Milan Derby Becomes Battle For Europa League Spot

By Michael Ottolenghi

Is it all over bar the Europa League? At the top of the Serie A neither Juventus nor their two closest rivals, Roma and Napoli, show any signs of slowing down. 

All won last weekend and so Juve retain their 7 point lead, and an away game for Juve in Pescara this Saturday shouldn’t alter that. Second placed Roma still cling to the hope that they may yet create an upset with a win in the game against Juve in Rome in mid-May. But the real development of the last weekend was Napoli’s impressive 3-0 away win against Lazio, which cemented Napoli’s hold on third place, with a seven point lead of their own on Lazio in fourth.

So that leaves the Europa League, with four teams battling for two places, and a big showdown this Saturday in the Milan derby.  Lazio lead the contenders on 60 points, with Atalanta on 59, Milan on 57 and Inter in a lowly seventh place with 55 points.

And so the Milan derby will be of huge significance for Europa League qualification – in yet another disappointing year for both Milanese teams.  We regularly bemoan the fall from grace of both Inter and Milan, but it has now been so long since either team were contending for the title or even the top places in the league that younger Serie A fans may wonder what all the fuss is about. Storied histories only get you so far, and even Chinese investment hasn’t been particularly helpful (so far).

It is traditional in a derby to focus on the form of both teams coming into the game, only to then trot out the cliché that the best team rarely wins. In this case there is no real doubt as to which team is in worst shape. Stefano Pioli was appointed Inter manager just in time for the season’s first derby, and managed an impressive increase in fortunes on the blue and black side of Milan.  Bolstered by the goals of Mauro Icardi and the midfield solidity of January signing Roberto Gagliardini, Inter collected more points under Pioli than any team outside the top 3.  But over the past three weeks their season has crumbled, ambitions have been recalibrated and Pioli is in serious danger of losing his job. A draw against Torino was followed by a home loss against Sampdoria and then last Sunday’s embarrassing 2-1 loss to relegation-threatened Crotone.

So Inter’s only hope for the derby may be that old cliché, because Milan are certainly in better form. Vincenzo Montella has struggled to establish any consistency in his first season as Milan manager, although it should be noted that he has a much less expensive squad than his cross-town rival. Much has been made about the young talent the rossoneri have developed from Gigi Donnarumma in goal to Suso up front, but while they are capable of impressive displays such as last Sunday’s 4-0 home win against Palermo, they are also prone to defensive mistakes and a lack of aggression.

Motivation shouldn’t be an issue in a Milan derby, and the one piece of good, if susprising, news is that San Siro has been sold out for weeks in anticipation of this game. Perhaps Milanese fans know something we don’t, or perhaps their loyalty runs deep – Inter continue to have the highest average attendance in Italy despite their precarious form.

Elsewhere in this Saturday’s round of games, Atalanta face a very tricky road game against Roma at the Olimpico. Last time Giampiero Gasperini’s side faced a supposed top team away in the league they were crushed 7-1 by Inter at San Siro, and with Roma’s strikers Edin Dzeko and Mohammed Salah on top form, another rough afternoon could be on the cards.  Lazio will have the easiest game of the Europa League contenders, with a trip to Genoa to face a side who have just fired manager Andrea Mandorlini after a run of four straight defeats. 9 points above the relegation zone and with nothing left to play for in the season, returning manager Ivan Juric’s main job will be to find a way to motivate his players, although a wounded Lazio will be a very tough first game back.