency this season, the groundwork Conte put in place is still there and that could support them for the 2021/22 campaign while Inzaghi figures out what exactly he wants to transition his side into.
The Derby della Madonnina is one of the most romantic fixtures in world soccer with AC Milan and Inter two of the most storied and historic institutions in the sport. But Sunday’s match at San Siro will be viewed through the prism of the future, not the past. It’s all about what will happen next.