Clarence Seedorf has played in this derby, il Derby della Madonnina, many times before, but this one on Sunday will be a little different.
It’s not a game to decide the title, and it’s not a night in the Champions League with flares falling like so many meteors. Neither team will win a trophy this year.
The first derby of the season between AC Milan and Inter was one of the worst in recent memory. There wasn’t even any choreography. The two sets of hardcore fans on each end of the stadium were protesting the bans they received for discriminatory chanting. The festivities were gone. They were stony-silent.
Days before, the newspapers in Italy condemned the match. It was a sad depiction of what once was one of the great cities in European football.
Seedorf will contest a lesser derby this weekend, between two diminished sides, but it is a derby nonetheless. A win would help reinforce his position as coach of AC Milan.
Ah—but a win is not easy. Inter beat Milan 1-0 in October, and they didn’t have to play all that well to do it. It was Milan with the ball most of the time. They couldn’t convert anything. So Inter sat back and waited to strike on the counter. Rodrigo Palacio pulled off a tremendous little flick of the boot to steer the ball into the net for the only goal of the game.
That threat is the same: Inter can break against a team vulnerable to the counterattack. Mateo Kovacic is likely to play, the 19-year-old Croatian midfielder starting the past three matches—two wins and a draw. Coach Walter Mazzarri finally has confidence in the player. Kovacic has the ability to play the ball at a standstill, picking apart defences like a sniper, and he is starting to shoot more. Kovacic could pick apart Milan, a defence feeble to begin with.
This is not an Inter team that relies so much on the striking abilities of Palacio. He has indeed played in all 35 Serie A matches this term for the Nerazzurri—no other outfield player in Serie A has done that—and he has run much more than a striker should. He always looks exhausted by the end. Palacio is dangerous in the air and inside the box, and he will loom large as Milan scramble to line up their defence in time.
Then there is his partner. Mauro Icardi has scored big goals before, against Fiorentina and Juventus, and he took the stage for himself in a dramatic game against his old club Sampdoria a few weeks ago, a game in which he dared his old fans to boo him some more. He can handle the occasion, appropriately or not.
On the opposite side is Mario Balotelli. Since joining Milan, Balotelli has not made a significant impact on any of the big matches.
Balotelli logged his low ratings on WhoScored.com this season against Barcelona, Atletico and Napoli, among other matches. Against Roma he was non-existent—and yet Balotelli still complained when he was substituted.
Up until then he was making improvements. Balotelli is best when tracking back and starting the play deeper in the field. If he puts some real effort into the game, he could cause problems—maybe even score his first goal against his former team.
The wild card is Adel Taarabt, He has four goals with Milan since that January move from Fulham. Here is a player who attacks in the pure sense of it. The way he swashbuckles and slaloms, the way he powers forward, right at the defenders—it is scary. He could really test Inter’s three-man defence.
But Kaka comes alive in these marquee matches. He played like a full-back early in the season against Barcelona, sprinting back, frustrating Sergio Busquets in midfield, and he provided an assist in that game. He then went to score the only goal Milan could manage against eventual Champions League finalist Atletico Madrid.
For Honda, it’s a matter of simplifying things. If he plays the simple pass, if he finds the open lanes and delivers adequate corner kicks, he could add a fourth dimension to an attack that looks sharper than it has been.
Seedorf continues with the 4-2-3-1 formation, even if he doesn’t have the personnel to execute it properly. His plans worked for a bit—Milan won five games in a row for the first time in three years—but he has to learn from the mistakes he made in the match against Roma. He deployed Daniele Bonera as a right-back, and even when Milan lacked the speed and agility to combat Roma’s wing play, the two players who could offer that edge—both Mattia De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate—remained on the bench.
The match itself looks less than glamorous. Neither Mazzarri nor Seedorf could be coaching their teams next season. But both teams can score, even if the Rossoneri in particular cannot defend. Maybe we could get a spectacle after all.