Monday, 11 January 2010

Do Milanese duo have enough to conquer again?

The days of Van Basten, Gullit, Zola, Vialli, Ravanelli, Zidane and James Richardson’s Ice Cream cones have long gone. Serie A’s position as the poor relation amongst Europe’s top three leagues was uniquely demonstrated this summer when Milan and Inter both lost their best player to the Spanish superpowers of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Once upon a time even clubs outwith Italy’s big three could outbid anyone around Europe - Lazio, Parma and Roma consistently among the continent’s big spenders. Italy had four different champions in four years between 1999 and 2003 and three of the Champions League semi-finalist’s in 2003 were Italian.

Its place at the top table has been taken by the absurd wealth of the Premier League and now by the power and prestigue of La Liga’s top two - with a little help from the taxman along the way. Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd eliminated all of Italy’s big three last year and perhaps even more frightening for pretenders to the Champions League crown is that in Madrid and Barcelona Kaka and Ibrahimovic are not the star players and leaders they were in Milan. They are just one piece in a glittering array of stars.

This weekend may have proved that Inter still just have what it takes to retain the Scudetto. However, it appears their neighbours are again appear better prepared for a run at the Champions League. Inter’s 4-3 win over bottom side Sienna showed they have the quality often overlooked in a title race – a winning mentality. For all their errors throughout the first 93 minutes they had conjured up three moments of quality. Three superb strikes, one from Diego Milito and two from Wesley Sneijder free-kicks, kept them in the game. In the 94th they stole victory through centre-back turned striker Walter Samuel. It was quite apt that Samuel should make his significant contribution to the game in the opponents penalty area. Brought on as a make shift left-back at half time Samuel had been truly awful. Continually pulled out of position and at fault for Sienna’s third goal so poor was his defensive performance that Mourinho was forced to being on another make-shift left back to avoid Inter falling further behind. Despite their manager’s undoubted tactical nous Inter’s potential to self-destruct is what will again undermine their attempt to land Europe’s biggest prize for the first time since 1966. Stamford Bridge will be filled with emotion for their former hero when he returns in mid-March but at the moment it seems inevitable that Roman Abramovich will have the last laugh over his former employee. Chelsea’s dynamism seem too much for an experienced but ultimately weak Inter midfield. Barcelona have already showed the way in completely dominating Inter over two games earlier in the season and although Chelsea will not be able to retain the ball in the same manner as Xavi, Iniesta and co they will have the firepower to overwhelm an ageing Inter rearguard.

Milan by contrast appear to be coming to the boil under rookie coach Leonardo. After a high-tempo goal fest against Genoa earlier in the week, the rossoneri showed their discipline in a ruthless 3-0 victory in Turin over Juventus. This was not the demolition of the grand old lady that Bayern Munich laid down before Christmas. Rather Milan strung along their opponents, keeping possession, denying space in behind and taking their few opportunities with ruthless efficiency. Milan have the players to make the difference in the latter stages of the Champions League and unlike previous years now have a degree of youth in their side in the form of Thiago Silva, Luca Antonini and Ignazio Abate. Their upturn in form may have come too late to save their bid for the Scudetto but Man Utd beware Milan will again be a tough out come the spring.

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