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Jan 31, 2012

Derby day: A Milanese aftermath

While even well-funded scientific researchers have apparently not been able to find out what the best thing before sliced bread was, you got the impression on the week leading up to the Milan-Inter derby on January 15 that this latest chapter of the intercity rivalry would certainly be the most compelling event since the dawn of the sandwich.

Most of the main media outlets are based in Milan and you can feel that extra ooomph they put into coverage, leading the rest of the world to believe nothing really matters outside of the 20100 zip code. The week of stories and TV specials and interviews with former players high on platitudes and short on insight usually ends with a short note telling us most of the living planet will be in front of the TV watching, never mind that some of it will be asleep because of the time difference and a good portion will rely on dodgy live streaming flanked by grammatically-challenged live comments.

The overkill, which is in great part warranted by the status both Milan and Inter enjoy worldwide, means there can be a drop-off in performance right after the game, especially if the result does not go according to form, and now, over two weeks after the encounter Inter won "away" through a Diego Milito goal, may be a good time to assess how that frigid evening in Milan impacted the rest of the month for both sides.

A mention must be made, though, of the single most covered - and annoying - item of said period, the on-off saga of the Carlos Tevez move from Manchester City to one of the Milanese rivals. Apart from the pathetic ethical lesson it may give to kids who will see how bad behaviour is rewarded by an advancement to a glamorous club (for an earlier example see Antonio Cassano, January 2011), the innuendos, rumours and false sightings have eaten up more newspaper space and air time than the actual analysis of both teams' progress after that result.

Which is sad because both Milan and Inter have apparently learned something from that game. Or perhaps not, considering how Inter met a damaging stop to their ascent with their 1-0 defeat at Lecce on Sunday?

Milan, first. They used their customary 4-3-1-2 (more like a 4-1-2-1-2) against Inter and have done so at Novara and at home to Lazio in the Italian Cup and Cagliari in the Serie A. Their latest tactical experiment, of the kind that usually blows up in the face of the cartoon mad scientist leaving him with scorched hair, involves one of the less talented members of the squad, Urby Emanuelson.

The Dutch midfielder started behind the strikers both against Inter and at Novara and finished the game at left-back both times, a testament to his versatility but also to the simple fact he does not seem to be good enough to be a creative force, as coach Max Allegri all but acknowledged last week when he said: "I'm not surprised he's better on the outside, he keeps lacking the final pass that is required for a trequartista."

Allegri, who's had a shortage of midfielders with both Kevin-Prince Boateng and Alberto Aquilani sidelined by injuries, duly sent him out on the right of midfield against Cagliari, possibly with defensive duties against the hard-running Radja Nainggolan in mind, but you still wonder whether he is trying to find the best position for him or simply trying to hide his shortcomings.

Emanuelson's struggles have been balanced by the sudden ascent of Stephan El Shaarawy, the 19-year-old forward who according to Allegri has shown "unexpected improvement for his age" and by displaying brilliance, great close control and the ability to go past defenders has all but cemented a place in Milan's Champions League list, dispelling rumours he might be loaned out for the rest of the season.

Djamel Mesbah, one of the favourite non-glamorous players of this writer, joined from Lecce last week and will surely be a fixture at left-back once he gets his defensive duties fully in order, while Alexander Merkel, back from his loan period at Genoa, would have provided another option in midfield had he not injured his right knee against Lazio last week. Midfield seemed indeed to be a more urgent area of concern than the forward line, which makes the arrival of Maxi Lopez less disappointing than some fans may believe. The Argentinian had been targeted for months and spent a few surreal days away from his (former?) Catania team-mates and holed up in a Milan hotel room while waiting for Milan to a) give up on Tevez b) complete his transfer.

He sat on the bench for the match against Cagliari with a befuddled look on his face, but may well be soon in action and add his name to the long list of Milan goalscorers in Serie A this season: when he drove his shot past Cagliari's Michael Agazzi for the Rossoneri's third goal, Massimo Ambrosini became the 13th different player to score for Milan in the Serie A. And although 22 of Milan's 43 goals so far have come from just two players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (15) and the surprising Antonio Nocerino (7), you do believe a platoon system also involving El Shaarawy, Pato (when he's not injured) and the profligate Robinho may be good enough to keep the Rossoneri challenging Juventus for the Scudetto.

Which may now be beyond Inter, after their defeat at Lecce ended a string of seven consecutive league wins that had lifted them to fourth place, just six points behind Juventus.

Inter had played well before the derby but has failed to carry that form to this past week: they did not impress in beating Lazio 2-1 on January 22 and went out of the Italian Cup at Naples last Wednesday before crashing at Lecce, who had not won at home all season.

Claudio Ranieri, who has gone from wise old fixer to master motivator to tinkerer again if you trust the media reports, used a 4-4-2 both against Milan and Lazio but started in a 4-3-1-2 at Lecce, reverting to 4-4-2 after the interval when he controversially took off Wes Sneijder - who had had an argument with both Obi and Giampaolo Pazzini on the pitch - and replaced him with Ricky Alvarez. The Argentinian winger/playmaker, bought last summer from Velez Sarsfield for a reported €9 million rising to €13 million, had been criticised by his coach for his tendency to drift in and out of games. Ranieri had taken him off a little over an hour into the derby because he was not sticking to his assigned left-wing position enough, and after the first half against Lazio for failing to lift the quality of Inter's play, although he had provided the brilliant pass for Milito to score one minute before the interval.

Bizarre as it may sound since it involves an established star and a 23-year old who's yet to become a first-team fixture, the Sneijder-Alvarez conundrum may well decide Inter's season. As Ranieri reiterated on Sunday evening, Sneijder can't be at his best in a 4-4-2 since he's not a wide player; he needs to be a trequartista for his best qualities to shine. "His team-mates look for him all the time, he can read the game and makes Inter go" were Ranieri's words back in October.

Ranieri now believes Inter are at their best in a 4-4-2, especially when it involves Thiago Motta partnering Esteban Cambiasso in central midfield, and it's intriguing how the Italian international has now grown to become the Nerazzurri's lynchpin to a point where his rumoured departure for PSG may prove catastrophic for the side.

Listen to what Ranieri said after that laboured win against Lazio: "We clearly missed Thiago. He's the player who gives us poise, good passing angles and the right tempo. Without him, we're slow getting forward. There's no one else like him in our squad."

Ranieri's recommendation that Thiago not be sold will be put to the test in the closing minutes of the January transfer window, but it's perhaps an indictment of Inter's transfer policy in the past twelve months that they can't seem to live without a player who's just 29 but at times seems much older and has been frequently written off as too slow. Don't tell Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, though. He also rates him highly.

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