When things get tough, the tough get going was the mentality of Milan’s under fire boss Carlo Ancelotti in the season’s first Derby della Madonnina. After a negative start to the campaign, with home and away defeats to Bologna and Genoa respectively in the first rounds of Serie A, the Rossoneri had their backs against the wall before the clash between the city rivals. Rumours were already circulating that Anchelotti, the most long serving tactician of the current Serie A bosses, would get the boot would Milan lose. Ancelotti, though, has never been the one to bottle it when things slip outside the comfort zone which he managed to show once again with the way he fired-up his team.
With injuries to key midfielder Andrea Pirlo and in-form striker Marco Borriello Milan was forced to make changes to a formation that had won the last two matches. In a situation as heated as this, only the football romantics would argue against Ancelotti’s pragmatism. Although he did field an all-Brazilian forward trio (Pato, Ronaldinho and Kaka) to provide the spectacular, it didn’t disguise where and how he thought the match would be won. Behind the dazzling Brazilians surrounded by all the hype and glamour were geared a battling midfield in Ambrosini, Seedorf and Rino Gattuso to cancel out every inch of Inter’s attacking space. In the absence of Pirlo’s genius, which in this case even benefited Milan, and knowing Mourinho’s fondness of the physical, Ancelotti applied a rugged workmanlike approach, as opposed to their usual fluidity and elegance that in the end won the match for the home side. In a Milan derby, you usually get either spectacular games or tactical bores, but this time it was all about physicality, intensity and pace (not normally your favourite nouns to describe Serie A). Tackles were flying and few were the times when one of Inter’s wingers, Mancini or Quaresma, would get the ball without having to collect himself up off the deck. The yellow card slipped out of the referee’s pocket six times, but the match never turned ugly as the players of both teams just got on with it and enjoyed the heated atmosphere. The only time the match boiled over was when Materazzi talked himself a straight red. On the surface, there wasn’t anything surprising in the incident but the fact that it happened after he had already been substituted made it strange even in Materazzi’s standards. Victimised by the referees he might be but nevertheless it provided a hilarious spectacle.
With the tireless work ethic and rugged approach, the midfield also provided the platform from which Milan launched their counter-attacks. For long periods Inter seemed comfortable at the back but it doesn’t need more than one flash of brilliance from the Brazilian connection to break down any defence. This happened on the 36th minute as Gattuso worked the ball to Ronaldinho who provided space for himself in midfield before finding Kaka on the right with a neat long pass. Kaka went forward and took his time brilliantly to tee up Ronaldinho in the box with a cross. Ronaldinho might not be best known for his ability to head the ball but this he took brilliantly and found the top corner.
Added to Milan’s tireless midfield and attack, that didn’t sparkle but did the job, the defence completed a perfect night for the Rossoneri. Milan’s aging, if not aged, defence line has been criticised (not for their performances as such but for their average age) and for a good reason. Nonetheless, on the Sunday, experience was a definite virtue as Paolo Maldini continued to defy, if not outdo, old age and led the defence majestically marking Zlatan Ibrahimovic completely out of the game.
A week after the derby Lazio is still topping the table with Udinese and Inter closing in. Champions League spot contender Fiorentina (now ninth) is gradually getting their act together but Roma are still struggling on the edge of a crisis with a miserable seven points from six games. Palermo and Atalanta might have surprised some, being fourth and fifth respectively, but the real surprise package is definitely Walter Zenga’s Catania. Eleven points from six games is just enough to keep AC Milan behind them. All of a sudden it doesn’t seem that Inter will promenade for the scudetto that easily. This season of Serie A looks like making good of its promise of turning into a highly interesting campaign.