By Hasan Saiyid
Milan’s 3-0 derby win over Inter was a loud indication that the balance of power is starting to shift in Italy.
In a wonderfully ironic moment that only he can provide, Italy Prime Minister and Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi dismissed the idea of signing Mario Balotelli from Manchester City, claiming his “style of behaviour” was not congruent with his club’s propriety. Berlusconi was speaking after Milan’s demolition of Inter on Saturday and in the heat of the legal, political, and moral furor over his alleged sexual relations with a minor. Predictably, his veneer of probity drew snickers from many quarters.
There is a convincing case to be made that Berlusconi should never be allowed to pronounce on anyone’s conduct, but for all his hypocrisy and bluster, the balding misogynist has been commendably disciplined with the way he has run Milan.
Despite a few years of purse-tightening, Berlusconi’s outlay has brought the Rossoneri unprecedented success, a fact that the club routinely, and gratingly even for its own fans, announces and re-announces after a heavy domestic loss or European exit. Hands up if you have heard Milan CEO Adriano Galliani say the words, “we are the club with the most titles in the world.”
It is at worst selective, not deceptive, advertising. Milan have had many problems over the years, ranging from sterile years on the field, a brush with scandal that saw them docked points in 2006, and financial trials that have afflicted all Italian clubs, bankrupting some completely. However, throughout the twenty-five years of Berlusconi’s ownership, Milan have always maintained a distinguished culture of winning, even when losing. There is always a sense that Milan will sooner or later right the wrongs and win the Champions League and Serie A. There has never been a protracted collapse, the kind that Inter are inured to. Their cross-city cousins grudgingly accept that fact.
Not that they have a choice. Milan have won the European Cup at least once in each of the last three decades. Inter’s win last year, as noteworthy as it was, came after fourty-five years. Here, I will put it more starkly: after almost half a century.
The last five seasons may have seen Inter at the top of the Italian game, but the momentum has now begun to shift. Milan’s 3-0 win over Inter on Saturday meant that they restored their five-point advantage over their despised rivals with just seven games to go. The victory and the scoreline was even more spectacular given that it was achieved without the leading scorer and assist maker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and given that Inter had all the momentum after closing the gap from five to two points in recent weeks.
Milan’s maligned Clarence Seedorf rolled back the years, slotting the ball into spaces that Robinho and Pato could ghost into. The uncompromising operator behind Seedorf was midfielder Mark van Bommel, who at last found the difference between aggressiveness and recklessness. Ignazio Abate, no Cafu yet but making somewhat of a case, sliced through Inter on the flank, bursting into the area at will. His cross to set up Pato’s second goal exposed the sputtering engine of Inter’s defence. Not having Lucio can do that to you, but no one thought this badly.
While Milan striker Pato read the pace and the space of the game brilliantly, Samuel Eto’o and Giampaolo Pazzini rarely got through the Milan defence, and when they did, Christian Abbiati sat waiting, ready to put himself in any danger to avoid conceding. His reaction save on Pazzini definitively changed the momentum of the game. Inter knew then the worst was to come.
Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri has to take a huge portion of the credit. The energy of Kevin-Prince Boateng has been channeled into productivity. The Ghanaian’s freedom of movement and pressing as an unorthodox “1” in a 4-3-1-2 line-up, which allows him to cut through directly or draw the defenders towards him so that Seedorf and Robinho can do the damage, is a masterstroke by Allegri. The coach may be still too green for the Champions League, but domestically he has seldom put a foot wrong. Even the recent dropped points, charitable impulses that have allowed Inter to clamber into contention, were characterized by lapses in concentration and exhaustion (there are after all players who are creaking, well past thirty now). You can fault Allegri only to a degree for making this title race interesting.
Things are still close. Milan’s sustained assault on Saturday has to be now unflinchingly directed towards the Scudetto. Napoli are three points behind after an exhilarating 4-3 win over Lazio, and Inter know they are not out of it completely, but Milan’s second win over Inter this season has had a searing psychological affect on all their rivals in Serie A. Inter have been nearly indestructible since 2006, but Milan have now beaten them 4-0 on aggregate this season.
The win was also a finger in the eye of the anti-Berlusconi brigade, who wanted to see the coach he sacked last year get his revenge. Had Leonardo won on Saturday, he would have been taking questions about how it feels to embarrass a man whom he likened to Narcissus.
But when the dust settled, it was Berlusconi, all smiles, who was playing the press, praising the spurned Leonardo for his professionalism in choosing Inter as a destination.
He knows he is hated, and he knows he is ridiculed, but it seems Berlusconi always gets to have the last laugh.
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