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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Derby della Madonnina pits two rivals taking different routes back to the top

Milan Derby preview
Inter Milan’s attack makes them one of Italy’s best teams. Ina Fassbender/EPA.

There is no derby in Italian soccer as romantic as the Derby della Madonnina. The Derby dei Campioni between AC Milan and Juventus may carry more weight given the historic success of the two clubs involved, while the Derby della Capitale between Lazio and Roma might be the fiercest in terms of the animosity between the two rival fanbases, but it’s the contest between the Milanese pair that is the most quintessentially Calcio.

These are two heavyweights of the Italian game, although the last decade or so has been rough on both of them. The 2000s saw AC Milan and Inter share the Scudetto six times between them (seven times if the 2010/11 season is included), but not for the last nine years have either finished top of the pile in Serie A.

Indeed, this has been an era of Italian soccer dominated by Juventus, with the Old Lady chasing their 10th straight Scudetto this season. Juve have a monopoly at the top of Serie A, but rivals are plotting their downfall. AC Milan and Inter face each other this Saturday, but both clubs have their sights on more than just derby day bragging rights.

Milan’s two clubs are plotting their way back to the top, but the routes they are taking are very different indeed. While AC Milan are looking ahead to the future, targeting some of Serie A’s best young talent, Inter are counting on experience and proven winners to take them closer to a first Scudetto since the days of Jose Mourinho.

The purest manifestation of this difference in ideology came in how AC Milan and Inter both targeted a new midfielder in the summer transfer window, with the former signing 20-year-old Sandro Tonali, tipped as the next Andrea Pirlo, and the latter signing Arturo Vidal, the Chilean veteran who has won titles in Germany, Italy and Spain.

Conte’s strategy has raised some eyebrows. Inter has become home to a number of washed up Premier League flops, with some accusing the former Chelsea manager of mortgaging the Nerazzurri’s future in the pursuit of short term results. He has, however, delivered short term results, with Inter making the Europa League final and charting their best Serie A finish for nine years last season.

Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez have forged one of the most potent strike partnership in Europe, scoring 37 league goals between them last season. Behind them, Marcelo Brozovic, Stefan de Vrij and Roberto Gagliardini have given Conte the structure required to build a team around.

AC Milan haven’t totally avoided short-term measures in order to give them a platform to build upon, with 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic returning to the club in January. The Rossoneri hierarchy performed a late U-turn on their managerial plans for 2020/21, keeping Stefano Pioli after a strong finish to last season having lined up Ralf Rangnick as his replacement.

Ibrahimovic aside, AC Milan’s team has been assembled with the long-term in mind. Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie are both exceptional young midfielders, with the addition of Tonali from Brescia this summer only set to bolster them as a unit. Gianluigi Donnarumma remains the natural heir to Gianluigi Buffon as Italy’s next great goalkeeper while Theo Hernandez is among Europe’s best young full backs at this moment in time.

Both teams have started the 2020/21 campaign strongly, but Saturday’s Derby della Madonnina will provide a clearer indication of what this season may hold for AC Milan and Inter. Not for a number of years have Juventus appeared so vulnerable, with Andrea Pirlo taking charge of the Bianconeri as a rookie manager. Juve had some shaky moments last season and they have taken an almighty gamble on the bet Pirlo is the right figure to steady them.

This is a rivalry steeped in history and tradition, with the fixture taking its name from the statue of the Virgin Mary that has stood atop Milan Cathedral since the 1700s. Saturday’s match will be the 226th official meeting between AC Milan and Inter, but both clubs appear to be at the beginnings of a new era.

Significant investment has been made in the future of both clubs at the San Siro, with plans even in place for AC Milan and Inter to build a new state-of-the-art stadium. AC Milan owners, American hedge fund Elliott Management, are ambitious, as are Inter’s Chinese owners, Suning Holdings, but the two rivals have different views on how to realise those ambitions.

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