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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Nicky Bandini

Inter’s derby delight all the more remarkable after summer exits

Henrikh Mkhitaryan (centre) celebrates his first of two in a historic Saturday evening at San Siro.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (centre) is congraultated after his first of two in a historic Saturday evening at San Siro. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

Stefano Pioli was not so much seeing his glass half-full on Saturday night, as clutching an empty tumbler and reminiscing about the wine that used to be in there before the neighbours came round and drank it all. “In the first four minutes, only we touched the ball,” asserted the Milan manager at the end of Saturday’s derby against Inter. The only problem, a detail really, was everything that happened throughout the 86 that followed.

Inter took the lead in the fifth minute, Henrikh Mkhitaryan redirecting a ball from Federico DiMarco back across Mike Maignan. They doubled their lead before half-time with a spectacular goal from Marcus Thuram, who retrieved an overhit pass outside the left corner of the box then cut back inside Malick Thiaw to fire a rocket into the furthest part of the goal.

Rafael Leão gave Milan hope with a goal back just before the hour mark, but it did not last for long. Mkhitaryan struck again before Théo Hernández swung clumsily at a ball inside the penalty box and caught Lautaro Martínez’s boot. Hakan Çalhanoglu converted from the spot. Davide Frattesi, on as a second-half substitute for Inter, made it 5-1 when he ran through to convert Mkhitaryan’s pass in injury time.

Not since 1974 had Inter scored so many times in a game against Milan. Never in their history had they won five consecutive derbies, something that they have now achieved just in this calendar year. Since thumping their rivals to lift the Supercoppa in January, Inter have won two league meetings and both legs of a Champions League semi-final.

Is the gap between them getting wider? Few would have said so before kickoff, Inter and Milan boasting Serie A’s only perfect records after three games. Both had scored eight goals, Pioli’s team surviving a tricky away trip to Roma where they played for half an hour on 10 men.

Milan gave the impression of having strengthened significantly through their summer transfer dealings. Christian Pulisic has made headlines but Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders had also slotted straight into starting roles and brought something new to the midfield – the former with his acceleration and willingness to break lines, the latter with his vision and range.

Marcus Thuram stars in the Milan derby.

Yet the pattern of Saturday’s defeat felt familiar. After Inter’s 2-0 win in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in May, Pioli lamented that these opponents “never even got into our area” for the opening seven minutes. Yet they scored in the eighth, and had taken a commanding lead by the 11th, when Mkhitaryan made a late run to bury another DiMarco centre.

Milan finished up with close to 60% of possession on both occasions. Having the ball does not mean a great deal when you lack effective schemes for breaking down your opponent. For all the buzz around their summer signings, Milan’s goal on Saturday came straight out of the last two seasons’ playbook, Théo Hernández feeding Olivier Giroud who, finding a rare pocket of space, served Leão with a perfect through-pass.

Their defending was inexcusably naïve. Missing quicker centre-backs Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu through suspension and injury, Milan nevertheless opted for tight man-marking to accompany their high press. Few defenders in the world could reliably win every battle with Lautaro Martínez, and Simon Kjær is not one of them. At no point did Malick Thiaw look up to the task of containing Thuram.

The Frenchman, a free signing from Borussia Mönchengladbach, might prove to be the smartest addition of Serie A’s summer transfer window. Inter were supposed to be weakened in attack by the departures of Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku. Instead they have found a player who looks as effective in the air as the Bosnian, but with a burst of pace that neither predecessor could match.

Thuram’s combinations with Lautaro so far have been dazzling. While both are comfortable taking up the positions of a traditional No 9, the Argentinian is also happy dropping deep to pick up possession in central spaces from which he can run and pick up a head of steam. Thuram, who often played as a winger in Germany, offers something different by drifting to the flank on either side.

It was his bulldozing run down the right, which left Thiaw sprawled on the floor, and second cross after a first attempt was blocked, that eventually led to Inter’s opener. Thuram already has a pair of assists to go with two Serie A goals. He scored his first for France after coming on as a substitute against the Republic of Ireland in a Euro 2024 qualifier this month.

How do Inter keep doing this? They have allowed what could almost be a full starting XI worth of international stars to depart since Simone Inzaghi took charge in 2021, from Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi that first summer to Ivan Perisic last year and now Dzeko, André Onana, Marcelo Brozovic, Milan Skriniar, Robin Gosens and Lukaku once again.

Every year there has been an obligation to cut the wage bill, as owners Suning wrestle with Financial Fair Play obligations while servicing the debt on loans that were taken to cover losses exacerbated by the pandemic. Somehow, on the pitch, the team looks stronger.

Davide Frattesi - calcio’s next big thing? – celebrates his derby goal.
Davide Frattesi - calcio’s next big thing? – celebrates his derby goal. Photograph: Luca Rossini/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Thuram was not the only new signing to catch the eye on Saturday, the 23-year-old Frattesi getting his name on the scoresheet just days after bagging both goals in Italy’s crucial Euro qualifying win over Ukraine. He is yet to start a game for Inter since joining from Sassuolo – unsurprising when Mkhitaryan and Nicolò Barella are the players ahead of him – but it can only be so long.

Carlos Augusto, another midfielder signed on loan from Monza, also impressed off the bench, while Marko Arnautovic did selfless work after replacing Thuram. Onana’s replacement in goal, Yann Sommer, had not conceded this season until he was beaten by Leão. Benjamin Pavard, easily Inter’s most expensive signing of the summer at €30m, is yet to make his debut.

Roma 7-0 Empoli, Fiorentina 3-2 Atalanta, Frosinone 4-2 Sassuolo, Monza 1-1 Lecce, Cagliari 0-0 Udinese, Genoa 2-2 Napoli, Inter 5-1 Milan, Juventus 3-1 Lazio

It is that depth, beyond the quality of performances from the starting XI, which give reason to believe that Inzaghi’s team can continue to get even stronger after a season when they reached a Champions League final and stood toe-to-toe with Manchester City. “There are 25 of us in this squad,” said Mkhitaryan at full-time. “It doesn’t matter if I start or come off the bench … We need to be like bricks in a wall, one next to the other.”

He continued by saying Inter want their “second star” – a reference to the club’s 19 league titles and the golden constellation that can be added to the club badge when they reach 20. Milan are on the exact same number.

A derby does not define a whole season, and this one has a very long way to run. Inter lost 12 times in Serie A last season. League titles require consistency above all.Still, this was a win worth celebrating. Five goals are a lot more to hang onto, than four minutes of hoarding the ball.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Inter Milan 4 12 12
2 Juventus 4 7 10
3 AC Milan 4 2 9
4 Lecce 4 3 8
5 Napoli 4 3 7
6 Frosinone 4 1 7
7 Fiorentina 4 0 7
8 Verona 3 0 6
9 Atalanta 4 3 6
10 Bologna 3 -1 4
11 Torino 3 -2 4
12 Roma 4 5 4
13 Genoa 4 -3 4
14 Monza 4 -3 4
15 Lazio 4 -3 3
16 Udinese 4 -3 3
17 Sassuolo 4 -4 3
18 Salernitana 3 -2 2
19 Cagliari 4 -3 2
20 Empoli 4 -12 0
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