Rafael Leao of AC Milan is challenged by Marcelo Brozovic of FC Internazionale during the Coppa Italia semi-final first leg football match between AC Milan and FC Internazionale. Milan, Italy. 01 March 2022.

F*ck Liverpool v City, Milan v Inter is the only title race we need this year

Verona is not a bad place to set the scene for a dramatic denouement. Or so we’ve heard. And for AC Milan on Sunday night, the fair city was the stage for the latest act of their grand battle with city rivals Inter, by some distance the finest title race in Europe this season.

Milan needed to win. Inter had moved ahead of them by a single point on Friday night, coming from two down to beat Empoli 4-2 in thrilling fashion. And to win, Milan had to overcome a hoodoo as well as a fine attacking team. Twice previously Verona had put paid to Milan’s chances in tight title races – once in 1973 and again in 1990 – earning them the title ‘fatal Verona’.

When Davide Faraoni gave Hellas Verona the lead with a powerful back-post header seven minutes before half-time, then, the Nerazzurri half of Milan rejoiced. It looked as if their Rossoneri enemy might fall foul of another tragic Veronan tale.

But this title race is one of twists and turns, of slip-ups and comebacks, of sometimes imperfect football but pure, unadulterated drama. And Milan were not going to let Faraoni’s blow keep them down for long.

Two minutes into first-half injury time, Rafael Leao was released up the left flank. Nicolo Casale went out to meet him, but the defender was a lamb to a lion. Leao skinned him and burst into the box, crossing low for Sandro Tonali to tuck home. The momentum had shifted back towards Milan, in the game and the title race.

In the second half, the Rossoneri made that momentum count, Leao at the centre of the action again, as he has been all season. Four minutes after half time, and just 13 seconds after he’d been the man on the post at a defensive corner, he burst into the box again – his beautiful blend of elegant technique, composure and physicality all on imperious display – and crossed for Tonali again. Same outcome, 2-1.

Late on, substitute Alessandro Florenzi added a fine third – another feather in the cap of Milan boss Stefano Pioli – and it was done, Milan back ahead with 80 points to Inter’s 78 and two matches left in the season.

They know that nothing is wrapped up though, not with Inter hot on their heels. “We were not in anyone’s predictions [as title challengers],” Pioli said after the game. “We are bringing home the fruits of our labour, which however is not finished yet.”

“Before the game Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] said something beautiful: ‘If we want them to remember us, we have [to win] three games’. Now we have two.”

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READ: Remembering when a teenage Mario Balotelli destroyed Juve for Inter

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If they get over the line, they will deserve all the plaudits that come their way. When Pioli said nobody predicted them as champions, he was not far off.

It was open, that was for sure, and Milan were more than dark horses. They finished the 2020-21 campaign second in the table. But Juventus were strong favourites after the return of serial title-winner Max Allegri and defending champions Inter were ahead of Milan in the bookies’ eyes despite losing Antonio Conte and Romelu Lukaku. Napoli and Atalanta were also in the running.

Milan have just the fifth-largest wage bill in Serie A and there were questions around how they would cope given they were returning to the Champions League for the first time in eight years. Yet though they were disappointing in Europe, at home they have been even better than last term, not dropping out of the top three since September.

The squad that sporting director Paolo Maldini has constructed is an interesting mix of grizzled veterans and rising stars.

On one side there are familiar faces like Ibrahimovic and Giroud – both of whom have made vital contributions – and on the other are players like Leao, left-back Theo Hernandez and centre-backs Pierre Kalulu and Fikayo Tomori, who have been excellent in front of French goalkeeper Mike Maignan, signed from French champions Lille last summer.

In October, Maldini said: “We all made quite risky decisions, looking for players who had shown talent but had not yet developed… but we feel stronger and more complete than last year. We have many guys born in 1999 and 2000, but every year things change and, as you grow, so does the strength you have inside.”

AC Milan's Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring against Inter in Milan, Italy, on Feb. 5, 2022.

AC Milan’s Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring with his team-mates during a Serie A football match between FC Inter and AC Milan in Milan, Italy, on Feb. 5, 2022.

And in Pioli – a former Inter manager who was initially brought in at Milan as a temporary measure – they have a coach and leader who has expertly welded the individual parts of that squad together into a functional machine.

