The first Derby della Madonnina of the 2012-2013 season kicks off on Sunday evening, and, once again, we see the fortunes of Inter Milan and AC Milan trading places. Of course, this season they're meeting early, and with just six Serie A matches behind us, it may be tough to judge the fortunes of both Milan sides. But as it looks at the beginning of October, it's Inter that's back on the rise, while Milan are starting to fall.
Last season, Inter won both legs, the first a fairly dull 1-0, the second a much more thrilling 4-2 victory. Surprisingly, it was Milan that came out on top in the standings. In the two seasons prior, the spoils went to the team dominating the league: In their treble-winning season of 2009-2010, Inter came away with a combined 6-0 derby victory. The next season, in which the rossoneri took the scudetto, it was their turn to hold their opponents scoreless over two legs.
In general, over the course of the last decade, one side tended to win both derbies in a season. And if we were to make a bet on which would be most likely to do just that this season, the bet would have to be on the nerazzurri.
After Jose Mourinho left the club in the summer of 2010, Inter struggled. Under Rafa Benitez, the former champions were struggling in sixth in December, and when the club refused to provide him with the cash for new signings, they parted ways. Leonardo managed a six month renaissance for the nerazzurri, in which they stormed through to second place.
But Leonardo took off to Paris (little did we know, at the time, how many would follow his path), and Inter's struggles began once again. After just five games, during which Inter picked up just a point, the supporters were restless. The last straw was a Champions League loss to Turkish side Trabzonspor at the San Siro. Gian Piero Gasperini was sacked before October came round. Next time Claudio Ranieri, who hung on until late March, but with Inter in eighth place and struggling in the Champions League, it was time for him to leave as well.
In came Andrea Stramaccioni and, it seems, stability. The former Primavera coach managed to lift Inter up to sixth by the end of the season, but, more importantly, led them to the derby win that resulted in Milan seeing the scudetto slip out of their reach. Under Strama last season, Inter had five wins, two losses and two draws. This year, they've picked up four wins and two losses -- it's all or nothing for this side.
Beyond their record and current third place position lies what Stramaccioni is doing to get his side, still unable to splash out cash for big stars, to once again seem capable of being a title contender. Lord knows what he's done to revive Diego Milito, but the 33-year-old is off to a great start to the season. Antonio Cassano is shining after having moved from across town, having scored four goals already.
But it seems it's the smart buys -- and Strama's ability to adapt his tactics to them, rather than vice versa -- that are fueling this side. Inter finally offloaded Lucio, who was becoming a liability at the back, and brought in the young Juan Jesus from Internacional. He's being played in a back three these days, with veteran Walter Samuel in the center and Andrea Ranocchia on the right. The midfield is flexible, with players just reaching their prime, such as Fredy Guarín, Ricky Álvarez, Yuto Nagatomo, as well as young Philippe Coutinho, but almost always anchored by veterans Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti.
Inter might not be able to splash the cash, but over the last couple roller-coaster seasons they've experienced, the club seems finally to have learned how to play smart. The same can't be said of Milan, who have just entered into what be more than a start-of-season slump.
Of course, the argument can be made that the rossoneri began last season in much the same way, sitting 13th after six rounds. In fact, they're better off this time around, having managed to secure two wins to move into 11th. But last season, Milan's first six matches required them to face Lazio, Napoli, Udinese and Juventus. This time, their most threatening opponent has been Udinese, who, despite having lost all their teeth, are the ones that came away with a win.
Milan, like so many clubs these days, struggles against money woes. To rid themselves of the high wages of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they allowed Thiago Silva to leave with him to Paris Saint-Germain, thereby losing their two best players in one go. They also shed quite a few players who were likely past their prime, including Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Mark van Bommel, and Alessandro Nesta.
It's not so much the fact that players left Milan over the summer as that Milan did very little to replace them. Their big buys? Riccardo Montolivo, Nigel De Jong, and Giampaolo Pazzini. They also took Bojan Krkić on loan from AS Roma, and Kévin Constant from Genoa. Nothing, in short, to inspire true fear in the opposition. In fact, their smartest move of the summer was to fully secure Stephan El Shaarawy, who is on his way to becoming a fantastic forward.
But one fantastic player does not a team make, and this rossoneri side is still struggling to determine just what the missing factor might be. The lack of a suitable defence is one of the major factors. Fortunately, Ignazio Abate is back to full fitness, but Milan are still playing Mario Yepes in the back, a move that is beyond comprehension to most. Of course, Philippe Mexès, despite a brilliant move once in awhile, is little better. Massimiliano Allegri has also given Daniele Bonera, Djamel Mesbah, Mattia De Sciglio and Cristián Zapata a go, and seems uncertain as to what, exactly, his strongest back line might be.
At least Allegrei is changing things up, both in terms of his players and his formations. Previously, Allegri was so welded to his 4-3-1-2 that it seemed it would be his ultimate downfall. But over the last few matches, he shifted into a 4-3-3, and against Zenit St. Petersburg, sent out a 4-2-3-1 with El Shaarawy playing out wide. If Allegri can continue to adapt his tactics to his players, rather than forcing them to adapt to his, he might be able to save his job -- and stop Milan's spiral downward at the same time.
Yet Milan's approach to adding new players remains stagnant, rooted in olden days. Unlike Inter, who have the wisdom to look for cheap picks in South America or Portugal, the rossoneri seem convinced that their players need Serie A experience. In a pinch, they'll take France. Their most risky move of the offseason was getting De Jong, for goodness sake, and isn't he just a younger Van Bommel?
In the end, it's likely that Milan have enough to see them through this season, and quite likely enough to end up in the top three, now that Allegri has shown himself to be willing to shake things up a bit. But in the long term, it's their cross-town rivals that look to have things more sorted. And if Milan don't start finding a way to change, they'll be the ones falling far from grace, with Inter looking back and laughing.
And in the short term? It's Inter that have the advantage going in to Sunday's Derby della Madonnina. They've already worked out the kinks, and are ready to reclaim their standing as the top team in Milan.