The eagerly anticipated derby della Madonnina was again expected to be a tight affair, with both sides needing a win. Mancini’s Inter had suffered a significant dip in form since their loss to Lazio just before Christmas, and needed 3 points to keep in touch with the leaders. Mihajlovic, on the other hand, had experienced a period of renewed confidence and better performances from his team – not perfect, but signs of definite improvement. Tonight he made one change, bringing in Kucka for Bertolacci in central midfield in the 4-4-2. Mancini made the decision to include Santon at right-back, which seemed surprising in a game of this magnitude, and handed Eder his debut alongside Jovetic – not his former team-mate Icardi.
The game started in reasonably lively fashion, after a short wait for Montolivo and Juan Jesus to plant a tree, with attacking intent from both sides. It was Milan who controlled the first couple of minutes, getting numbers forward, with Abate putting in a cross and Niang having a positive run at the opposition defence. This quickly turned into a period of pressure for Inter, who stretched the Milan defence from a great pass forward by Perisic to put Eder away down the right. Romagnoli was caught pushing up on Eder and left space in behind. Unfortunately the new signing couldn’t find anyone in the middle. Mihajlovic would probably have been slightly worries about Inter isolating and targeting Romagnoli early on, after previous displays of edginess – for example against Roma recently. Eder was involved again shortly after, with a cross coming into the box from Jesus meeting him in the box, but the header was bizarrely off target from what seemed like a great opportunity to score. The Inter striker was looking lively in the opening ten minutes, making another run, only for a foul to be given against him, when it could have gone the other way leaving the Milan defender in trouble. Perisic was getting a chance to run down the right, looking to cut-in when he could, and seemingly had a good link with Santon, demonstrating some nice interplay in that channel.
Kucka impressive and aggressive
A key performer for Milan in the early stages (and throughout the match) was Kucka. He’d been brought back in by Mihajlovic, presumably to strengthen the midfield – which was clearly the less physical of the two teams. However, alongside Montolivo, they were very good at making tackles and breaking up Inter attacks. Kucka showed his worth in multiple areas in the first 20 minutes alone. We saw him tracking down the ball in the right-back area, running through the middle to the box in possession only to be brought down by a foul that wasn’t given (and then charging back to regain the ball), ‘roughing up’ Brozovic, and getting forward to cross into dangerous areas. The versatility and work-rate that Kucka brings to Milan is massively important in big games like this. Similarly, Montolivo has the most interceptions in Serie A this season, and although they miss a more creative aspect from central positions, the Rossoneri captain has been very influential. They seem to have a good dynamic in midfield, and although maybe not the classic central partnership, they appear to work very well at times. The Milan duo clearly won the midfield battle over Medel and Brozovic.
Inter had their chances, and looked dangerous at times when approaching Milan’s penalty area. The contrast of the technical interplay between the front men, and the ability to strike on the counter using the pace of Eder and Perisic was threatening. The main man to thwart the Nerazzurri’s attacks was Alex, who had a particularly good game. On the 20 minute mark, Jovetic played a lovely backheel to open up Milan’s left side and give Perisic a route to run at the penalty area. Romagnoli had again left space in behind where he’d pushed right up on Jovetic, and Antonelli had been marauding down the left in Inter’s half. Fortunately when Perisic got into the box, Alex was positioned well to intercept the square pass and the opportunity was lost. The Brazilian centre-back did that fantastically in the first-half, making 5 interceptions in the first half an hour or so. All the same, Inter’s freedom and movement of their strikers looked like it could cause problems, but they were always just that final pass away from a clear chance on goal. This was demonstrated when Ljajic cut in from the left, moving across Milan box, but just not quite being able to play the ball in to Eder who was lurking. The key space here is the area between Milan’s midfield and defence (shown below) – one that can get exploited due to there only being two central midfielders, and no ‘holding’ player like Medel who drops deeper. However, Milan actually defended this area pretty well considering, and just after Ljajic’s attack, when the ball came back to him, Kucka and Montolivo made a point of getting to Ljajic so quickly that he didn’t have time to bring the ball down under control – and Milan started an attack from winning the ball back. Without the energy of Kucka, Montolivo would probably get exposed, and the two in midfield run the risk of getting over-run or stretched, so you could see the idea that Mihajlovic had by putting Kucka in – and it really worked.