In January, he explained how he had done that to the Guardian: “Having fun is fundamental… football is passion, enjoyment. When you train lads who are very young, you need them to put their enthusiasm on the pitch.”

With that youthful enthusiasm, however, there have been inevitable wobbles. Against relegation battlers Spezia on January 17, Milan led 1-0 only to concede two sloppy second-half goals, the second in the 96th minute. The following week they drew 0-0 with Juventus and dropped to third, behind Inter and Napoli.

But if Milan have sometimes suffered lapses in concentration, then the same can be said of the other two.

In April, Napoli lost to Empoli and Fiorentina and drew with Roma in the space of 14 days, putting paid to their title chances. And if Inter go on to lose this Scudetto, they will inevitably look at one mortifying error as the reason.

In late April, they had the chance to go top of the table, playing a game in hand against lower mid-table side Bologna. They went ahead through an Ivan Perisic screamer, but former Inter man Marko Arnautovic levelled before the break and in the second half, disaster struck.

Perisic threw the ball back to his ‘keeper Ionut Radu, who was standing in for first-choice stopper Samir Handanovic, and Radu somehow failed to clear it, allowing Nicola Sansone to tap it into the unguarded net.

The initiative had been handed to their rivals – and it is moments like this, where the momentum has shifted so dramatically, that are making this race so special.

Still, with two games to go, Inter still have a sliver of hope. They play Cagliari and Sampdoria, who sit 18th and 15th in the table respectively. Cagliari in particular will put up a fight – they need to to avoid relegation – but Milan’s next two opponents are of a higher class.

First, Pioli’s men face Atalanta, who have not had the best of seasons, but are always dangerous. Then comes a trip to Sassuolo, who beat Milan 3-1 at San Siro in November.

And if Inter do turn it around at this point, it will be to their credit, just as it will be to Milan’s if they hang on.

After losing Conte and Lukaku last summer, there was a chance they would fold, that their project would fall apart. But Simone Inzhagi has done a fine job since moving to Inter from Lazio, putting his own twist on things without entirely ripping up the Conte playbook that served Inter so well last season. Inzaghi has led Inter to a Coppa Italia final as well as keeping them in the title race.

In early May, former Inter midfielder Benoit Cauet told FCInter1908: “Like all those who take over from someone like Conte, he had to face a big challenge, especially because it’s never easy to take over a machine that’s going strong. It has to be said that the main architects of last year’s Scudetto are gone.

For these reasons, I give a very high grade to Inzaghi… I think he’s one of the best coaches of his generation.”

Likewise, Edin Dzeko, who moved from Roma to Inter last summer to replace Lukaku, has thrived. The veteran has scored 13 Serie A goals, not as many as Lukaku. But he is a focal point and facilitator, a man who creates space and chances that the likes of Perisic, Lautaro Martinez and Nicolo Barella thrive on.

Special mention should also be given to Hakan Calhanoglu. Last summer, he embarked upon the short, controversial, but well-trodden path from San Siro to, er, well, San Siro, joining Inter from Milan. At the time, he said that he was joining Inter to “win something in Italy.”

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic in action for Milan in Serie A at San Siro on 28th November, 2021.

READ: Ranking all 27 players to have played for AC Milan and Inter since 1995

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The move and those words angered Milan ultras, who hung an offensive banner about him from a Milan bridge in November. Ibrahimovic has also weighed in, saying: “Calha took advantage of a tragic situation… [Christian] Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest, so Inter needed a player in that position and the door opened for Hakan.”

But the pressure on the Turkish international has not shown. As well as his seven goals, he has 11 assists, one more than Barella and the most in Serie A.

Given his history, Calhanoglu will be the Inter player most desperate to overtake Milan in the remaining games.

Now all that remains to be done is sit back and enjoy the finale. Genuine title races have become an increasingly rare occurrence across Europe with football’s increasing financial stratification, so any should be savoured. But while many exalt Manchester City and Liverpool’s Premier League duel, these two Italian giants are putting on an even better show.

The English version is a straight-line drag race between two supercars, two almighty machines that crush anything in their way. Milan versus Inter is much less predictable, with bumps and turns like a pair of speedboats darting along a windy river.

It promises drama until the end.

By Joshua Law

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