Note: This article was originally published on the mCalcio blog.
“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Inter all the way“… As the AC Milan boat sinks yet again, the Inter frigate sails towards another Scudetto title. Personally (and I’ll bet the millions of other Serie A fans out there are with me on this) I’m still wondering what it’s going to take to stop this Nerazzurri team: Roberto Mancini’s men haven’t lost a game since November, and are still undefeated in the Serie A. Today, they went one goal down (a trademark free-kick execution by who other than Andrea Pirlo), but came back in style through their Argentine connection: Julio Cruz and Esteban Cambiasso. And they say that if there’s a team that “never gives up” it’s Juventus, but Internazionale are building quite the reputation lately…
It was months since the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza “San Siro” recorded an attendance like this into its stands: about 85,000 supporters were present for the match today (tickets sold out), which as you can imagine created quite an unique atmosphere in the temple of Milanese soccer. Despite that fact, these were special circumstances for a derby, for many different reasons.
Firstly, there weren’t any particular choreographies planned by the ultras groups, still shaken by the events tied to Gabriele Sandri’s death back in November. Also, the timing of the match was such that it took place right after the Rossoneri triumph in Yokohama (the Nerazzurri players waited for their opponents outside the tunnel, hands up in applause to that effect), and during probably the period of the best soccer exhibited by Inter in the past decade. Finally, it was almost Christmas time, meaning that both teams were perhaps wondering whom Santa Claus would be giving the biggest present today…
Tactically, Carlo Ancelotti had a few doubts on the match’s eve regarding his starting formation, but in the end his final choices left little in the way of surprises: Oddo and Maldini were given full confidence as wing-backs, assisting Nesta and Kaladze in the Rossoneri backline. Everything else with AC Milan was “as usual” (Gattuso getting the start despite his minor injury problems) and Pippo Inzaghi being selected as the lone striker up front. On the other end Roberto Mancini had a few problems in midfield to deal with, which forced him once again to field Cristian Chivu at the back of the diamond, partnering Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso. Chilean playmaker Luis Jimenez was operating behind the two strikers Julio Cruz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Marco Materazzi, still used sparingly by Mancini after his return from injury, started off on the bench.
It only took 2 minutes for this match to set the pace for the ensuing 88, all the way up to the final whistle. This was a heartfelt derby for both sides, and referee Emidio Morganti had to summon his best match-control skills to keep the players’ determination under control. Gennaro Gattuso’s (how surprising) in particular in minute 3, when the Milan player came into a challenge on Jiménez with a little too much momentum (no card for the player, only a warning).
This wasn’t a dirty match however, far from it, and there was plenty of space for technical displays. Such as (in no particular order) the rotating volley of Ibrahimovic on Maicon’s cross, the crossbar hit by Jiménez after Dida’s clearance, or the funambulic run of KakÃ that sent Samuel spinning, and cost the Argentine defender a knee injury (boy that Brazilian trickster can make you dizzy, huh?).
Eventually, after even chances for either side, the Rossoneri were the first to get on the scoreboard through their set piece specialist, who else but Andrea Pirlo. Ivan Córdoba fouled Inzaghi on the edge of the box, Pirlo stepped up and left Julio Cesar no chance as he curled the ball into the top left corner of the goal. 1-0 AC Milan.
A minute later, some shaky defending by Kaladze led to a Cruz percussion in the box, which ensued into Jiménez’s aforementioned crossbar hit, but it would only be about 20 minutes later that Inter would come back to tie the game, stemming once again from some great footwork by Ibrahimovic. Out on Inter’s left wing, close to the goal-line, the Swedish striker (surrounded by 3 AC Milan players) managed to turn and serve a perfect backpass for Cambiasso, who immediately executed a low cross for Julio Cruz in the center. The Argentine’s touch was a little long, but he caught up with the ball, dribbled Nesta, and slammed the ball between Kaladze’s legs to fool Dida on the first post. Goal nº9 for as many games as a starter for Cruz, and 1-1.
The half thus ended on a tied scoreline (shortly after a ripping 22m shot by Javier Zanetti, narrowly wide), amidst a very intense game full of technical, but also physical battles (6 yellow cards handed out in the 1st half). At the restart, The Rossoneri came back onto the field with two new players: Emerson (on for Gattuso, injured) and Gilardino (on for Inzaghi), followed later by Serginho (on for Seedorf). The newcomers almost had an immediate impact, with Gilardino heading wide a Maldini cross from the left, and the Brazilian winger creating some dangerous situations for AC Milan, with his speedy accelerations on the left wing.
Nevertheless, while the Rossoneri came close only to “huffing and puffing”, the Nerazzurri’s guff of wind turned into a real twister in minute 62. A Julio Cruz cross from the left wing was headed by Maldini back to the center, but it was a big mistake because Esteban Cambiasso anticipated Serginho, took one step closer to the box line and slammed a curling shot with the outside of his left. The ball’s trajectory surprised Dida (not entirely without fault however) who allowed the shot to enter the net centrally. 2-1 Inter.
AC Milan were now one goal down because of a dual Maldini-Dida defensive mistake, but Ancelotti’s men (probably still-jetlagged and tired from their Club World Cup duties) certainly didn’t give up on the scoreline. In fact, the remaining 60 minutes of play were in large part played inside the Inter half, and the Rossoneri came a few times quite close to the equalizer (a left-footed volley by KakÃ , saved by Julio Cesar in minute 82, and close-range shot by Nesta, parried by Materazzi’s leg in minute 84). Massimo Ambrosini had the golden chance to tie the game 2 minutes from the end, but he missed the winning tap-in on Serginho’s cross, 4 meters away from goal.
At the end of the 90 minutes, the only ones singing “Ho Ho Ho” would be Roberto Mancini and his players. Do you think they’re still on time to call Adriano back from Brazil, to “shake his (fat) belly like a bowl full of jelly”?
Marco Pantanella writes for the mCalcio blog