Milan are the real winners after Derby d’Italia

Alberto Cerruti, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s chief football writer, was unsparing in his analysis of Saturday evening’s much-anticipated Derby d’Italia.

“Juventus win with a splendid goal and Inter lose, seeing their lead reduced to four points over Milan and five over the Bianconeri. But above all Italian football loses: for the low level of play, for the nervousness of its interpreters, starting with Mourinho getting himself sent off after Juventus’s first goal; for the incivility of the fans who chanted the usual hateful chants against Balotelli.”

Cerutti didn’t stop there and nor should he have, for Italian football’s showpiece event was comparable with a street fight, a brawl between two opponents whose fierce rivalry has become even more undignified in the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal three years ago. In fact, the only thing pretty about the whole affair was its 2-1 result, which, as Cerutti noted, reopens a title race that looked increasingly one-sided just over a week ago.

The world’s television cameras would have been better served if they had trained their lenses on Milan instead, who are now unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions following Saturday’s spectacular 3-0 victory over Sampdoria. What makes this run all the more remarkable is the fact Milan were in the relegation zone when they came out for the second half against Roma on October 18. Now the Rossoneri are in second place and unlike Inter and Juventus, they have a clearly defined identity predicated on attack and attack alone.

It took Leonardo’s men just 23 minutes to dispatch of Samp; finding inspiration from the 1982 Brazil side, the rookie coach certainly deserves props for showing the courage to play a 4-2-3-1 formation with five attacking players and just one holding midfielder screening the defence.

Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport last month, Thiago Silva, the Rossoneri’s impressive young centre-back, said: “I always like to win, so it’s good like this. We’re the most Brazilian side in Europe. Actually, I have never played in a Brazilian side with a similar formation. It’s a little more tiring, but even for defenders it’s entertaining because it’s not enough to rely on organisation alone… I like a lot the fact everyone goes on the attack because it mean they have trust in Nesta and I.”

Silva touches upon two interesting themes in that statement. One: Leonardo has succeeded in completely changing the club’s philosophy in a very short space of time; under Nils Liedholm Milan learned how to play zonally; under Arrigo Sacchi they learned how to press. Those ideas were developed further under Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, two coaches who played under Liedholm and Sacchi respectively. Leonardo has brought something new to the table and the tactical laboratory that is Milan continues to reinvent itself.

Two: Silva mentions the 33-year-old Alessandro Nesta who, among with Dida and Ronaldinho, was considered finished, already consigned to the Dinosaur’s graveyard that is Milanello. Ronaldinho was fantastic on Saturday, setting up Milan’s first two goals on his way to collecting the Man of the Match award, but Nesta is arguably the centrepiece of this reborn Diavolo.

Going into this season, Nesta had played just 44 league games since the World Cup in 2006, suffering from chronic back problems that required a career-threatening operation earlier this year. His only appearance in Serie A last season was a 13-minute cameo in the final game of the campaign against Fiorentina. He has now started 13 times in Serie A, scoring two important goals and is being urged to reconsider his decision to retire from international football.

Nesta’s story is certainly heart warming and Milan’s football heart racing, but, the question is, can the Rossoneri maintain a credible title challenge from now until May? Many pundits feel they have rode their luck over the last two months, scoring very late goals to beat relatively modest opposition like Chievo and Catania.

Italian football’s intelligentsia is also far from convinced. Arrigo Sacchi, the last man to win back-to-back European and Intercontinental Cups, has always believed a football team produces its best when all the parts perform in harmony like an orchestra. He has looked down on Milan’s recent success, dismissing it as the work of four soloists.

But perhaps the biggest threat to Milan’s season lies closer to home in the dressing room. After a rough pre-season and an equally uninspiring start to the campaign Leonardo finally persuaded his former team-mates to buy into his ideas. However, it must be said that those ideas, which are perceived as being so revolutionary, have already caused a degree of unrest with Rino Gattuso, the club’s talismanic vice-captain, expressing his dissatisfaction at a lack of regular first team football despite being injured.

While the going is good, Leonardo can keep Gattuso quiet relatively easily with the sheer force of his ideas, but if Milan suffer a dip in form then the revolution is unlikely to be bloodless, in fact, it might even be resisted.

Talking points:

  • While fights broke out in Turin, Reggina and Ascoli showed that “fair play” does exist in Italian football. During their match on Saturday, Reggina defender Carlos Valdez pulled a muscle while on the ball and tried to put it out of play only for Ascoli’s Vincenzo Sommese to sweep it up and score, sparking a vicious scuffle. Reggina’s Andrea Costa then hit Sommese and was sent off.

    But Ascoli, seeing the error of their ways, ultimately decided to let Reggina equalise, standing still while Biagio Pagano advanced and put the ball past Mario Cassano. An investigation has now been launched.

  • There were fireworks literally before, during and after the Rome derby. Francesco Totti called into question Mauro Zarate’s status as a “champion” and with good reason, too. The 33-year-old went into the derby having scored nine goals in Serie A, the same total as the entire Lazio team. His new 10-year contract also ensures he earns just half a million a year less than all of Lazio’s strikers combined as well.

    The game itself was mired by flares thrown on the pitch, which caused play to be suspended for a period in the first half. Ultimately Roma full-back Marco Cassetti settled the match, scoring the only goal of the game with 11 minutes to spare. Without a win since the second week of the season, it’s now practically inevitable that Claudio Lotito will sack Davide Ballardini.

  • The prodigal son came home in the summer, but Fabio Quagliarella hasn’t endured the best of times since leaving Udinese for Napoli. The 26-year-old has thrown a strop for being substituted, complained about having to resist the mouth-watering culinary temptations of his hometown and to make matters worse suffered a frustrating goal drought, which, thankfully, came to an end on Sunday with a brace in Napoli’s 3-2 win over Southern rivals Bari.
  • As if the notion of fair play had not been challenged enough over the weekend, it has also been reported that Parma defender Christian Panucci told Genoa President Enrico Preziosi: “I’ll smash your head in,” after the two sides drew 2-2 at Marassi on Sunday.

    Preziosi had already been involved in a row with his opposite number at Parma, Tommaso Ghirardi, refusing to shake his hand and shouting: “He stole my money.” Preziosi then apparently crossed paths with Panucci in the stadium’s underground car park where the pair had a few choice words to say the least.

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