Football Features

“The ‘new king’ taught a lesson” — Ibra reclaims throne as Milan sink Inter in Derby della Madonnina

By Ben Green

Published: 19:21, 17 October 2020

AC Milan held on to their lead to win the first Derby della Madonnina of the new Serie A season in a tense 2-1 win over rivals Inter. 

Two first half goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic were enough to maintain Milan’s perfect start to the season and ensured the Rossoneri ended a winless run of 10 years away to Inter. Romelu Lukaku responded on the half hour mark, but Stefano Pioli’s side held on for an historic win.

It seems Milan are exhibiting signs of their former glory years and this result is unquestionably an indicator of their intent. For Antonio Conte it’s back to the drawing board, but what did we learn from another Milan derby classic?

1. The King of Milan still going strong   

He may be closing in on 40 but Zlatan Ibrahimovic has continued to defy logic. Since returning to Milan at the start of the year he has been breathtaking and produced the goods on a consistent basis. Suggestions that his acquisition was nothing more than a symbolic gesture have been irrefutably cast away as the legendary Swede has been in scintillating form. Indeed MLS was no retirement home for him.

But, if this is to be his swan song then he is making a considerable noise of further boosting his legacy at the San Siro. And once again he has made an imprint on a Derby della Madonnina, shining in the first half to net a quick-fire brace and ensure maximum reward for his side.

His first was an exceptional piece of experienced centre-forward play, lulling Aleksandar Kolarov into a mistimed challenge before buckling under contact from the Serb. Referee Maurizio Mariani rightly pointed to the spot, and Ibra struck home after his initial effort was saved.

The 39-year-old then once again showcased his world class positional awareness, peeling off Stefan de Vrij before Rafael Leao produced a pinpoint delivery which Ibra guided into the back of the net. Those goals ensured he has now been directly involved in seven goals in five Serie A derbies for Milan (six goals and one assist), all with Inter as the home side. A bad omen for the Nerazzurri.

2. Inter have their own king!

When Inter claimed a 4-2 victory over their eternal rivals back in February of last season, a game in which Milan led by 2-0, Romelu Lukaku — scorer of the fourth that day — tweeted: “There’s a new king in town”. A cheeky dig at Ibra no doubt.

Well, his antics on social media have been backed up by a ruthless streak against the red half of Milan. Indeed the Belgian scored in both matches last season, and he has once again produced the goods. By doing so, Milan are the first side to concede a goal against the Belgian in three Serie A games.

But, Milan are not his only victims. Since Lukaku switched Old Trafford for Milan he has reinvented himself under Antonio Conte. A striker who often proved too inconsistent to truly endear himself to the Man Utd faithful has transformed into a player of real substance, world class substance. And Inter are reaping the rewards.

This was another snapshot of Lukaku’s world class upturn, but Ibrahimovic ultimately had the final say this time, and reclaimed his Milan throne. The ‘new king’ was taught a lesson. But what an epic battle between two top forwards it was.

3. The sleeping giant has awoken under Pioli

Indeed Milan have been accused of being a sleeping giant the past decade or so, and with good reason. Their historic Champions League-winning sides of the noughties and mid-90s seem from a bygone era, but under Pioli they are just starting to exhibit signs of star quality.

A Scudetto has eluded the club for nearly a decade but they currently top the table after four games and look good value for that early lead, with this victory against one of the favourites to dethrone Juventus this season a real statement of their intentions.

Incredibly Milan have now scored in each of their last 24 Serie A games and had not conceded in their last four prior to tonight. Such a run has not existed for the club since 1973, showing just how far this club has progressed since Pioli joined in October last year. His arrival was met with ‘#PioliOut’ trending on Twitter, but the decision to appoint him now looks inspired.

4. Conte’s enforced experiment backfires

Without the services of key centre-back duo Alessandro Bastoni and Milan Skriniar, Conte was forced to shuffle the pack and deploy a very experimental backline. Despite the lack of centre-backs on offer, the Italian stayed true to his three-man rearguard with wing-backs pushing up the flanks, but ultimately it backfired for him.

With Stefan de Vrij tasked with the most central role and handling Ibrahimovic, he was flanked either side by Aleksandar Kolarov and Danilo D’Ambrosio, two players who are nominally full-backs. Ivan Perisic, a winger by trade, took on the left wing-back role, and Achraf Hakimi was deployed in his natural position on the right channel.

But, Milan duly capitalised on the makeshift defence, looking threatening every time they surged up the pitch, with Kolarov (making his 350th appearance in football) guilty of multiple aberrations, including conceding the penalty.

In a league that has often taken pride on the defensive aspects of the game, any sign of catenaccio was sorely lacking this evening, with the rearguards looking all at sea at times, and Milan ultimately profiting on the day from Inter’s uncharacteristically beleaguered backline.

5. Milan’s midfield combination hits all the right notes

Where the defences were poor at times, Pioli certainly got his midfield combination spot on. The double-pivot of Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie worked perfectly in tandem to safeguard the backline and thwart Inter’s attack, particularly keeping a padlock on Nicolo Barella.

It was a frustrating match for the Italian, who was eventually dropped back to make way for Christian Eriksen, fresh from a fruitful international break, but even the great Dane struggled to break through the Kessie-Bennacer bulwark.

But, arguably the most efficient point in Milan’s midfield was Hakan Calhanoglu. Playing in a more advanced No 10 role, the creative Turkey international was the catalyst for Pioli in this derby, consistently exploiting the half space and breaking through to link up fluently with Ibrahimovic.

When Milan needed composure, he was their release valve; when they needed a bit of creativity in the final third he provided the spark. A wonderful performance from Calhanoglu, but his freedom to thrive was only made possible through the diligent work of Kessie and Bennacer.