A feature of the play of both teams was the width they used. This wasn’t necessarily always pace down the outside of the full-backs, but there was a definite intent to get crosses in. Ljajic and Perisic did try and cut in towards the middle, but were generally unsuccessful. Honda and Bonaventura were particularly good throughout the match – they dribbled sensibly in wide positions and worked very hard – their industry often helped out the centre-mids, keeping the balance of the team and allowing them to cover spaces. The high pressing of the Milan players meant that there were quite a few occasions where Inter could only put together a few passes before getting squeezed out by Milan, leading to the Rossoneri gaining possession in the attacking half with quite a few men forward. Alternatively, Inter would be forced to go long. However, when Milan were on the back-foot in their own half and Inter had the ball, Milan would revert into a solid shape – able to stand off the ball and compact the middle of the pitch, forcing Inter wide and away from danger. Individually, the Milan players picked their moments to try and win the ball back in their own half very carefully – as to not compromise the structure of their defensive set-up.
Both sets of full-backs got forward, as you would expect, but Santon and Jesus put in 10 crosses compared to just one from Abate and Antonelli. The one cross that Abate did get in was a good one, and just about cleared from danger. Inter’s main threat at this point came down their right. As discussed before, it was Romagnoli that was the one who tended to get caught out, down Milan’s left. This was again exposed just after the first goal, where Inter won the ball in their half and broke out over the halfway line – Antonelli was caught too far up the pitch and Romagnoli had to come across to cover. This left the young centre-back exposed for Eder to run at, while Antonelli had to rush to cover the middle. The cross came in, but was headed clear. Conversely, Juan Jesus defended his side pretty well at times, but Kucka and Honda both had opportunities to create chances on goal.
Milan’s first goal, although coming through the resulting build up from a corner, was directly from a cross by Honda. Eder was left to close down the man on the ball out wide, which he doesn’t do effectively enough, and Honda was free to whip in a fantastic cross. Alex’s movement in the box was clever – he backs away slowly from Jesus, and then creeps in between Santon and Murillo to head home. It was the first headed goal that Inter had conceded this season. Santon was slow to react to Alex’s movement, and initially seemed to be more concerned with tracking Romagnoli who ended up running behind him. By the point where Santon had focussed his attentions on Alex, it was too late and the Milan centre-back already had a run on him to power the header home. Miranda has been pretty solid defensively this season, and after the goal went in you could see his frustration as he waves his arms in the air – obviously disappointed at conceding in general – but he knows that Alex shouldn’t be allowed to wander in and outjump his team mates defending behind him. That being said, the quality of Honda’s cross has to be praised.
Milan continued the second half with their pressing up the pitch. As soon as the ball sticks in Inter’s third and they look to pass their way out, Mihajlovic’s side sprint to them to close them down, crucially this often involves Abate or Antonelli. Abate was eager to stop Jesus getting away down the right, and put in a crunching but fair tackle on him. 5 minutes into the half, Donnarumma sliced a kick and went to punch the ball away from Eder, resulting in a goal kick. Mancini was upset and started moaning, getting himself sent to the stands in the process. The young goalkeeper rushed out again moments later, to intercept a pass to Jovetic, and the ball ricocheted clear – it was an iffy couple of minutes for him. Kucka continued his work in midfield, receiving a pass from Niang after he robbed Medel of the ball, however the final pass was poor – Kucka chose the wrong option and failed to play Bacca in on goal. This is sometimes a failing of the 442 system, not having a designated attacking midfielder behind the striker, limiting the creativity slightly when breaking forward. One thing that Rolando Maran did at the start of the season was move ex-Milan player Valter Birsa into the middle behind the strikers for Chievo, where he could be more effective. Its beneficial to have someone there, but obviously detracts from men in deeper roles, or you operate with one striker. Chievo managed the diamond pretty well in that instance, but relied on Castro’s work rate and narrow wingers (something which Milan probably don’t want). Bonaventura is the main creative element in the Milan side, and he is going to be responsible for feeding Bacca as often as possible, coming in from the left.
