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Dec 19, 2013

Milan derby has lost some luster but not its spark

The Club World Cup final takes place on Saturday. Raja Casablanca, the shock finalists who overcame Atletico Mineiro on Wednesday, play Bayern Munich in Marrakesh, Morocco, their home nation. I mention this ahead of the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday because it reminded me of how it's only been three years since Inter overcame TP Mazembe to lift this very trophy in Abu Dhabi.

Their coach at the time, Rafa Benitez, was sacked afterwards. His rapport with the dressing room had deteriorated beyond repair; so too had his relationship with the owner Massimo Moratti after he made an ill-timed ultimatum, demanding that Inter either sign "four or five new players" or "speak to my agent and reach an agreement." As it turned out, the Nerazzurri did both. Inter bought Giampaolo Pazzini, Andrea Ranocchia, Yuto Nagatomo and Houssine Kharja -- and appointed Leonardo as Benitez's replacement.

If you recall, they were eight points behind league-leading Milan at the beginning of the new year and went on quite a remarkable run. By the time the derby came around in early April, the gap had been closed to just two points. It was billed as a title decider, but Milan won 3-0 and went on to stitch the Scudetto on their shirts for the first time since 2004.

Inter, meanwhile, lost the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal against Schalke 5-2 three days later, in effect relinquishing another of their titles. They did retain the Coppa Italia, accomplishing a treble-lite comprised of the Italian Super Cup and Club World Cup while also finishing second in the league.

With its clubs placed first and second in Serie A, the city of Milan was still the centre of power in Italy, the football capital of Europe, housing 10 Champions League trophies.

You could be forgiven for thinking all was rosy. It wasn't. Milan had been implementing austerity measures for some time. See the sale of Kaka. The signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho in 2010 were out of sync with this and came completely out of the blue. Inter were at the end of their own cycle. Benitez had been right to discern that but Leonardo disguised it by winning 17 of the 23 matches he was in charge of in Serie A. That left many people with the wrong impression; maybe this Inter side weren't finished yet after all. They were and Moratti has come to accept that.

You might say the summer of 2011 was a watershed moment in Italian football. It was when the power shifted.

Milan let Andrea Pirlo go to Juventus. Under strain, Inter persisted in selling pieces of their treble-winning squad, the highest profile of which was Samuel Eto'o. More painful, but necessary, cuts followed. The recession bit hard. Changes in the structure of Italian football -- for instance, the move from an individual to a collectively bargained TV rights deal -- and the failure to have invested in their future when the times were good (like planning for a new, privately owned stadium) have contributed to their respective declines.

Both are facing up to it well, albeit in different ways. Moratti sold a majority stake in Inter to the Indonesian media and entertainment mogul Erick Thohir in the hope that he'd open up new markets for the club and bring in new revenue. It's becoming clear (if it wasn't already) that E.T isn't a Sheikh Mansour, a QSI, a Roman Abramovich or a Dmitry Rybolovlev. He might not even been a James Pallotta at Roma. What we're told is that Inter still need to sell to buy -- hence Fredy Guarin being linked with a move to Chelsea. The wage bill apparently requires further slashing, too. At Milan, the past couple of months have been turbulent as well after Barbara Berlusconi asked that the club go in a different direction. A fork in the road looked to have been reached. It was either her way or Adriano Galliani's, Milan's existing chief executive, who has run the club pretty much on his own since Silvio Berlusconi went into politics in 1994. Instead, they have settled on a middle path. After offering to resign, Galliani will instead stay on. A board meeting on Thursday will ratify Barbara's promotion alongside him.

Yet you wonder how sustainable this is for the Rossoneri. Expelled from parliament last month, Silvio Berlusconi has promised to play a more active role again like he did in the early days of his ownership. Whether that means he's prepared to invest or not -- particularly when his other daughter Marina, the president of the family holding company, has expressed her desire that Milan be self-sustainable -- remains to be seen.

All of this has left us contemplating a derby dell'austerity, as Il Corriere della Sera is billing it. While it may come as a surprise to younger followers, both these clubs have known harder times. Inter went 17 years without winning the Scudetto between 1989 and 2006, Milan even longer: an astonishing 44 years between 1907 and 1951 and were also relegated in 1980 and 1982. Maybe think about that before you proclaim this the worst state you've ever seen either of them in.

They've both had ups and downs and over the past quarter of a century or so, we've been spoiled by their largesse. Though mediocre at the moment -- Inter are fifth in Serie A, Milan 11th -- the hope is that they are belatedly beginning to move with the times. That's a small kernel of encouragement for those who want to see them regenerate and return to what they once were.