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Aug 6, 2011

Milan edge Inter in Battle of Beijing

In an ideal world, Gian Piero Gasperini would just take a long breath, walk back to the dressing room, slam the door shut, let out a muffled scream then turn over a new leaf in his quest to rebuild and reload his side, while his bosses would quickly dust off the specks of disappointment and back him with words of encouragement.

The real thing (the start of the Serie A), after all, is still three weeks away, some of Inter's players were still resting after the Copa America and the installation of the three-man defence is surely far from complete at this point, especially as the players have hardly been required to play in that system before.

This being definitely far from an ideal world, though, the Inter manager will instead have to consider the implications that come from simply being at the helm of one of the world's more illustrious clubs. That alone gives him plenty of reason to be worried after losing Saturday's Italian Supercoppa to inter-city rivals AC Milan in a game of two halves and twice as many tactical adjustments.

Losing a one-off match in early August should never put anyone under pressure, but the majority of post-match analysis by the Italian media will centre on Inter's inability to carry what had been a convincing first half over to the second, which Gasperini began by changing the shape of his side. Having first chosen a 3-5-1-1 with an ever-flowing array of movement that at times made it hard to really figure out some of the positions the players held, Gasperini went for a four-man rearguard in the second period before reshaping his side again, and whether it was this alteration or Milan's markedly improved attitude and passing that made a difference, it is - and will be - open to debate.

And debate certainly raged back in Italy, particularly as the game wore on; the Rossoneri started taking control and the Nerazzurri's heads seemed to drop a little too quickly after each misplaced pass. The game, set up as a chance to broadcast live Italian football at prime time in the Far East (and provide each club with at least two million euros plus expenses) was, after all, played at a perfect time for Italian audiences, too.

On a hot Saturday right after lunchtime, the country's towns - big and small- closely resembled a nuclear winter. I ventured into the streets a quarter of an hour before kick-off, and did not meet more than a handful of people. Everyone else was inside or, if on holiday as many Italians are, in their hotel rooms or seaside bars waiting for the game, which offered a rare early-August respite from the abominable series of pre-season friendlies treated by the sports dailies and networks as reliable sources for evaluating sides who put dozens of goals past hapless part-timers.

While real fans will always be sceptical about the practice of playing important games thousands of miles from their natural location, the days ahead of the game had been enlivened, at least in Italy, by reports coming in from Beijing. A couple of incidents involving local fans of opposing allegiances appeared to suggest that Italian football had not only carried abroad a plethora of marketing and merchandising executives with baited breath and contracts ready to be signed. Also travelling abroad was the bitterness and antagonism that have contributed to the eroding of the match-day experience for Italian fans, who are not willing to stoop to the hysteria-level of many players, managers, directors.

This was the fifth Italian Super Cup played abroad, the second in China, which will host two more matches in the next three years. Two (1993, 2003) were played in the USA, the other in Tripoli, Libya, and although football authorities would have set up a competitive match inside a compound in Abbottabad, Afghanistan, if there had been money to be made, you can be sure the 2002 clash between Juventus and Parma right in the Gaddafi family's playground will not be one for Serie A bosses to brag about. Although with Gaddafi's company Lafico being Juve shareholders, a certain twisted logic could be applied to that move across the southern part of the Mediterranean Sea.

The weirdness of a Milan derby played at such a long distance from home and still marked by the same routine, pettiness and controversies of any domestic match also left an impression on the Italian public.

Thursday's incident, which saw a crew from Mediaset - the TV conglomerate owned by Milan boss Silvio Berlusconi - circumvent regulations by filming part of an Inter training session where Dejan Stankovic got injured, sparked immediate retaliation on Inter's part. Mediaset staff were banned from the Nerazzurri's next press conference and a predictable war of words followed.

Speculation about the future destination, if any, of Wesley Sneijder, whom Saturday's Gazzetta dello Sport reported had been sold to Manchester City, added an element of typical Italian intrigue - making fans feel as if Inter and Milan were really just pretending to be six time zones away.

It may have all played out in a land far away but the Battle of Beijing - both the pre-match preparations and the game itself - ended up feeling like a regular Milan derby - controversial, bitter, torrid and wonderful.

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