The eyes of the world will be on San Siro on Saturday evening as Inter take on AC Milan in what is a crucial Derby della Madonnina clash given how the title race is poised.
The derby cannot quite be called a must-win game for the Rossoneri yet given how many points are still to play for, but the feeling is that a win could blow the Scudetto battle back open again whereas a defeat might just put an end to any hopes of capturing title number 19.
As always, the build-up to one of Europe’s biggest games has been dominated by various uncertainties from the state of the pitch at San Siro to the selection problems of both teams, but Milan boss Stefano Pioli is backing his side to give the best account of themselves.
Game date: Saturday, 5 February
Kick-off time: 18:00 (CET)
Venue: San Siro
Referee: Guida (VAR: Mazzoleni)
It feels like an eternity since the last time Milan had anything close to a fully fit squad heading into a potentially season-defining fixture, and unfortunately this weekend’s derby is not different.
Simon Kjaer is out for the remainder of the season due to a ligament injury, while Pioli confirmed in his pre-match press conference that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebic will miss the game with respective foot and ankle problems.
The big doubt surrounds Fikayo Tomori and whether he can trim over a week over the expected 30-day recovery time after surgery on his knee, but it doesn’t sound like he will be fit enough to start.
As per most sources, Milan should line up with Mike Maignan in goal, then a back four formed of Davide Calabria, Pierre Kalulu, Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez from right to left.
In the midfield it is a double pivot of Ismael Bennacer and Sandro Tonali which is set to get the nod, and Franck Kessie is tipped to play in place of Brahim Diaz as the playmaker just as he did in the win over Empoli when he netted a brace.
Junior Messias is expected to be on the right wing and Rafael Leao on the left wing behind the centre-forward Olivier Giroud, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not expected to win his battle against time to get rid of his tendon problem.
Probable Milan XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kalulu, Romagnoli, Theo; Tonali, Bennacer; Messias, Kessie, Leao; Giroud.
Inter are quite simply on a roll at the moment, having won 9 of their last 10 games in Serie A, reclaiming top spot in the process as Milan and Napoli could not keep up their red-hot early season pace.
They have kept 7 clean sheets in that aforementioned run while they have scored 24 goals in the process, showing that they are very much leading the way in the bid to retain their title.
Only Joaquin Correa and new signing Robin Gosens are expected to be unavailable for Simone Inzaghi as both have thigh injuries that will probably keep them out for two or three more weeks.
Lautaro Martinez and Alexis Sanchez have been in South America representing Argentina and Chile respectively in Qatar 2022 qualifying, but neither are expected to miss out on playing a part with the former tipped to partner Edin Dzeko up front.
There is a selection battle at right wing-back where Inzaghi is choosing between Matteo Darmian and Denzel Dumfries, but apart from that the defence and midfield pick themselves at the moment.
Probable Inter XI (3-5-2): Handanovic; Skriniar, De Vrij, Bastoni; Dumfries, Barella, Brozovic, Calhanoglu, Perisic; Martinez, Dzeko.
Head to head
This is one of the most contested derbies in European football with the sides having met in 229 matches, with Inter having 84 wins and Milan managing 77 victories against their rivals.
The previous meeting was in November last year and ended in a 1-1 draw, though the scoreline doesn’t tell the full story of the drama as the Nerazzurri got an early penalty that Hakan Calhanoglu converted against his old side, and then an own-goal levelled it at 1-1, before Lautaro Martinez missed a spot kick.
Last season the shares were spoiled as a Zlatan Ibrahimovic brace gave the Rossoneri the win in the first game of the season, but Inter were the better side during their 3-0 victory in the second half of the season.
➤ Milan are the side against which Inter have drawn the most Serie A matches (56), whilst no other side have beaten the Rossoneri more often than Inter (67). Milan have also conceded 247 top-flight goals against Inter, more than against any other side in the competition.
➤ After the 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture, Inter and Milan could draw both matches in a single Serie A campaign for the first time since 2016-17, when Stefano Pioli was Inter’s manager.
➤ Inter have lost only one of their last 11 Serie A meetings against Milan (2-1 in October 2020 thanks to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic brace in the opening 16 minutes): they have won six and drawn four in the process, in which only once have Milan kept a clean sheet.
➤ Since the 2020-21 campaign, Inter have lost four of their 60 Serie A games (W44 D12), with one against AC Milan in October 2020 – in the same period, the Nerazzurri have lost fewer than half the matches of any other side in the competition (Atalanta, nine).
➤ After their 0-0 draw against Juventus, AC Milan could fail to score in consecutive league games for the first time since February 2021 – they last drew successive league games in December 2020.
➤ Inter’s last Serie A home defeat was back in October 2020, against Milan, and are unbeaten in 28 home games since. This is their longest run at home without a defeat in the competition since the 46 matches between April 2008 and November 2010, ended by Milan (0-1 with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring in November 2010).
➤ Inter (53 goals) and Milan (47) have scored the most Serie A goals this season. Furthermore, Milan (eight) and Inter (seven) are the two sides with the most goals after an open play sequence with 10+ passes.
➤ Edin Dzeko has been involved in six Serie A goals against Milan, all for AS Roma (five goals, one assist) – he has had a hand in five of these goals at the Meazza Stadium, including scoring a brace in the opening 28 minutes in May 2017.
➤ Hakan Calhanoglu was involved in 74 goals in 172 matches in all competitions for AC Milan – in this period, he was the AC Milan player to have scored (32) and assisted (42) the most goals. After the goal in the reverse fixture, Milan could become the third side against which he has scored in his first two Italian top-flight meetings (along with Chievo and Fiorentina).
Ones to watch
Milan’s key in this game could well be Kessie. By pushing him further up – as he has already done in the 4-2 win at Empoli before Christmas – he would be tasked with disrupting and limiting the influence of Marcelo Brozovic, who is very much the deep-lying playmaker and midfield lynchpin for Inter, while also allowing Ismael Bennacer and Tonali to play in the pivot who tend to offer quick distribution and vertical movement.
Looking at other potential sparks, there is no doubting Theo Hernandez will be keen to make up for lost time after missing the last derby, while Romagnoli and Kalulu will have to be on top form to keep Inter out, and at the other end Giroud will be hoping to use all of his derby experience.
The first derby this season marked a turning point for Calhanoglu, who scored a penalty for the Nerazzurri, which would be the first of a run of 5 goals in 6 league games for a total haul of 6 goals and 8 assists from 19 appearances in this Serie A season. Keeping him quiet is a must.
Lautaro (11) and Dzeko (9) have combined for 20 goals this season, and the battle between Tonali and Barella to cut off the supply to the forwards will be key, as will the responsibility to keep Perisic quiet down their left given he knows this fixture well.
It feels like with Inter in fantastic form plus Milan battling big injury problems again and a drop in form, this is quite an easy derby to predict in favour of the ‘home’ team. However, Inzaghi also knows that a draw isn’t a terrible result for them and with the stakes so high it’s hard to see either team going gung-ho.
Prediction: Inter 1-1 AC Milan