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May 5, 2008

Milan rebuilding starts after win over 'Atalanta'

Listening too much to what the fans have to say about their rivals is never the best of tactics. You will always find someone uttering the smart-arsed remark you find so funny until you hear the next one, and choosing the best would be as difficult and fruitless as navigating internet chat-rooms and picking the smartest comment: search longer and you'll find a better one, and you may never stop.

There was, though, something funny and close to the truth in the joke someone sitting not far from the San Siro press box made to a fellow Milan supporter at half time on Sunday: 'Well, Atalanta defended grittily in the first half, didn't they? But how come so many of their fans are here today?'.

It was not Atalanta, of course: the black-and-blue striped shirts on black shorts and white socks belonged to Inter, and the metaphor may have not been the most appropriate as Atalanta - the real one - had run rings around Milan at the same venue little more than month ago, but the (silly) joke contained a point: after 45 minutes of the Milan derby, Milan, or AC Milan to English speakers, had looked so much better than their rivals it had looked one of the many matches, in previous seasons, opposing sides had come to the majestic ground in the leafy western suburbs of the city with the sole intention of putting ten men behind the ball and see out time.

The implications of the 190th Milan derby (the 148th in the top flight: Milan now trail their rivals by four wins, 56 to 60), which the Rossoneri won 2-1, were always going to be deep: with two more matches to be played, a win would have sealed Inter's Scudetto whatever result Roma, six points behind at kick-off but burdened by a far worse goal difference, achieved away to Sampdoria, and a title would have come anyway had Inter matched Roma's result.

Milan, on their part, had won three in a row and four of five, scoring 14 goals in the process - eight of them from the in-form Pippo Inzaghi - but entered the game two points behind Fiorentina - who lost at Cagliari while Milan were beating Inter - in the race for fourth place, which had become Milan's Holy Grail after their failure to go past the quarter-finals of this season's competition and an early exit from the Scudetto race.

As if the motivations intrinsically making up the emotional impact of a derby match were not enough, Milan obviously did not want Inter to celebrate the title on their own ground - which, of course, is also Inter's on alternate days - and Inter would have been delighted to condemn the Rossoneri to the UEFA Cup: a decent competition, but one all Italian clubs except Fiorentina this year have snubbed in recent years, sometimes going to the extreme of fielding fringe players in the hope of going out soon.

No side can sustain great form throughout a full season, and Inter had carved out four consecutive wins out of sheer grit, rather than skill or tactical superiority, before Sunday. Their brilliant, dominating form of the autumn had gone, as shown by their goal tally of 43 in matches 1 through 19 - the first round of matches, a measuring point in Italian football - and now only 22 in those 20 through 36, and there had been, as reported in the last column, more than a fair share of turmoil for a team that had been leading the top flight since week 2.

Milan's season has also been well documented. Having failed to win at home until mid-January, their focus in the first half of the campaign had been on the World Club Championship, a trophy that had eluded the club's cabinet so far. The directors' insistence on that competition, which hardly set he fans' interest alight, irritated a good portion of the supporters, who had hoped for a renewed challenge in the league.

The club were also seen as passive on the transfer market, despite the promising acquisition of Brazlian youngster Pato, who was not allowed to play until January but has now scored eight times in 16 Serie A appearances. The difference in athleticism, quickness, confidence between Milan and Arsenal when Arséne Wenger's side won at the San Siro on March 4 was seen as an harbinger of things to come, and a cry for a renewed effort on the transfer market.

Failure to qualify for next season's Champions League would still mean trouble: all of a sudden, Milan would become much less palatable for transfer targets Didier Drogba, Mathieu Flamini, Gianluca Zambrotta and Ronaldinho, and perhaps even Kaka, despite signing a contract extension throughout 2013, would start making noises again about joining Real Madrid or, a recent addition but only on an hypothetical plane, a Premier League club.

