ESPN Soccernet Preview: Inter Milan v AC Milan
When AC Milan and their new coach Leonardo were humbled in a 4-0 defeat to Inter in only the second Serie A game of the season, it appeared that the balance of power in Lombardy was to remain tipped in the Nerazzurri's favour. Five months on, and the resurgent Rossoneri are back in the title hunt and within touching distance of their great rivals ahead of Sunday's derby meeting.
With Inter retaining a vice-like grip over the Scudetto, winning the title for the past four seasons, the red half of Milan has not enjoyed a Serie A triumph since 2004. But thanks to a run of eight wins in nine league games, Leonardo's side go into Sunday's Derby della Madonnina just six points behind their great rivals with a game in hand and with belief palpably growing.
Sensing a real tilt at the title, and with Inter requiring remarkable comebacks to salvage a 4-3 win against Siena on January 9 and a point in a 2-2 draw with Bari last weekend, the momentum is most certainly with the Rossoneri. Another win would reinforce suggestions that the tide is turning in Serie A, but to do so, they will need to end Jose Mourinho's unbeaten record in home league games which stretches back eight years with three different clubs.
Inter Milan player in focus: Goran Pandev. The striker has started three games since joining Inter on a free transfer from Lazio at the start of January and has quickly proved influential. It was the Macedonian who played in Walter Samuel for an injury-time winner against Siena and then sparked a spirited comeback against Bari when netting his first for the Nerazzuri. With Samuel Eto'o at the African Nations Cup with Cameroon, Pandev will look to dovetail with Argentine striker Diego Milito to great effect.
AC Milan player in focus: Ronaldinho. Who else could it be but the Brazilian? With six goals in his past three games, including a hat-trick last weekend against Siena, Ronaldinho is now as close as he ever has been to recapturing the genius that saw him named FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Vastly influential both in terms of goals and assists this season, Ronaldinho is playing with real exuberance and his renaissance has mirrored that of his club. Inter must shackle him at all costs on Sunday.
Key battle: Wesley Sneijder v Massimo Ambrosini. Inter's flying Dutchman made his debut for the club with an illuminating display in the 4-0 derby win in August and his impact on Inter has been considerable. With five goals and six assists, Sneijder is the creative hub around which the team revolves and the man charged with subduing him will be Ambrosini. The AC Milan captain will join Gennaro Gattuso in attempting to bully Sneijder out of possession but if they fail, the vision of the summer signing from Real Madrid could be a real threat as Inter look to exploit any opportunities on the break.
Tactics: Given their position in the table, it must be expected that AC Milan will be the side that looks to take the initiative and go on the offensive. Whether Jose Mourinho parks the bus remains to be seen but, in the homeland of catenaccio, do not expect Inter to adopt a gung-ho approach, even if they are the 'home' side. Milan will be keen to distribute the ball quickly and effectively to Ronaldinho, Andrea Pirlo and David Beckham, all of whom are more than proficient in the art of delivery, meaning lone striker Marco Borriello should enjoy a number of chances. Inter will also line up with one out-an-out striker in Diego Milito, with Pandev, Sneijder and possibly Mario Balotelli, the 'enfant terrible' of Italian football, the attacking elements in what will become a five-man midfield when possession is lost.
Quotes: Jose Mourinho produces a sarcastic response following AC Milan's success in postponing a Coppa Italia fixture on Wednesday night, leaving them to focus solely on the derby: "I have Samuel Eto'o involved in the African Nations Cup and four midfield players out injured. I'd like not to play Sunday's derby."
Leonardo on Ronaldinho's recent form and the Rossoneri's chances: "He is the greatest footballer in the world and he has re-found his taste for football. This derby arrives at the right time for us. We are getting closer to Inter and it will be an extraordinary game."
In the news: Two coaches who know intimately the unique atmosphere of the Derby della Madonnina have had their say on Sunday's match. Former Rossoneri coach Carlo Ancelotti, now at Chelsea of course, reckons: "The game is leaning on Milan's side as they head into it with shining form." Surprisingly, Roberto Mancini, formerly of Inter and now residing at Manchester City, has also hinted that the advantage lies with the 'away' side. He said: "It's impossible to say who will emerge victorious, but Milan have a chance of a lifetime. The Rossoneri are in excellent form, while it seems like Inter are a bit off-colour."
Inter Milan team news: Mourinho could be forced to field a weakened midfield as Thiago Motta and Dejan Stankovic are both doubts while Sulley Muntari also picked up a thigh problem in training on Wednesday. Striker Eto'o is at the African Nations Cup, so January signing Pandev will be handed another chance to impress. Cristian Chivu remains sidelined with a fractured skull.
AC Milan team news: Leonardo has his fingers crossed that experienced defender Alessandro Nesta will be able to recover from a muscle strain sustained in last weekend's 4-0 win over Siena. Brazilian talent Alexandre Pato is still struggling with a thigh problem so David Beckham is expected to continue on the right side of Leonardo's front three. Clarence Seedorf, Mathieu Flamini and Gianluca Zambrotta are all doubts.
Probable Inter Milan team (4-2-3-1): Julio Cesar, Maicon, Walter Samuel, Lucio, Ivan Cordoba, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Mario Balotelli, Wesley Sneijder, Goran Pandev, Diego Milito.
Probable AC Milan team (4-3-3): Dida, Ignazio Abate, Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Luca Antonini, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini, Ronaldinho, Marco Borriello, David Beckham.
Soccernet prediction: AC Milan are undoubtedly the form side but Inter have not enjoyed a period of dominance in Italian football for nothing. Expect an entertaining draw between the two giants of European football, although Inter might just edge it if Nesta misses out.