A white-hot city rivalry. First vs Second. Inter vs Milan: The Derby della Madonnina. On such special occasions reputations are made and, sometimes, broken. In the case of Inter’s irrepressible coach Jose Mourinho, his towering managerial status was once more verified – enhanced even – by the dramatic events at San Siro on Sunday night.
Of course, with near-limitless funds at his disposal and a squad packed with the best world football can offer it is easy to argue that Mourinho has little more to do in Milan than carefully steer an unstoppable juggernaut towards title after title. To an extent, that’s true. It is, however, in the major games like this clash with resurgent Milan that the Special One truly earns his exorbitant salary.
Victory for Leonardo’s side would haul them within three points of the Serie A summit – with a game in hand – a remarkable achievement, given their appalling start to the campaign. An Inter win would secure a nine-point cushion and reaffirm the nerazzurri as champions-elect. As if approaching the game in the knowledge that a second victory of the season over their bitterest rivals (they won the first handsomely, 4-0, in September) would secure not just the battle but also the war, Inter drove forward from the first whistle with tremendous verve and tenacity.
Leading the charge were three key Mourinho signings – a fearsome attacking triumvirate comprising Wesley Sneijder, Argentina centre-forward Diego Milito and enigmatic Macedonian forward Goran Pandev, signed recently on a free from Lazio. Even in the absence of Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, this trio is capable of terrorising any defence – beware Chelsea – let alone one featuring 38-year-old Giuseppe Favalli (standing in for the injured Alessandro Nesta) and the positionally-wayward Ignazio Abate.
Such an abundance of attacking talent is the major reason why Inter’s Champions League challenge holds more credibility this year. Previously, it was a more-or-less a case of: give it to Zlatan and see what he’ll do. These days, there’s an altogether more ambidextrous approach from the Italian champions – rearguarded, of course, by the ultimate solid citizens in midfield – the greatly underrated Esteban Cambiasso and the apparently ageless Javier Zanetti. Of late, their defence has been a shade leaky – but Lucío, Maicon, et al, all have the experience to rise to the occasion...
Only the sharp reflexes of Dida kept Sneijder at bay on two separate occasions within the opening ten minutes. With every Inter attack giving the effect that it could result in a goal, the inevitable opener materialised: Milito clinically sweeping the ball past the huge Brazilian ‘keeper after latching onto Pandev’s sublime long pass, with Abate particularly defensively culpable.
The early progress of the blue and black hordes was threatened only by the hair-trigger temper of Sneijder. The Dutchman lost his cool completely when team-mate Lucío (justly) saw yellow for a dive; sarcastically applauding referee Gianluca Rocchi’s decision and apparently offering some choice swear-words in Italiano. As a result, Sneijder was sent to the stands for the second time in just over a month. TV cameras picked up Inter president Massimo Moratti loudly inviting the ref to enjoy the backside of another, as his team were reduced to ten men.
In adversity, however – whether genuine or merely perceived – Jose Mourinho thrives. Rather than now adopting an ultra-cautious approach in the vague hope of grinding out a result, the wily Portugese coach opted to retain his potent forward duo of Pandev and Milito, in the sure knowledge that their threat would make attack Inter’s first line of defence. This, allied to the all-Argentine midfield screen, ensured that the nerazzurri line-up retained a super-solid feel, even with one man down.
There have been whispers that Milan’s Leonardo is a strong candidate for Coach of the Season, given his dramatic reversal of the ageing, apparently disinterested rossoneri’s fortunes. The Brazilian – whose penchant for the best of Milanese fashion certainly makes him a contender for Mourinho’s dapper pretty-boy mantle if nothing else – still has much to learn, however. Was it a failure of nerve that saw him replace Rino Gattuso at half time with Clarence Seedorf rather than an extra attacker, as free-scoring Marco Borriello toiled fruitlessly at the point of Milan’s attack? Or, perhaps, his lack of faith in the potential alternatives – the diffident Klass-Jan Huntelaar or over-the-hill Pippo Inzaghi? In any case, Leo’s failure to seize the tactical initiative in this must-win game left Milan hamstrung, in spite of their numerical advantage.
Emerging for the second half fully five minutes late and in staccato fashion – clearly Mourinho was practicing the sort of gamesmanship for which his Porto side were renowned – Inter withstood a spell of pressure which emanated largely from the typically pinpoint set-pieces of David Beckham, and twice had the brilliant Julio Cesar to thank for keeping their slender lead intact. Yet, on the break, the league leaders still looked lethal.
Pandev – a constant thorn in the side of Milan’s makeshift defence – clipped a delicate effort against the post from Milito’s slide-rule pass, only for the ball to drop safely into Dida’s waiting hands. The striker, who finally extricated himself from his poisonous relationship with Lazio earlier this month, was having an adventurous – and influential – five minutes. With struggling Favalli conceding a free-kick in an ideal shooting position, Pandev curled a delightful shot into Dida’s net without so much as a flicker of response from the veteran ‘keeper. He then whipped off his shirt in celebration; was customarily booked; then immediately subbed by Mourinho. It was to be the game’s decisive act.
There was still time on the clock for Huntelaar to make an overdue, if ineffectual, appearance; for Ronaldinho to casually slash over an excellent chance, then have a penalty saved by Júlio César (as his compatriot Lucío saw a second yellow for a penalty-box handball); and for Mourinho to play ringleader of the tormentors, as he animatedly called on Inter’s dormant tifosi to roar their team towards the final whistle – gesticulating like a demented Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man to the delight of the San Siro majority.
So masterful Mourinho – never shy of a radical substitution or three – stuck to his guns throughout; showing great faith in his ten men (latterly nine) to repel resurgent Milan. Leonardo’s rapid progress has been admirable, and his approach refreshing, but it seems there’s much that the master could still teach the apprentice.