It would have been easier, surely, to lie down and accept defeat. Dominated for half the match, missing a couple of key players and trailing by two goals to a side transformed by the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there were plenty of reasons to raise the white flag. But when you’ve been starved of the Scudetto for so long, you don’t give up without a fight. This Inter side has reserves of character and commitment the club seems to have been lacking for a lifetime.
The familiar script of failure would have been a straightforward one to write. With the door left open by Juve’s surprise defeat to Verona, how typically Nerazzurro it would have been – at least in recent times – to mess things up. And, for 50 minutes or so, it appeared they had blown their chance big time. Milan, meanwhile, looked unrecognisable to the lacklustre bunch we had seen for much of this campaign.
Who knows what Antonio Conte said to his troops at half-time? Rarely this season has his team been so drab and unconvincing as it was in the opening exchanges of this Derby della Madonnina. Presented with a golden opportunity to get back to the top of the table, most of us expected them to come snarling out of the blocks. Instead, they were about the most timid and tentative we have witnessed them all campaign long.
Much credit, of course, must go to their city rivals who finally appear to have ditched the mask of mediocrity they have worn for much of this season. Indeed, at half-time, I had my keyboard warming up for a tribute to the curative powers of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not only had he provided a goal and an assist, but he also appeared to have aided many team-mates who had previously been afflicted with crippling ineffectiveness. Ante Rebic, Hakan Calhanoglu, Franck Kessie and, by goodness, even Samu Castillejo looked to have been touched by his healing hand. Not a miracle, perhaps, but – in sporting terms anyway – not far short.
For those of us, myself included, who felt the Rossoneri’s big January signing was more about placating irate fans than any real footballing need, it was a painful kick in our credibility. Too old? Too long away from the top level? Too slow? We were thinking in human terms, of course, not those of a red and black lion.
That might have been a nice tale to tell – along with the redemption of Stefano Pioli – but it was not to be. Ibra smacked a chance off the woodwork late in the day, but by then the game had been turned on its head. An epic strike by Marcelo Brozovic – who else? – began a comeback which belted out a message once again, for those who have not been listening, that this Inter side means business.
There’s spirit right through the team, even when a couple of less-than-convincing interventions by Daniele Padelli had fans mourning the absence of Samir Handanovic. And, when first half chances went begging and were in short supply, the camera gave a cruel close-up of Lautaro Martinez sitting in the stands. But those who could influence the game – the players actually out on the pitch – delivered a tour de force.
Nicolò Barella buzzed about with snapping intent, Matias Vecino got through a power of work to link midfield and attack and Stefan de Vrij showed the sort of never-say-die attitude which is guaranteed to inspire everyone around you. Milan might still be hanging on to an individual to inspire their progress, the Nerazzurri look much more of a collective.
It’s not perfect, of course, and that is what makes this title run-in so intriguing. Juve are prone to slip-ups and faltering performances, while Lazio have kept themselves right in the hunt. Inter will need more displays like the one they produced in the derby if they hope to emerge on top come the end of the season.
It was hard not to feel a little sorry for Milan when the final whistle sounded. They had played pretty much perfectly in the opening exchanges before their city rivals finally clicked into gear. There was much to admire – the metronomic Ismael Bennacer in particular – but it was just not enough to hold back the tide when it eventually turned.
There was enough there to suggest, however, that a European finish is quite likely rather than the ridiculous dream it has seemed at some points this season. As for Inter, they have clearly got their eyes on a bigger prize and, on a stunning San Siro Sunday night, they showed once again they have no intention of giving up on it anytime soon.