Milan and Inter heading in different directions on eve of the Milan derby
Inter has had far more success in recent years, but Milan is the people's favorite
New coach Rafa Benitez has had an injury crisis to deal with
After preaching austerity, Milan has returned to its big-spending ways
Sometimes, it's about attitude and confidence. You either have them, or you don't. And it really doesn't matter that much if they have any bearing on reality. Mind can trump matter.
Inter may have won five straight Serie A titles. It may be the defending champion of Europe, fresh off the Treble and boasting the likely European Footballer of the Year. But it's also a basket case of neuroses and insecurity one which even Jose Mourinho himself struggled to paper over. Heading into Sunday's derby, it should count its blessings, at least to some degree. The team is still joint top of its Champions' League group and it has a chance to pull level with Milan at the top of the Serie A table, despite a wobbly start to the season, a raft of injuries and the traumatic farewell to the Special One.
Contrast this with the Rossoneri. Their Champions' League qualification is even more on a knife edge. It only achieved the summit of Serie A thanks to some highly dubious refereeing last week against Palermo. Half the starting XI is still up for grabs, some three months into the season, as Massimiliano Allegri struggles to find a balance which may well be impossible to achieve. Oh, and two of Milan's three recognized forwards are out through injury.
Yet take the pulse the city and there is little doubt where the momentum lies: Milan, by a country mile. That's the magic of the Rossoneri and, in a slightly different way, their controversial owner, Silvio Berlusconi. Win one game and the magic returns. Logic be damned, like it was this summer, when, after announcing a yearlong austerity, the club blew bucketloads of cash on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho. All of a sudden, the Milan hype machine is back in full swing. Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva are, once again, the best defensive partnership in the world. Andrea PIrlo, Ronaldinho and Rino Gattuso have traveled back through time to 2005. And then, of course, there's Zlatan, the one-man wrecking crew.
Inter isn't like that. Inter's glass is always half-empty. Diego Milito misses a month through injury? Clearly, he must be finished, what a mistake it was not cashing in on him in the summer. (Never mind the fact that 3 goals from 6 league games is a decent return.) Maicon gets embarrassed by Gareth Bale in the Champions League? Surely he too should have gone in August, when Real Madrid was dangling millions, since he's obviously an old man. (Forget the fact that he turned 29 in the summer and that even Leo Messi, occasionally, has a bad spell.) Samuel Eto'o says he'd rather play up front than out on the wing like he did under Mourinho? Oh, no, he's causing trouble, just like many said he would. (Of course, that "trouble" equates to 17 goals already this season in all competition ...)
The fact of the matter is that both Milanese clubs have a raft of issues to work through, but Inter, if anything, is better off than its crosstown rivals. For a start, unlike Milan, Inter is a team, not a collection of individuals. Mourinho's blueprint evidently needs updating, but the building blocks are still there. Putting them together into some kind of coherent unit is doable. Yes, players often slump after a long, taxing and, ultimately successful season. But the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Esteban Cambiasso, Lucio, Julio Cesar and Eto'o won't turn into turds overnight. At worst they'll go from superstar to very good player. What's more, after years of neglecting youth, the likes of Davide Santon, Joel Obi, Philippe Coutinho -- all of them teenagers -- are knocking on the doors of the first-team, ready to add fresh legs and enthusiasm.
Milan, on the other hand, is still a team with a 33 year old (Gianluca Zambrotta) and a 34 year old (Nesta) in its first-choice back four. And the former is battle-weary and clearly on the slide, while the latter's knee has been cut open and repaired half a dozen times. The Pirlo question in midfield remains unaddressed. Do you run everything through him, like in the Golden Years? Or do you put him out to pasture in favor of a midfield that can actually win the ball back, which, on paper at least, is the only way to support the gifted but often lackadaisical front three? And if you choose the former option, do you even have the personnel to put it into practice? Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini have been showing their age for some time now, Kevin Prince Boateng is a beast, but has only really been playing regularly for the past eight months or so and Mathieu Flamini seems to live in Allegri's doghouse.
And that's before we even get to the strikers. Pato has broken down again, just as he seemed to be ridding himself of last season's nightmare. Ronaldinho plays from a standstill these days and, in any case, seems more preoccupied with figuring out where he's going to play next season (his contract is up in June). The fact that Allegri says that Robinho may be best suited as "an impact sub" tells you all you need to know about how far he's gotten in terms of figuring out what to do with him. Ibrahimovic, of course, is playing well, but that's a mixed blessing. Because, frankly, when Ibrahimovic plays too well, his sides revert to the "get-the-ball-to-Ibra-and-wait-for-him-to-do-something" script. Which, apart from being ugly and not consistent with Milan's ballyhooed style, is also risky: as mental volatility goes, Ibrahimovic may not be Antonio Cassano, but he's not exactly Mr. Reliability either. Plus, of course, there's no more SuperPippo to turn to off the bench.
But you wouldn't know that listening to the two sets of players talk. The red-and-black are all smiles, the blue-and-black are under a permanent cloud. Time for Rafa Benitez to step in and do something which, history shows, is not his strength: sell the players on his idea. The Inter boss has to step outside his comfort zone and do what his predecessor excelled at: making the players believe and taking them into the light. If he can do that, then maybe, just maybe, he can get the nerazzurri to perform at their level. If they can do that, Milan will be swept away. Allegri, on the other hand, needs to solve his footballing problems and that may be beyond his powers. But, at least he doesn't need to worry about building confidence. It's (almost) always sunny in the red and black half of Milan.