x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Milan derby’s glamour fades amid shake-ups at the top

Age of austerity taking bite out of Milan clubs' attempts to stay among Europe's elite

The AC Milan goalkeeper Gabriel and defender Urby Emanuelson collide while going for the ball during their Serie A match against Roma on Monday. Claudio Villa / Getty Images
The AC Milan goalkeeper Gabriel and defender Urby Emanuelson collide while going for the ball during their Serie A match against Roma on Monday. Claudio Villa / Getty Images

The Serie A fixture schedule was always likely to load Sunday night’s Milan derby with extra weight. Lose it, and either AC Milan or Inter will see breathing space ahead for myriad of decisions.

For the vanquished, it will feel like a long wait for a chance to bounce back, regroup and erase the hurt. Between Match Day 17 and 18 of the calendar stretches the winter break, 14 days when the transfer window opens and, indeed, the capture of a new coach might be possible.

There is a restlessness in the blue and red corners of the city. On Thursday, AC Milan confirmed the appointment of Barbara Berlusconi as vice president, while the new majority shareholder at Inter, Erick Thohir, asserted his authority after a low-key two months since formally assuming the principal seat of power at the club. This will be Thohir’s first derby as Inter’s chief.

“Of course I will be there,” he said ahead of a strategy meeting, and he carefully referenced the passions one of the sport’s great collisions had long stirred in him. He had followed the Milan derby loyally in his native Indonesia, the media magnate said. “I have watched nearly all of them over the past few years, but being there in that atmosphere will be special.”

Thohir, who brought his 70 per cent stake in October, is undergoing a crash course in the idiosyncrasies of Italian football.

The “special atmosphere” he talked about was subject to yesterday’s decision, by a court in Lombardy, whether to uphold a ban on fans entering the part of the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium in San Siro that houses the noisiest Inter followers. The club had been ordered to close it after Inter fans were found to have directed abusive chants at Napoli supporters during the 4-2 defeat in Naples last weekend.

Inter appealed, and Thohir will have noted that AC Milan backed that appeal. The derby rivalry may be fierce, but within it, there is ample space for a fraternity that unites fans across the divide of local allegiance when a common foe, namely the authorities, can be identified.

The Inter-AC Milan enmity also softens, regularly, for a functioning business relationship between the clubs. The squad the Milan coach Max Allegri names today will include four players with an Inter past, two of whom, Sulley Muntari and Giampaolo Pazzini, were transferred directly from the blue half of the city to the red. Another player, the injured defender Matias Silvestre, is currently on loan from Inter, at Milan.

Such transactions are a sign of the times. Both Milan and Inter have been obliged to reduce costs in the period since they occupied the summit of club football – AC Milan with the Uefa Champions League win of 2007 and Inter seizing the same trophy in 2010 – so if one can help the other with a deal that saves on salaries, they will.

The Corriere dello Sport newspaper calls tomorrow’s game the Derby of Austerity. It may be the last match for Inter of the admired midfielder, Fredy Guarin, whom Thohir knows will fetch a good price from wealthy Chelsea.

But Thohir knows he needs to tread cautiously; he has been seen as bringer of hope, not cutbacks. His predecessor, Massimo Moratti, who retains the title of honorary president, invited the Indonesian billionaire, 43, to take over because the club needed a scale of investment which Moratti no longer felt able to supply.

To sustain Inter’s name among the world’s leading club brands, projects like a stadium of their own, or co-owned with AC Milan, must be a long-term target. Participation in the Champions League, which Inter missed out on this season, is also crucial, and Thohir will be pushed to bring in players next month to help achieve it. Inter sit fifth in the table this morning, seven points shy of third, which is the entry point for Europe’s best and most lucrative competition.

AC Milan lie 10th, nine points behind Inter. The restructuring of the club’s executive, and a higher-profile role for Barbara Berlusconi, daughter of the former prime minister Silvio, will not have soothed Allegri’s concerns over his future, a topic of fevered speculation.

He clings to the fact AC Milan are still involved in the 2013/14 Champions League, achieved a creditable draw against Roma last weekend and that he has steered the club with dignity and resourcefulness through the austerity era so far.

In recent history, one important distinction between AC Milan and Inter has been stability in the head coach’s office. Since 2010, Allegri has negotiated seven Milan derbies in charge of AC Milan; his eighth finds him facing, in Walter Mazzarri, the sixth Inter coach in that period.

For Thohir, that sort of turnover looks expensive and impractical. On Sunday night, though, he will see close up the sort of fervour, and pressure, that can make the richest, wisest investor react impulsively in pursuit of sporting success.

sports@thenational.ae

Fixtures

Saturday

Livorno v Udinese 9pm (UAE)

Cagliari v Napoli 11.45pm

Sunday

Bologna v Genoa 3.30pm

Roma v Catania 6pm

Torino v Chievo 6pm

Sassuolo v Fiorentina 6pm

Atalanta v Juventus 6pm

Verona v Lazio 6pm

Sampdoria v Parma 6pm

Inter Milan v AC Milan 11.45pm