So much for that curse. Each of Milan and Internazionale arrive at this weekend’s derby having finally exorcised whatever psychological demons were preventing them from winning a game at San Siro. Following the installation of a new, partially synthetic, surface at their home ground this summer, the two teams had gone a combined eight games without victory there before Milan finally beat Cagliari on 26 September. Inter followed up by besting Fiorentina four days later.
In truth that had less to do with the ending of any curse than with a simple improvement in both teams' performances. Milan, unsurprisingly disrupted by the departures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Antonio Cassano and others over the summer, have finally altered their tactical shape and in doing so found ways to get more out of players such as forward Stephan El Shaarawy and full-back Mattia De Sciglio.
Inter, too, have found success with a new formation, switching to a three-man defence. Gian Piero Gasperini was derided for even considering such a tactic during his brief tenure with the club at the start of last season, but such is Stramaccioni’s standing with Massimo Moratti that he received the owner’s outspoken approval. The move was an instant success, bringing victory away at Chievo before the win over Fiorentina.
Yet if both teams seem at last to be moving in the right direction – each also recording a win in Europe this week, with Milan especially against Zenit St Petersburg – then any mood of triumphalism might quickly be subdued by the ticket sales for this fixture. As of Wednesday afternoon the derby was still more than 20,000 shy of a sell-out.
That is indicative of general trends in Italian football, where attendances for many teams have been gradually declining over a number of years, as well as a difficult economy in which fans’ disposable income has been hit. But it is also true that as recently as last season this fixture drew a crowd of 79,612. At present it is not clear if the figure for this weekend will even exceed 60,000.
“A derby without you is pointless,” said the Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini this week, as the club sought to engage its supporters, but it will take more than platitudes to win back their audience. Already this season Milan have experienced their worst season ticket sales since Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986. Against Cagliari, they also recorded their lowest attendance figure for a single match in that period – just 28,005.
There are factors at play here which cannot easily be reversed – from a gradual diminishing of Italian football’s standing in the world order, to a shortage of funds and the well-known problems with outdated stadiums. But if one thing is known to bring fans back to the stadiums it is the straightforward currency of games won.
Which team, then, looks better equipped to satisfy its supporters on Sunday? Inter certainly seem to have done the better recent transfer business, with astute summer signings such as Samir Handanovic complimenting previous additions including Juan Jesus and Fredy Guarin. The Nerazzurri also seem thus far to have got the better of the Cassano-Giampaolo Pazzini trade, with the latter’s three goals all coming in a single game against Bologna.
But if you were looking for a bet in the goalscorers’ market then the better move might be to back Milan’s El Shaarawy – who scored just two in his first 25 league games for the club, but now has five in his last four across all competitions. My instinct is to back Inter for the win, available at 2.7, but the smarter wager might be on a red card being shown in the game. There have been five in the last three Milan derbies.
Prediction: Milan 1-2 Inter