AC Milan picked up a critical 1-0 victory in Sunday night's Milan derby over Inter in the San Siro to keep alive their chances of sneaking into Europe next season.
Coming into the day, Milan were six points behind their crosstown rivals, who sit in fifth and a point behind sixth-place Torino, who hold the last spot into Europe. Following the victory, the Rossoneri moved three points behind Inter and remain a point back of Torino with two matches to play.
This was the last Milan derby for Inter legend Javier Zanetti. The 40-year-old Argentine star wasn't able to get on the pitch, though, robbing Inter supporters of what could've been a great moment. Gabriele Marcotti thought it was a bad move on Walter Mazzarri's part to deny Zanetti the honor:
Argentine football journalist Sam Kelly was also critical of the decision to leave Zanetti on the bench:
You could understand that Mazzarri was chasing the match, but he didn't exactly set out Inter to win in the first place. Despite having 48 percent of possession, they didn't get a single shot on goal in five attempts, according to WhoScored.com.
Inter's forward duo of Rodrigo Palacio and Mauro Icardi failed to make any sort of impact. Icardi's 23 touches were the fewest among Inter's starting XI, and Palacio didn't fare much better, getting just 36 touches.
A large part of their struggles was the midfield play by Milan, which prevented Inter from getting the ball into attacking positions. Nigel de Jong put in a man-of-the-match performance with the way that he was breaking up the opposition's attacks. Some fans may not like his style, but there's no question that he can be a valuable asset, and he proved exactly why on Sunday.
Although Milan's European hopes are still out of their hands, defender Daniele Bonera made the comment before the match that all the Rossoneri could do is win their last three matches and hope for the best.
"We’ll have to win all three of our remaining matches, then we’ll have to see how the teams above us in the standings do," he said to Tuttosport, via Forza Italian Football. "Winning the derby against Inter could negatively affect them even if they have a reassuring advantage."
Despite the fact that Milan's performance was far from beautiful, they remained strong in defence and cut off Inter's supply lines.
The first half was a largely drab affair. Milan was spending a lot of time in the Inter half, but they created few goalscoring opportunities. According to WhoScored.com, they registered five total shots, only one of which was on target.
Right-back Mattia De Sciglio had a chance in the 24th minute on one of his bombing runs up the pitch. Adel Taarabt played him through with a beautiful diagonal ball:
However, De Sciglio had a nearly impossible angle, with Samir Handanovic closing down the near post, and his shot only hit side netting.
Thirteen minutes later, Kaka rolled back the years with a brilliant volleyed effort. Rolando and Walter Samuel failed to deal with a ball over the top from de Jong, and it dropped perfectly for the Brazilian midfielder. His shot dipped over Handanovic but couldn't dip under the crossbar:
Kaka had another chance running on a high cross into the box from Taarabt, but he didn't catch the ball cleanly, and it sailed over the bar.
Inter continued their defensive style into the second half. You had the feeling that Milan would have to make the most of their set pieces if they were to find the back of the net.
In the 65th minute, that's exactly what they did.
Mario Balotelli had a free-kick on the right side after Taarabt was fouled. His delivery was brilliant, and de Jong lost his marker and fired a powerful header into the goal:
The goal was deserved for the Dutchman, who had arguably been Milan's best player to that point in the match.
The Nerazzurri failed to create any clear goal chances from that point forward, which was a bit surprising given that their hold on fifth is far from locked in.
Inter finish up at home to Lazio and away to Chievo on the last day of the season. That should be six points for the Nerazzurri, meaning they'd hold onto a Europa League spot for the 2014-15 campaign.
Milan hit the road to take on Atalanta next and conclude this year with a home match against relegation-battlers Sassuolo. It was against AC Milan that Domenico Berardi famously scored four goals in a 4-3 win for Sassuolo.
Their fortunes have taken a dip, though, so Milan should get the last laugh, and maybe they'll salvage their hopes of getting into the Europa League.