Inter have chance to show they are truly back in Derby d'Italia
It was a tad odd to see Inter fans mock Milan last week. Four-nil up against Chievo, the entire San Siro began to jump, yelling: "If you don't jump, you're a Rossonero." Why didn't they choose this weekend's opponent Juventus? Perhaps it was because the hated Diavolo had just sunk further into ridicule, or because certain habits die hard.
Still, it felt weird, because since the match-fixing scandal Calciopoli, most Inter faithful have it in more for Juventus than they do for their crosstown foes. Before then, many just couldn't stand the sight of Inter Milan's "cousins" lording their five Champions League wins over the team, winning their fourth by knocking the Nerazzurri out in two tense semifinals back in 2003.
Allegiances and supporter group interests aside, as James Horncastle put it, the famed Derby d'Italia has mostly been fought on asymmetrical lines in recent times -- the Bianconeri dominating ever since Inter's fall from grace in 2011.
This year, however, things are different. This Inter side feels like it belongs. Luciano Spalletti confirmed it in today's press conference, saying that "we now have the confidence that we have quality."
Though it's hard to call the teams equal, they're at least of comparable levels: Juventus, especially, feel like they're at the end of a cycle, their old and tired defence struggling amidst reports of three of their foreign-born stars -- Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado and Stephan Lichtsteiner -- all asking to leave.
Yet it's always hard to bury Juventus, or indeed Coach Max Allegri -- a very underestimated one at that -- who outsmarted Napoli thanks to a great collective effort and the much-maligned Gonzalo Higuain.
It may, therefore, be a waste of time to focus on what is happening with Saturday's opponents. They're champions, and deservedly so, and have years' worth of winning experience, enough to stop Inter from vainly hoping that they come apart as they did against Sampdoria.
It will, rather, be on Inter to show their mettle. This is the kind of game that is going to truly measure the Nerazzurri's progress. Last season, they looked good in their two Derbies d'Italia, but fell short after. Former Inter boss Stefano Pioli may have blinked before the return leg anyway by switching from his tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 to a three-at-the-back system.
This season, neither Sampdoria nor Lazio (the two teams who have defeated the Old Lady so far in league play) compromised who they were. Back when he faced Juventus last season, Spalletti didn't trust the three-man defence which would prove so successful (and had done the week before against Milan) and was overwhelmed in midfield.
This time round, the Tuscan seems to have learned his lesson: "We know that we need to go there and play our game, without certainties and without fear, but with the right amount of respect."
It sounds like he will go to bat with the men he has trusted all season long, especially in central midfield. Undoubtedly a goal threat, Marcelo Brozovic is too anarchic to be worth a starting berth, especially when Borja Valero and Matias Vecino can keep pressure on a Juve midfield that still hasn't shown their best.
The only justified change would probably be at the back, where Davide Santon has shown to be a better attacking player than Yuto Nagatomo. One can just think of how many full-back forays have made a difference on the road, that 2003 Champions League coming back to mind as Alessandro Birindelli found Marcelo Zalayeta's head to down Barcelona in the quarterfinals.
Either way, this Inter side has had their fill of disappointments against Juventus. Now, it returns to Turin with a strong centre-back partnership, the best goalkeeper in the league and its best striker -- one who was unfairly handed a two-game suspension last season in a controversial loss here a few months ago. With VAR now filtering out some of that nonsense, Inter should realize that the deck isn't quite as stacked against them. With any luck, they'll realize that they're ready for the big time, too.