Crosses continued to come in; Alex caused problems again when a long ball came in from deep, Romagnoli pulled it back but Bonaventura couldn’t get to the rebound in time. Milan held a good shape in central areas in their own half, forcing Inter out wide a lot. Santon got the ball on the wide right going forward, and provided a good cross but just high for two Inter players in the middle. Icardi then came on for Jovetic, and gave them more movement off the shoulder of the defence. One chance came to light where Kucka had pushed up to pressure Medel, and left a space through midfield for Ljajic to receive the ball and move into. Icardi made a great run down the outside of Alex and Ljajic played a through pass to him, leaving him with a shot at goal from an angle, which was sharply saved by Donnarumma. From this, occurred a major turning point in the game – the penalty decision.
The decision itself was a questionable one. Icadi was about to play the ball back in from the edge of the six-yard box, and Alex appears to kick out at the back of his leg, although Icardi’s reaction is exaggerated. If Inter were to score the penalty, then you felt that the game could easily change and swing in Mancini’s favour. However, Icardi stepped up and hit the post from the spot, and the score remained at 1-0. It tainted what was a pretty good cameo from Icardi, which will now be remembered for the miss that could have cost his side at least a point in the derby. Initially it looks like Donnarumma doesn’t really make any sort of move to save the ball, and Icardi just misses the target. However the point was made that the keeper waited so long before making a move, that Icardi doesn’t have a hint as to where to put the ball and has to just improvise at the last minute, shaping his body and angling it too far towards the corner. If the keeper commits early, then the Inter striker probably just slots it inside the post, but we are talking about very fine margins, and Milan looked to seize upon his misfortunes.
Just a couple of minutes after the penalty miss, Bacca doubled Milan’s lead to put the match out of Inter’s reach. It came from a sloppy pass out from the left-back position by Jesus, that he played along the ground back out into the middle of the pitch – meaning that when Abate makes the interception, he moves into space and catches Inter flat-footed. He lays it off to Niang, who is free with plenty of time and space due to Jesus engaging Abate, and the Frenchman whips in a perfect delivery for Bacca to volley home. Bacca’s movement it fantastic, because although the space is towards the near-post (where he would naturally run to meet a cross from that position), he instead runs around the back of Miranda to get onto the end of the cross from the Inter defender’s blind side. Miranda just doesn’t move quickly enough to intercept the cross and the Milan striker sticks it in with what appears to be his knee.
Inter had a brief period of hope, with an Eder header from a corner that went wide, and a run from the same man, who crossed for Perisic but nothing came of the chance. Shortly after, Milan killed the game off by scoring their third and final goal of the game. It came about through a mistake from Santon, who stuttered on the ball for too long before Bonaventura robbed him. The Milan winger then ran infield, produced a nice step-over to put Murillo off-balance, and set it up for Niang who struck it at Donnarumma but scored the rebound. It was an individual error by Snaton really, compounded by the pressure from Bonaventura and Bacca, but Inter looked mentally and physically weary by this point anyway. The goals came so close together that it was hard for Mancini to react (as well as being sent to the ‘stands’), and his introduction of Melo was pretty pointless. If anything, he should have perhaps realised earlier that Brozovic’s positioning in midfield was poor and leaving gaps – where Melo probably would have done a better job. There was no way back for the Nerazzurri, but impressively Mihajlovic’s side kept up the pressing and energy to close the ball down and properly see out the game. Honda and Kucka in particular have to be praised for this work-rate. Bacca had another shot saved, and Honda had a shot blocked after being fed by Balotelli who entered the action late on. Milan played with Inter a bit in the final stages, enjoying their significant win, and kept possession in and outside of their opponent’s half.
The win will clearly continue to lift Milan spirits and regain some faith in coach Mihajlovic. Their chase is still on for Champions League football next season, and they seem to be improving each week. Mancini, on the other hand, has a real job to do in turning around his team’s form and holding them in touch with the teams above. Fixtures against both Verona sides await Inter next, which will be seen as opportunities to bounce back. The Rossoneri take a trip to Palermo on Wednesday before entertaining Udinese at the weekend, but can take clear positives from the derby result. Specifically; the energy and dominance of their midfielders was superb, Alex’s performance was very encouraging and key to the win, and they finished off three of their chances on goal. To win by three goals against any side would have been a big boost for Mihajlovic at this stage, but to do it against Inter could be a pivotal point in their season.