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Dec 24, 2007

Inter underline their superiority

Regardless of the result or the standard of play all derby matches are, by default, great; this is thanks to the traditions and stories that have contributed to their elevation to legendary status.

Thus, when the labels of 'best side in the world' against the 'best side in the country' are added, the end result may be what the Milan derby on Sunday turned out to be; a passionate, frenzied, at times rugged clash between two teams who have come to dominate Italian football in recent years.

The two sides managed to extract one more for the occasion in a front a throbbing audience of more than 78,000, with the atmosphere being helped - not hindered - by the so-called 'fan strike' which led the ultra groups to abstain from chanting, lighting flares, unfurling giant flags and banging on drums (outlawed, anyway).

This all made for an old-fashioned environment which brought back memories of better times when voices, not artificial noise and eye-catching banners, constituted the backdrop to a derby, so may the ultra strike last longer, possibly forever.

Milan had won the World Championship for Clubs a week earlier, amid contrasting emotions and reactions in Italy: the persistence of the Rossoneri's top management in setting the Japan event as their main target for the first half of the season had taken on an annoying, at times irritating tone, alienating most neutral fans who thought Milan's aim at winning a world's best 18th international trophy had caused them to snub the domestic league.

Based on a very unscientific survey - that is, what I heard on the street and in some workplaces - very few neutral fans supported the Rossoneri in the final against Boca Juniors on December 16, and most of them must have been unimpressed by Milan's decision to have the words 'il club piu' titolato al mondo' (the world's winningest side) stitched right under the club's badge for the Inter match.

Their opponents, on the other hand, still suffer the antipathy of those who believe the side was praised too much for winning a lame Serie A last season, with Juventus playing in Serie B and Milan hobbled by a point penalty. While some conspiracy theorists still point to the fact the investigation that brought to light the corrupt old regime set up by former Juventus director Luciano Moggi was aided by phone-tapping, and one of Inter's more prominent directors was the chief executive of Telecom Italia - typically Italian, blaming the investigator instead of the investigated on.

So, while trying to keep the rest of the world's hate at some distance, both Milan clubs had plenty of attrition to dish out between them, for the simple reason that when the best team in the country meets the best team in the world something has to give.

Having established a 22-point lead over their city rivals (or 'cousins', as we say in Italy), Inter were rightly determined to show their superior form and mettle, and show they did. There is no escaping the fact, now, that after a hard-fought and brilliant match, Inter have positively confirmed their status as the dominant side in the country.

Their attitude and psychological strength, once fragile when situations turned bad, are now so evident that for the second time in the last two derby matches - including the one they won last March - they came back from a goal down with an impressive display of physical power, talent and confidence.

It was their most difficult win of the season and Milan must be praised for putting up a good fight and threatening to equalise up to the last kick of the match, but no one could deny Inter deserved their win, albeit barely.

It also tells something about Roberto Mancini as a coach that he never panicked in the weeks when his side's admittedly superior squad began thinning or when his side went behind yesterday and rock-solid defender Walter Samuel was stretchered off with a bad knee injury (the fact a World Cup winner like Marco Materazzi was available to replace Samuel may have helped in this particular circumstance, though).

When Chilean forward Luis Jimenez went down to a muscle injury in the home match v Torino on December 9, Mancini, having already lost midfielders Dejan Stankovic, Patrick Vieira, Luis Figo and Olivier Dacourt, the latter to a season-ending knee trouble, took a detour around his coaching ideals and employed a three-man forward line in the following couple of matches, which meant - sticking to the simplest of logic - one fewer midfielder was required.

The new look Inter produced a couple of wins but as soon as Jimenez was passed fit on the eve of the derby Mancini pencilled him in as the most advanced man of a midfield diamond right behind strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Julio Cruz.

Jimenez's role was crucial role as it required the player to both supply flair and passes in the final third and shadowing Milan's Andrea Pirlo; a considerably more difficult task than those the Chilean had successfully taken on against other sides who have a similar approach to Milan's, Lazio (for Pirlo, read Cristian Ledesma) and Fiorentina (Fabio Liverani).