Intriguingly, before making a complete u-turn on Sunday and telling reports Milan do not really need him, owner Silvio Berlusconi's insistence in mentioning Ronaldinho as a likely arrival had not gone down too well with many fans: the Italian media have always been quick to point out the Brazilian's less than impressive displays in the past year or so and this, coupled with what is perceived to be a penchant for enjoying the nightlife, has made supporters very wary of him.

Not even the fact Milan team is flush with Brazilians who would help Ronaldinho settle in quickly and establish a sort of safety net around him seems to be enough for most of the fans, who'd rather see the Rossoneri devote their energy towards bringing in Drogba, who's reportedly not a stranger to the city's hotspots, either, but is seen as more reliable.

Also perhaps a central defender and a couple of midfielders (more on this later), one of which could spell the end for Andrea Pirlo, who has been playing too much, and Rino Gattuso, who's revealed his disquiet in a recent interview to Corriere della Sera and has been known to be unhappy at having to run himself into the ground while unnamed team-mates are not as quick or willing to take on defensive duties.

All of this was nowhere to be seen on Sunday, when Milan's brilliant form continued. Coach Carlo Ancelotti kept faith with the same starting XI which had annihilated hapless Livorno 4-1 last week. This meant Favalli and Bonera on the flanks on defence: they were never the first choices at the beginning of the season, but Massimo Oddo's disappointing performances on the right had convinced Ancelotti to go for Bonera, less spectacular going forward but much more accomplished as a defender, which can also be said about his colleague on the other flank, who does have a reputation for sending in good crosses from time to time.

Inter responded to Milan's 4-3-2-1 with a similar formation, Maniche playing just off the forwards but spending more time shadowing Pirlo than actually looking for the ball. After a good, confident start, spraying passes around the San Siro pitch, Atal... er, Inter were soon on the back foot and could not get the ball out of their half for a five-minute spell around the quarter of an hour mark.

Milan appeared smoother on the ball and sent in a few crosses when Inter packed the middle of the field to prevent Kaka from receiving and turning with the ball in space, but there were only a couple of chances, one of them when a brilliant through ball by Seedorf was met by Inzaghi, whose right-foot shot was well saved by Julio Cesar.

Inter's resistance was broken down six minutes into the second half, when Inzaghi scored from a textbook near-post glancing header following good work on the right from Kaka, and four minutes later a clearly rattled Inter presented Milan with a second goal when Vieira was caught in possession on the right, Ambrosini laying the ball for Kaka to run at and shoot past his fellow countryman Julio Cesar.

From that point on, all tactical considerations went out of the window: Milan sat back, hoping to spring Kaka' or Pato, who replaced a clearly spent Inzaghi, free in space, while Inter, having sent on Suazo and Balotelli, looked stronger and pushed the Rossoneri back.

Julio Cruz's gem of a free kick on 75 minutes, a curling right footer which passed through the very space a couple of Inter players had vacated a fraction of a second earlier, made it a contest again and there were anxious moments when a couple of loose balls right outside Milan's penalty area were picked up by Inter, but the centre of the pitch was so packed at the time not even a golf ball would have gone through the sea of bodies. One last chance for Inter came in the last second of added time: Pato gave away the ball fifteen yards from the edge of Milan's penalty area and after a good through ball by Zanetti, Balotelli was up-ended right outside the area.

Chivu's free kick as time expired - oddly enough, a similar situation had occurred during the first derby, only it had been Milan getting the late chance - sailed over the bar and during the post-match celebrations Adriano Galliani, Milan's chief executive, announced one of the new signings may well be Mathieu Flamini, who was then reportedly spotted having dinner in the restaurant owned by Milan defender Kaladze which has become a sort of unofficial Milan headquarters.

Did that constitute a definitive proof the deal for the French midfielder has gone through? No: almost everyone with even a thin connection to Milan seems to regularly be spotted eating there. But it sure meant something. And it proved to be correct.

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