Separated by just two points and one place in the Serie A standings, on Tuesday night Inter Milan meet old rivals AC Milan in the second Derby della Madonnina of the season.
Crowned ‘Winter Champions’ despite a desperate 3-0 defeat to Atalanta at the weekend, league leaders Milan continue their quest for a sixth Coppa Italia trophy against their San Siro-sharing foes – as the pair come head-to-head in the quarter-finals.
With thoughts of the Scudetto momentarily on pause, both Milan giants turn their thoughts towards chasing Coppa glory, after a prolonged barren spell for the second city.
The Nerazzurri have not lifted the trophy for a decade and are now set on a first domestic double since the Jose Mourinho era, while the Rossoneri’s drought goes back further – to 2003, when Rivaldo, Andriy Shevchenko and current Benevento coach Pippo Inzaghi were among the scorers in their final success against Roma.
Given that Inter’s European commitments were brought to an end by Champions League failure before Christmas, Antonio Conte’s side may have an even sharper focus claiming the cup in spring. Meanwhile, injury-stricken Milan resume Europa League duty next month and are perhaps primarily focused on preserving a narrowing lead in the league.
Despite the continuing fixture congestion which has seen most Italian sides playing three times a week either side of a brief winter break, Conte is likely to name a very familiar XI on Tuesday, as he pits his wits against former Inter boss Stefano Pioli.
Having progressed to this stage thanks only to a late Romelu Lukaku extra-time winner in the previous round – in a tight 2-1 win over Fiorentina – Conte’s men may well have their passionate coach stalking the sidelines for the last time in a while at San Siro, with the former Juventus chief facing a lengthy suspension for clashing with referee Fabio Maresca at the weekend. On Saturday, second-placed Inter were unable to find a way past a resolute Udinese outfit and Conte took his frustration out on the match official at the end of the game.
Despite dominating possession – and feeling justifiably aggrieved that Bianconeri midfielder Tolgay Arslan avoided dismissal in the first half – they had to settle for a goalless draw against opposition indebted to a typically dominant display from goalkeeper Juan Musso – rumoured to be replacing Inter’s veteran Samir Handanovic in the summer.
If the Nerazzurri had managed to seal victory over Luca Gotti’s home side at the Dacia Arena, they would have been deigned ‘Campioni d’Inverno’ (Serie A leaders at the halfway stage) but instead that honour – for what it’s worth – was bestowed upon their red-clad city rivals.
Of course, above all others, Milan’s ageless icon ‘King’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic would enjoy nothing more than getting one over on his former club again this week, after the Swedish superstar’s brace during their last meeting in October brought to an end Inter’s recent derby day monopoly.
As a new generation of Rossoneri talent has so far taken the league by storm – even in Zlatan’s prolonged absence – this could finally be the season when they finally re-claim the famous old trophy for a first time since the early noughties.
However, ahead of the 25th Derby in Coppa Italia history – where the overall ledger sees them ahead by virtue of 10 wins to Inter’s seven – Pioli’s staggeringly consistent side have just started to come off the boil. Though Milan have lost only two Serie A matches all season, both defeats have come in recent weeks – at home to Juventus and, most recently, Atalanta.
A three-goal loss to their Lombard counterparts on Saturday was hardly the ideal preparation and Pioli’s team selection – somewhat predicated by injuries and illnesses – was roundly criticised in the aftermath.
Highlighting Atalanta’s physical superiority, plus characteristic intensity in winning duels and second balls, the former Fiorentina coach insisted there was “no shame” in such a defeat – though must be aware that Inter can be similarly imposing, if less dynamic, on their day.
Not only will Milan still be missing key midfielders, just as their defensive crisis has begun to ease with Fikayo Tomori arriving from Chelsea, but their totemic goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma sits out the tie due to a mindless red card in the previous round.
Italy number one ‘Gigio’ was sent from the sidelines during a penalty shoot-out triumph over Torino in the last 16 – like Conte, for abusing the officials – and will be sorely missed by his teammates on Tuesday. Such margins can even decide the destiny of what is sure to be another fiercely fought encounter.
Inter Milan Coppa Italia form: W
Inter Milan form (all competitions): WLDWWD
AC Milan Coppa Italia form: W
AC Milan form (all competitions): WLWDWL