Inter in buoyant mood ahead of derby showdown with AC Milan
Fate looks to be smiling on Milan's blue half -- and that's not a good thing before a derby.
Inter have racked up 19 points out of a possible 21, have the best defence in the league and are going into a big game against an AC Milan team that have lost almost half their matches despite investing over €200 million in the summer window.
With coach Vincenzo Montella under pressure, the Rossoneri have even drawn criticism from former owner Silvio Berlusconi, who timed his usual rant for maximum impact just before the big game. On paper, everything is going in Inter's favour.
"Milan have a place in my heart for the rest of my life and all I want is to see the club at least do well, and this is my biggest regret," he told Il Corriere della Sera. "It's disappointing. The team's not working.
"I don't understand their summer transfer activities. Never before have a club signed 11 new players. With all that money, couldn't they have bought a top player?"
But you won't find many Nerazzurri looking to this Sunday's 219th Derby della Madonnina with expectation. It's hard to be confident ahead of a derby -- games which, the tradition goes, are most likely to flip the script and leave sad Interisti reading some awfully cheesy "Milan rise from the ashes" headlines in the Monday papers.
After all, it's not like Inter are perfect. Their football hasn't quite shined so far. They've played poorly against some low-grade opponents, and were spared when Roma hit the post three times against them in September. Antonio Candreva is so poor that his terrible crosses have prompted the creation of a Facebook page with over 5,000 followers.
Milan, for their part, have signed some genuinely exciting players. Nikola Kalinic and Lucas Biglia are good enough to send shivers down to the Nerazzurri faithful's spines, while Leonardo Bonucci is one of the best defenders in the world. Montella is also a genuinely good coach.
And yet there's something that doesn't quite make sense: is it really true, for a start, that derbies defy all expectations? What is so remarkable about this particular rivalry is, in fact, how much it has accurately reflected league form over the years. There have been some surprises, granted: Inter's 6-0 loss in 2000 (made all the more laughable by the realisation that two-goal hero scorer Gianni Comandini is now a DJ on the Romagna coast) is one, the time when Massimiliano Allegri's Milan lost the 2012 title to Juventus after a poor derby another.
But generally speaking, this game tends to bear out these teams' weaknesses: neither could win last season because they were incapable of defending and/or holding on to a lead. Inter's failure to beat Milan from 2001 to 2005 owed to the fact that Carlo Ancelotti's men were more talented and more organised. By the same token, Jose Mourinho won almost all of his rivalry games because his side were obviously superior.
Without wishing to sound arrogant, this Inter side is better. Unlike predecessor Roberto Mancini, Luciano Spalletti is building something, not just improvising week by week, and the poor play seen so far is an attempt at focusing on long-term results. Matias Vecino is an excellent signing and someone capable of bossing the midfield and spreading it around with aplomb.
Despite all the impressive signings, this Rossoneri team really is a mix of random talents fitted into an awkward 3-5-2. The idea of Mauro Icardi facing off against a very unconvincing Bonucci is an ominous one for Milan while Suso and Giacomo Bonaventura have been effectively pigeonholed into roles that don't suit them. Meanwhile, Fabio Borini is starting as a wing-back. At Inter, you have an improved midfield, Ivan Perisic and the beast that is Milan Skriniar.
Inter aren't just better on paper. They're better full stop. They're not the team undergoing an extreme makeover.
This derby shouldn't be a contest ... should it?
Edoardo Dalmonte covers Inter Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @EdoDalmonte.