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Sympathy for the devil not enough for Milan



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It was billed as a contest between strength and beauty, substance versus style and whenever that’s the case the public generally side with the latter. And that’s why you should never trust the wisdom of crowds as Inter showed absolutely no difficulty in dispatching Milan, the overwhelming people’s favourites.

In the week leading up to la Madonnina only the bookies – yes, those scandalously unromantic types – were prepared to back Inter. Everyone had jumped on the Milan bandwagon, and why not? No one likes a flat-track bully and that’s just what Inter have come to be seen as since Jose Mourinho took over in the summer of 2008.

The momentum appeared to be with Milan. Leonardo’s side had lost just once in Serie A since September 23. Stunning victories like those over Real Madrid [3-2], Cagliari [4-3], Genoa [5-2], Juventus [3-0] and Siena [4-0] were held up in stark contrast to Inter’s own almost robot-like monotonous success.

Through November, December and early January, Inter won four games 1-0. They needed two goals in the last five minutes to beat relegation bound Siena 4-3 on January 9, and had to comeback again last weekend to draw 2-2 at Bari. The title race, which looked well and truly over just a few weeks ago, was wide open again.

Having been in the relegation zone at half-time against Roma on October 18, Milan were now only six points behind Inter with a game in hand. Inter looked riled especially when Adriano Galliani managed to move Milan’s Coppa Italia quarter-final first leg on January 20 to the following Wednesday, giving Leonardo seven days to prepare his players for the derby.

Interviewed by La Gazzetta dello Sport on Thursday, former Inter boss Roberto Mancini issued a rallying cry not to the Nerazzurri but to Milan. “Leo, you can do it!” Mancini roared. Italy boss Marcello Lippi even got in on the act, albeit somewhat indirectly. The World Cup winner is currently touring the country checking up on the players he intends to take with him to South Africa.

He went to see Juventus at Vinovo, Milan at Milanello and then decided to go home, snubbing Inter on the grounds that there simply aren’t enough Italian players there, something with which Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon might disagree. Inter tried to show they weren’t all that fussed. The club’s Argentinian players had a huge barbecue on Thursday, but Lippi had clearly ruffled a few feathers.

“Marcello has made a mistake because I think that the Italian players at Inter, even if they are few, have been hurt by his actions,” Inter President Massimo Moratti told Radio 1. “It seems a little snobbish to me. Moreover, the fact that he went to visit Milan and not us the week before the derby wasn’t a perfect move from a political point of view.”

Mourinho – having already had it out with Lippi in pre-season for tipping Juventus to win the title – dug the knife in a little further, suggesting that Lippi still had bad memories of Inter’s training ground after Moratti sacked him in 2000. He then cut through the hyperbole and laid out some Rafa Benitez-style ‘facts’.

Speaking on Saturday, Mourinho said: “I don’t fear anything about anyone and, if I were able to, I would ask the authorities to re-schedule the game because I would like to play it today. It doesn’t bother me hearing people say Milan play better: we score more, we win more, we have more points. Goals, victories and points: this is what’s spectacular to me.”

Meanwhile, Leonardo played it safe, so much so, in fact, that La Gazzetta went to the trouble of italicizing the words ‘politically correct’ in English. Asked if he was out for revenge after Inter beat Milan 4-0 in Week 2, the Brazilian replied: “This isn’t Mourinho against Leonardo, it’s Inter against Milan and that’s it. And anyway Mourinho and I are different. We come from different backgrounds and we are treading different paths. I am at the beginning of my coaching career. He has won things everywhere. I respect him a lot as a coach and as a person.”

Leo was coming across as a nice guy, saying all the right things just as he would when fulfilling his role as a director for Milan in previous years. But this time he was the manager and comparisons with Gandhi weren’t helping especially when Mourinho is so often likened to Napoleon. After all, whom would you rather have leading you into battle? And maybe that’s where Milan’s downfall lie last night.

Inter took just 10 minutes to establish a lead through Argentinian striker Diego Milito who scored his 12th goal of the season – his fourth straight in a derby match. Then came the point on which the whole match rested. Wesley Sneijder, Inter’s most influential player, the mastermind of their last derby victory, was sent off after 27 minutes for sarcastically applauding and then swearing at the referee. Milan should have been in the ascendancy. Lucio and Sulley Muntari looked frustrated and were soon booked. Even Moratti entered the dressing room at half-time for a team talk that left Milan waiting out on the pitch for five minutes.

The Rossoneri put a few chances together, but never looked dominant. Inter then landed a classic sucker punch, as Goran Pandev stroked home a lovely free-kick just after the hour mark in his first Derby della Madonnina. Milan were given a lifeline when Lucio handled in the box and got sent off in stoppage time. But Ronaldinho – who has already scored four penalties this season – couldn’t beat Julio Cesar.

Mourinho spurred on the crowd as the final whistle was blown. Inter had won 2-0 with nine men. “I have already understood they won’t let us seal up the Scudetto… I see what is happening here… We proved everything. We proved that the only way we were going to lose was if we went down to six men, as with seven we still would have won,” the Special One crowed.

And that, in a nutshell, is arguably the most important contribution Mourinho has made at Inter. Yes, they arguably played better under Mancini, but now Inter have a never-say-die attitude, a spirit that ensures they are never out of a game.

Earlier this month, Javier Zanetti said: “Inter have great numbers, true champions, but also a lot heart. I am proud of this group. There are people here who never give up, who leave nothing to spare and respect the club and the fans… They say we are the most foreign team in Italy. But I struggle to find a group around the world more attached to their shirt. And this is our winning card.”

It remains to be seen whether that’s enough to end 45 years of hurt in the Champions League.