Over in Italy, we have something of a rarity – something that hasn’t been seen there for an age. Something as rare as a misplaced mushroom in a carbonara. The fact that we have a title race is exciting enough, but one without Juventus? Preposterous! Well wake up and smell the Milanese coffee because it’s happening and it’s taking place in Italy’s second city.
The most recent Milan derby gained an importance the football world hasn’t seen in a long time.
Despite the preceding decade of success, perhaps it isn’t altogether surprising that Juve are struggling to match their extremely high expectations this year. Relying on an ageing Ronaldo for match-winning goals and points, a manager with precisely zero experience and, of course, this unpredictable and rigorous fixture list are all taking a toll on Juventus. Inter, on the other hand, are pretty far from that. They’re in great form, playing superb football, with an experienced and determined manager. Yes, they have ageing players too (the likes of Young, Eriksen, Kolarov, Perišić, etc) but this has worked for them, especially mixed with the young talents of Martínez, Hakimi and Barella. Last season was good too, beaten to the title by one point and a European final – but this time around, they look destined for glory. It has cost them to get where they are: looking at the finances, this pretty much seems shit or bust. Their opportunity may not come again any time soon. Luckily, many other of Europe’s super clubs’ finances are shot to shit too. With Barcelona near bankruptcy and PSG suffering from last season’s early league termination, maybe they will be able to keep the super clubs’ grubby hands away from their assets.
And so, the most recent Milan derby gained an importance the football world hasn’t seen in a long time. Two points between them, this battle of the San Siro did not disappoint. Inter’s ravenous start to the game set the pace and tone for the match. They were quick, clever and precise, with intricate moves and patterns appearing all game. It didn’t take long before they found themselves ahead – unselfish play and a perfect cross from Lukaku made it hard for Martinez to miss; a strike partnership that is surely one of the best in the world at present. There were shaky moments defensively, and an early second half resurgence from Milan that was single-handedly crushed by Handonović with a string of three magnificent saves in less than a minute.
But the real star of the show here was the same man who has been the best player in Italy this season. I doubt he’ll thank me for saying so, and yes, he may have whispered it quietly, but at one point he even had the commentator mentioning the Ballon d’Or. Romelu Lukaku was imperious. Quick, clever, lethal. I know it is not fashionable to refer to black players as strong in the current climate of football, but I mean it as the highest compliment. He literally bullies defenders, pins them before spinning them and, on his day, is absolutely unplayable. We have seen this before. During his career in England – at West Brom, Chelsea, Everton, and even Manchester United too – there were times when Lukaku wowed us all. I remember a specific game at Goodison where he absolutely destroyed an (in their defence, terrible) Arsenal back-line. His goalscoring record is outrageous and age is on his side – he could, and probably should, finish up as a record-breaking goal-scorer. He was almost cheered out of Old Trafford but what he has done in Italy is something to be respected, admired even.
A word here for Milan. They have had their own resurgence this season and although they were outplayed on the day, their young side (despite the appearances of the ageing duo of Ibra and Mandžukić) is one to watch out for in years to come. Things could still change. The next day, Juve found themselves a 3-0 win and could rally to push Inter. But, with things being the way they are, the world the way it is, let’s hope for plenty more challenges to the status quo of Europe’s top leagues.
P.S. – watch out for Nicolò Barella. Kid’s a baller.