It's that time of the year again as the black and blue contingent of Milano prepares to take on their old rival from the red and black side of the city. In the last 18 months Inter have claimed the bragging rights across the city by winning the last three league meetings in a row, twice while under the guidance of the Nerazzurri coach Andrea Stramaccioni.
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The Inter coach holds a 100% record against the Rossoneri, and famously at the end of last season orchestrated one of the greatest Derby della Madonnina victories of recent times when his reinvigorated squad dominated Massimiliano Allegri's Milan 4-2 in a game that will live long in the memories of every Interista who watched it.
The last derby wasn't won so spectacularly, relying instead on a single headed goal from Walter Samuel, but even so it was a much deserved win for the Nerazzurri. The last derby took place during a period of great form on the road for Inter, while the Rossoneri were struggling to put together any run of good form which saw them dropping alarmingly towards the foot of the Serie A table.
How things have changed in just half a season! Inter are now struggling to find a winning formula, especially away from home as was witnessed in last week's thrashing to Fiorentina, while Milan can proudly call themselves the most in-form team in the league recently flying up the table to overtake Inter into fourth place.
As we all know form stands for nothing when it comes to the Milan derby, but as things stand just a couple of days before, it seems on paper at least that Milan have a distinct advantage over the hosts of Sunday night's clash.
The first advantage for the visitors comes from their midweek encounter with Barcelona that saw them take a confidence-boosting victory over their prestigious opponents on Wednesday. This confidence will work wonders in giving the Rossoneri the belief that they can beat anyone. They have also had an extra day to prepare for the derby as Inter had to travel to Romania on Thursday to clinch their progression in the Europa League game against CFR Cluj. As I mentioned in my article on the Cluj game, I believe Stramaccioni has made a huge mistake playing his best players in the European match that was almost decided before the ball was kicked, knowing how close the game was to the vital match on Sunday. This lack of planning could, in my opinion, cost Inter dearly.
On a positive note, Inter are playing excellently at home in recent times putting together a ten game unbeaten run at the Giuseppe Meazza in the league, during which time they have scored at least two goals in each of eight of those. However, the Nerazzurri have to be on their guard as Milan have not lost their last seven league games both home and away combined.
So if the usual rules of form not having any bearing on this fixture are true, then the game can only be decided by winning the smaller battles within the match. The most obvious of these is the tactical battle between Stramaccioni and Allegri. Both have had their share of ups and downs this season, and both have the ability to line-up their squads in a way that can dominate a game while also exposing their own teams' defensive inadequacies, leaving their teams open to the opposition's attacks. Hopefully the Inter boss will have a great plan up his sleeve as he did back in May 2012, or at least have his squad put up a good fight against their rivals, otherwise his Inter career may come to an abrupt end at the beginning of next week.
One of the biggest talking points of the match will obviously be the inclusion of the ex-Inter striker Mario Balotelli, who along with Stephan El Shaarawy and M'baye Niang, have the potential to rip apart Inter's depleted defence. Andrea Ranocchia's knee injury during the Cluj match means that he is unlikely to feature in the derby and with Samuel and Matias Silvestre unavailable too, the responsibility of holding off Milan's young attacking trident is left to Juan Jesus and the inconsistent Cristian Chivu. If these two are to stand any chance of completing the task successfully, Inter's fullbacks and defensive midfielders must do everything they can to provide cover in front of goal.
While we're on the subject of Balotelli, I'm hoping that the Curva Nord Ultras will show a bit of class, and refrain from the racist behavior that was evident a few weeks ago. I'm not saying there shouldn't be any sort of banter against the player -- after all, there is no love lost between the Inter fans and Mario, but regardless of that there is never any excuse for resorting to racism.
In regards to Inter's attack, I wouldn't be surprised if Fredy Guarin is less influential than he was against Cluj; he has a habit of not quite hitting the same form when playing in Italy. However, if Milan decide to field Sulley Muntari, I feel Guarin would be the ideal player for Inter to take advantage of their ex-midfielder's lapses in concentration that he is prone to, and should be able to take the ball away from Muntari fairly easily just by pressuring him when he's in possession.
The biggest missing piece of the puzzle for Inter will be the absence of Diego Milito, who is out for the rest of the season due to his ligament injury. Milito will be sorely missed as he is Inter's only true big game player that can always be relied on to tip the balance in the favour of the Nerazzurri when needed.
Instead, Stramaccioni has to depend on Rodrigo Palacio and Antonio Cassano to pull an outstanding performance out of the bag if Inter are to stand any chance of claiming points from this game. Although after forcing him to play the entire 90 minutes on Thursday, I feel Stramaccioni will be taking a huge risk by having Cassano on the pitch for the entire game again. I honestly believe that he would make a bigger impact by coming on as an impact substitute later in the match.
Unfortunately, if Cassano doesn't start, then the only other option would be the 35-year-old veteran Tomasso Rocchi, who has failed to make any sort of good impression with the Nerazzurri so far. Who knows though, maybe in a huge game with the stature of the Milan Derby he might rediscover his shooting boots and finally secure his 100th Serie A goal!
As much as I hate to say it, all the odds appear to be in Milan's favour to take the three points from this match, and in the process distancing themselves from Inter by a full four points. That being said though, when the Nerazzurri play well in the right frame of mind, I am certain they can more than match the Rossoneri on the pitch, and leapfrog back above them in the table. Can Inter take the win? I'm hopeful they can, and I will keep that faith in squad until the final whistle.
The only real question is which personality of the sometimes schizophrenic Inter will show its face in this crucial match against the in-form Milan? One thing is certain, the Derby Della Madonnina will once again prove why it is one of the world's most popular football matches, and it will be a must-watch game regardless of whether you are an Interisti, a Milanisti or a neutral fan with a love of a feisty, hard fought game of football.