Jimenez had a great game, constantly harassing the brilliant Pirlo and hitting the bar right after Milan had opened the scoring through Pirlo himself with a typically well-placed free-kick from just outside the Inter penalty area.

Milan had fielded the same XI that had beaten Boca Juniors, save for the return of Massimo Oddo at right back in place of Daniele Bonera, and worries about jet-lag and Rino Gattuso's awkward physical readiness were dispelled in an entertaining but rugged opening quarter of an hour which saw some of the hardest tackling you're likely to see in the Serie A this season.

Even Pirlo, who despite being a master of ball control and an exceptional user of the tiniest space around him has a nasty streak when required, was booked as referee Emidio Morganti, later twice requiring the assistance of Milan's physio for a calf problem, tried to establish some sort of control on the match. Nothing too nasty, but in typical derby style no-one was going to pull his leg going into tackles.

Milan's goal of establishing ball control and tempo in midfield with their typical passing style suffered a setback when Clarence Seedorf was hurt early. The Dutchman was never a factor after that and was replaced at half time by Emerson, a player whose acquisition last August should have sparked some conspiracy theories as his best times already seemed behind him when he played for Real Madrid last season.

Emerson settled in the middle of the park, with Pirlo starting from a position wider on the right but still offering himself as a target for any team-mate when the ball needed to come out of defence, a situation when Milan rarely kick the ball up-field.

With Seedorf missing, Ambrosini often required as an additional defender when Inter streamed forward (then as additional striker in the closing stages) and Pirlo under constant pressure, it is easy to see how Inter, with their superior strength, were not too shaken by Milan's early strike.

Javier Zanetti, the captain, and Esteban Cambiasso, his international team-mate, again gave an impressive display of hard running, resilience and it was perhaps fitting that it should be Cambiasso to both create Julio Cruz's equaliser on 36 minutes then, after a poor clearance by Paolo Maldini, score the winner with a shot from outside the area, which was misjudged by Milan goalkeeper Dida; yet another mistake from the Brazilian which will not help his team-mates' confidence in him.

Cruz's goal, actually, originated from a rare moment of genius by Ibrahimovic, whom Milan had almost signed in the summer of 2006 after Juventus' demotion to Serie B was confirmed. Having shown wonderful form this season, the Swede was expected to thrive on the grand stage of the derby but Milan's defence did a great job on him, often doubling him down with Gattuso and Ambrosini and all but taking away the one-on-ones that have become Ibrahimovic's trademark.

But as three Milan players surrounded him near the baseline on 36 minutes he did have the control, swiftness of mind and touch to thread the ball out of the trenches towards Cambiasso, whose low cross was impressively controlled and fired home by Cruz.

What Inter's biggest challengers in the Serie A, Roma, will make of the Nerazzurri's success, and what Arsenal and Liverpool, who had more than a passing interest in the derby, will make of the outcome is difficult to fathom. Roma are seven points behind Inter and in indifferent form, but still keeping up some sort of challenge.

The Champions League will not start again for almost two months, but Inter, who have not won the trophy since 1965, are now keeping more than one eye on the competition; it would validate their domestic dominance even more, and would propel them past Milan on all fronts.

As for the Rossoneri, they are now 25 points behind Inter - albeit with three relatively easy games in hand, but, more worryingly, 11 points from fourth place - and Champions League qualification - which seems to have become the holy grail for a side whose very existence seems to be predicated on being in the top continental competition, and possibly winning it, year in year out.

Dom Raynor has already explained on Soccernet this week how Carlo Ancelotti's chances of staying for another season may not have been helped by what has been going on so far, and with José Mourinho still available there is always going to be speculation on the affable Ancelotti, but the most urgent task for Milan is to rally in Serie A, getting back to a position whence they could challenge for fourth or even third place and prepare for the European assault in February.

Oh, a win at the San Siro would help, too. They still have not gained full points from any Serie A matches at their own ground, and not even the knowledge they were actually the away team managed to do the trick. So the fact two of their games in hand are at home to lowly Livorno and Reggina may not constitute a comforting factor.

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