Milan derby woes show just how far both clubs have declined

Posted by Ben Gladwell

Claudio Villa/Getty ImagesRodrigo Palacio salvaged an otherwise dull Milan derby.

MILAN -- There was not only one winner of the Milan derby on Sunday night; instead there were many.

Inter won 1-0 thanks to a sublime late Rodrigo Palacio backheel, and with it, club president Erick Thohir celebrated his first win since assuming control of the Nerazzurri.

Played to a backdrop unworthy of a derby, both sets of fans keeping quiet in a surreal atmosphere as they protested sanctions imposed, after enough clamour and criticism, lifted by a Serie A fighting for some degree of credibility, Palacio's late winner could not mask an otherwise substandard fare.

There were a few beacons of light amid the falling fog over Milan, however.

Report: Inter 1-0 AC Milan

On another night of disappointment for the Rossoneri, who end 2013 in 13th place, and with former Inter midfielder Sulley Muntari facing a suspension for his late red card, Riccardo Saponara emerged as a potential figure to lead them out of their troubles. Whether that will happen with or without the man who took a gamble on him on Sunday night, Massimiliano Allegri, remains to be seen.

The day after his 22nd birthday had started with persisting rumours that he would be leaving the club in the winter to join Torino. He had not even played 24 minutes in Italy's top flight after all. Instead, Saponara found himself thrown into the thick of Milan's biggest game of the season; perhaps their biggest in years.

Showing no sign of nerves, the Italy under-21 international skipped past Hugo Campagnaro with a streak of arrogance before setting up Mario Balotelli for Milan's first shot of the game, coming soon after Rodrigo Palacio had warmed the palms of Christian Abbiati with the first attempt of the night.

Saponara was involved again as Kaka sent in a shot which Samir Handanovic spilled out to Balotelli, but Esteban Cambiasso covered well. He also helped in winning possession in midfield, launching the attack which led to Milan earning a corner, which was curled in by Kaka and turned over the crossbar by Andrea Poli when it seemed easier to score, or at least hit the target, from 7 yards out.

At the other end, Fredy Guarin, with his mind perhaps already on a move to the Premier League in January, overhit a pass down the centre beyond Rodrigo Palacio's reach. He was certainly not distracted when he turned and volleyed a subsequent loose ball wide from 35 yards out, but getting any closer to Abbiati's goal was proving a challenge for the hosts, under the watching eyes of Thohir, who had spent the past four weeks suffering from afar as his side failed to register a win.

There was a moment of controversy just before halftime when a low cross from the right to Palacio's feet was lunged at by Cristian Zapata, who appeared to get more of the Inter forward than, if at all, the ball. The only whistles came from the crowd, not the referee's mouth.

Milan carried their edge into the second half with Balotelli becoming increasingly pungent, drawing a fine one-handed save out of Handanovic before missing the target with an attempted 90-degree effort with the outside of his boot, the ball taking a slight deflection on its way wide.

When a player was needed to take Inter by the scruff of their neck, the somewhat surprise choice fell on the shoulders of a 19-year-old, Mateo Kovacic. Within seconds of taking to the field, a confident cross-field pass suggested it had been the right choice. With a level of composure belying his age, the Austrian-born Croatian international towered above everybody else on the field from the moment he stepped on it.

The departure of captain Javier Zanetti almost slipped off the radar, such was Kovacic's impression on the game. He inverted Inter's inertia, leading them into the ascendency and, ultimately, back into the top five.

He helped inspire Palacio to a close-range shot, which was saved well by Abbiati, and with 10 minutes to go, suddenly we had a real derby on our hands. The fans abandoned their boycott, and Inter responded.

The game was entering its final five minutes when another of Walter Mazzarri's jokers, Guarin, sent in a low cross from the right and Palacio used the inside of his heel to turn it into the goal. The San Siro exploded.

With that touch, Inter notched their first win in five, moved two points clear of Hellas Verona and two behind Fiorentina.

The truth, however, is that they still have a long way to go before being able to challenge for honours like in 2010.

Albeit not as far as their rivals.

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