Milan Derby is something to savour
Nobody saw it coming, but the fact that AC Milan will face Inter in a Champions League semi final should get any football fan excited.
The perception will be that, even with three Italian teams in the quarter-finals before Milan knocked Napoli out, that the standard of Serie A is not high enough for this level of the biggest club competition in Europe. But perceptions aren’t everything; both clubs are here because they deserve to be. Domestically, neither side has been a match for Napoli this season, but they are the last two league champions and in a place that, five years ago, felt a world away. For them to be back and two games away from a Champions League final speaks volumes of their respective development since, driven on by memories of some difficult days in this last decade.
It’ll be a time to reflect on how far they fell when the flares are flying, the banners are unveiled and the noise is piercing through. Such occasions were commonplace at San Siro not so long ago, and although the stadium is now old and creaking, with rumours of demolishment refusing to go away, it remains a place filled with history through every corner and tier of each imposing stand, where legends danced on either side of one of the most famous cities in the world. Whether wearing red and black or blue and black, players have written themselves into football folklore. And now there is a chance to do it again.
The world needs calcio to thrive. With money saturating the game across Europe, there is a certain culture it brings that reminds everyone of why they fell in love with the game. Milan has long been the epicentre of that; the world once stopped when these two teams went toe to toe, and now it will again.
Twenty years ago, it was the same fixture. Milan sent Inter out on the way to winning their sixth Champions League crown of seven, under Carlo Ancelotti. At Old Trafford, they beat Juventus on penalties, thanks to Andriy Shevchenko’s decisive spot-kick. But that came after a tight, nail-shredding two legged semi final. The Ukrainian striker, who would go on to win the Ballon d’Or a year later, scored in the second leg to send his side through on away goals. Milan, the city, held its breath; both teams were among the favourites that season. This year that isn’t the case; in some ways they have slipped in through the back door, but you get the sense that now just being here is progress.
And yet, it is much more than that. Their respective disappointing seasons mean that qualification through the normal routes is far from a given. Finances, or lack thereof, have been a reason for their years in the wilderness before; this year is a little harder to explain. Perhaps former Inter boss Jose Mourinho, the man who last brought the Champions League to the city in 2010, and his work at Roma goes some way of finding an explanation, while Napoli, as aforementioned, have been imperious this season. But none of that will matter to whoever wins these two games to reach the final in Istanbul, where a stern test against either Manchester City or Real Madrid, bona fide European heavyweights, lays in wait.
But instead of thinking big, about what lies ahead or where either club stands, it is just brilliant to be settling in with this fixture and a stage that it deserves again. There aren’t many more famous derbies in the world; this was once the game everybody waited for, when Paulo Maldini was tasked with marking the original Ronaldo, or that famous image of Inter defender Marco Materazzi stood shoulder to shoulder with Milan playmaker Manuel Rui Costa, staring into a distance hazed by a sea of smoke as the game was postponed. That image, in an amazing, beautiful and somehow unexplainable way, sums up this mad, ferocious and beautiful rivalry.
There are many reasons for Milan to worry about football, and there have been better days. But this match, and this occasion, are proof of their recent revival.
Whatever happens, though, feeling the noise and seeing the sights, the tempestuous San Siro full of fervour and expectation, is something to savour.