Derby clashes between AC Milan and Inter Milan have historically been enthralling affairs because of the sheer quality of the players on the pitch whenever the two teams have come together.
However, in recent seasons—with both sides falling down the Serie A table—star power has been lacking.
Yet, in spite of the two teams’ decline in fortunes, the Derby della Madonnina remains compelling viewing. And this Sunday’s meeting provides greater intrigue than usual.
Both clubs are at a crossroads in terms of ownership; both have made significant changes to their coaching staff in recent months; and both—albeit for different reasons—consider victory this weekend as a vital next step in their 2016-17 campaigns.
Here, with the help of fans and writers, Bleacher Report answers some of the key questions surrounding the latest instalment of Milan and Inter’s rivalry.
Who is to Blame for Inter's Season so far?
Inter enter Sunday’s fixture in a state of disarray, having already seen off one coach after just 11 rounds of league fixtures. Frank de Boer was appointed in August, succeeding Roberto Mancini in the hot seat, but was fired in November after a run of poor results.
The Dutchman came with a big reputation after guiding Ajax to four successive Eredivisie titles during his time in charge of the Netherlands club, but he was unable to rejuvenate the Nerazzurri despite a number of exciting new additions.
The arrivals of Argentinian playmaker Ever Banega, versatile Portuguese midfielder Joao Mario, Brazilian prodigy Gabriel Barbosa and Italy winger Antonio Candreva offered hope of a title challenge. However, with Inter having lost five times already, this is no longer on the cards.
Blame for the club’s failings thus far has been placed at the feet of many people.
Italian football writer Richard Hall believes that De Boer is not solely responsible for Inter’s poor form.
"If you employ Frank de Boer you are investing in a change of style and a change in mindset that could take two or three years to resonate," Hall told Bleacher Report. "For him to be sacked after 11 games was folly. It simply highlighted the club’s short-term attitude to recruitment. Ultimately, he didn’t stand a chance."
Comments made about an incident with the fans by top scorer Maurio Icardi in his recently published autobiography did little to help matters, though Hall feels the worst of this particular issue is in the past: "The Ultras will not forgive him, but they will cheer for him. They certainly won’t abuse him now."
Icardi’s 10 goals in 12 league appearances is enough to suggest that even if his relationship with Interisti is frayed at present, his productivity remains high. And, rather than him or De Boer, the general consensus—as Hall touched on above—is that Inter’s owners bear much of the responsibility for the team’s disappointing displays this term.
Eighty-three per cent of respondents to a Twitter poll conducted by Bleacher Report agreed with this line of thought. And 2006 FIFA World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro concurs.
The iconic former Inter centre-back told Sky (h/t Football Italia):
It’s not [De Boer’s] fault. The fault lies with those who chose him and are still there working. It’s a bit of a culture in football, and it’s wrong.
A coach needs time to get to know the players, the environment, the fans and the culture of the club. You can’t solve everything in one or two months.
Can Stefano Pioli Turn Inter's Season Around?
Regardless of who is to blame for Inter’s terrible start, it’s important that the club moves on from De Boer’s dismissal as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Stefano Pioli was named the Dutchman’s successor on November 8, and with the derby being his first game in charge, he couldn’t have asked for a trickier start.
However, the new coach does come with a commendable background—as recently as the 2014-15 season he worked wonders to lead Lazio to third place in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League qualification stages.
“Pioli ticks all the boxes for a club in Inter’s situation,” Hall said. “He is Italian, he knows what the club is about and he has appointed (former Inter player) Walter Samuel to his staff, which is a bright move.”
Inter’s new boss won’t be lacking in individual talent to work with. “Joao Mario and Banega have been exceptional in patches, while Miranda and Samir Handanovic have continued to save the team on numerous occasions. Icardi is a constant threat and if he gets more supply can be devastating,” Hall added. “I think if Pioli can get Ivan Perisic and Candreva firing the dynamic of the team will change.”
Thus, there are reasons for Inter fans to be optimistic about Pioli’s appointment. However, it is worth noting that an alarming 81 per cent of people responding to a Twitter poll conducted by Bleacher Report do not believe he is the coach to turn the club’s fortunes around.
What is Behind Milan's Revival?
While Inter have underwhelmed, Milan have arguably overachieved so far this season. The development of a number of exciting young players has been a major factor in the Rossoneri reaching third place in the Serie A standings.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 17, has produced several moments of greatness. His last-gasp penalty stop on the opening weekend against Torino secured three points, as did his save from a long-range Sami Khedira effort in the dying embers of the clash with Juventus in October.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old playmaker Manuel Locatelli emerged not just with strong performances from the base of midfield, but with two crucial and stunning goals against both Sassuolo and Juventus.
Additionally, M’Baye Niang and Alessio Romagnoli, both 21, and Suso, 23, have all played important roles.
The young players deserve recognition for their part in Milan’s strong start to the campaign, as 29 per cent of Twitter poll respondents attest to. However, 68 per cent voted for Vincenzo Montella as the key to the team’s recent revival.
Since his appointment in June, the head coach has instilled greater belief and cohesion to the squad.
"I would give Montella an eight out of 10 for his performance so far. Milan are clearly playing better than last season," SempreMilan’s Isak Moller said. "It’s also clear that there’s more confidence in this team than last season."
Who Needs the Win More on Sunday?
Former Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta doesn’t believe Sunday’s derby is a particularly meaningful one in the grand scheme of things.
"It’s not an important derby in terms of the table," he remarked in an interview with Milan News (h/t Football Italia). “Because—in my opinion—neither team will finish in the Champions League.”
Fans of both sides would tend to disagree, and as the Twitter poll below shows, Inter are perhaps in greater need of a victory.
"The derby is important for the Nerazzurri as it would act as a kickstart, and of course they (the players) need to do it for their own pride and for the fans," Hall said.
Moller agreed to an extent and said: "In a way I agree with the argument that Inter need a win more than Milan, but at the same time you have to look at it from the Rossoneri perspective.
"Sitting third in the standings, they will be looking to at least secure that position, which they would achieve by playing a draw on Sunday. And there’s also the chance to overtake Roma in second."
Essentially, Sunday’s derby acts as an opportunity for both teams.
For Inter, it represents a chance to begin a new era with a bang. For Milan, it offers the option of prolonging a surprisingly positive start to the season.
Consequently, even without the grandeur of previous meetings, the latest Derby della Madonnina will be filled with meaning.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.