Inter v AC Milan: Grand old rivalry resumes as new money flows in
Inter and AC Milan clash with a mere Europa League place on the line but hope ample Chinese investment can end recent Milanese mediocrity.
Juventus' surgical takedown of Barcelona on Tuesday proved beyond any doubt that Serie A has a high-class side capable of mixing with and besting Europe's elite.
For Inter and AC Milan, who clash in the Derby della Madonnina on Saturday, it must have felt particularly cold to be on the outside looking in.
Inter were the last Italian club to hoist Europe's biggest trophy in 2010, when Jose Mourinho's all-conquering side became the only team in the country's history to complete the Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble.
Mourinho left – or more accurately stayed at the Santiago Bernabeu following the final victory over Bayern Munich – to lead Real Madrid, and Inter have never been the same. Stefano Pioli is their ninth head coach since then and would be wise to avoid making it three consecutive Serie A defeats this weekend.
Behind Madrid's 11 titles, Milan are unmatched as seven-time European champions. Lose on Saturday and they will be in danger of missing out on continental football for a fourth consecutive season.
This at least spared them such indignities as finishing bottom of a Europa League group, like the once-mighty Inter did behind Sparta Prague, Hapoel Beer-Sheva and Southampton this term.
With 18 championships apiece, the Milan clubs are Serie A's most successful with the exception of Juve, who are closing in on number 33 as their traditional rivals slip from view. Massimiliano Allegri's formidable side are spurred on by a vibrant Napoli and ambitious Roma at home, while steeling themselves for the greater challenges abroad.
Nevertheless, hulking movements behind the scenes mean this could be the last Milan derby with both famed protagonists cast as also-rans.
Inter are now controlled by Chinese retail giant the Suning Group and have barely concealed grand plans for next season. A supposed coaching wish list featuring Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola and Mourinho is likely to come to nought but is encouraging news for fans, if not for Pioli.
Not to be outdone by their new-moneyed foes, Milan's protracted takeover saga led by Chinese investor Han Li was wrapped up on Thursday, ending Silvio Berlusconi's 31-year reign.
"With a change of ownership, we'll need to get to know each other better. I do hope to continue coaching Milan, but it will depend on many situations," said boss Vincenzo Montella ahead of last weekend's 4-0 win over Palermo. "I don't know what the new owners think of me, so we'll have to talk about that."
Handily for Montella and his easy optimism, masterminding a sweet triumph over the old enemy would stand as a striking first impression.
Milan are one place and two points better off in sixth, currently occupying a Europa League spot, and, with eighth-place Fiorentina up next weekend, Pioli's far more expensively assembled line-up can scarcely afford another slip-up.
Skipper Mauro Icardi has been prolific once more this season, with 20 Serie A goals to his name, but those among the first wave of Suning recruits, such as Joao Mario, Ever Banega, Antonio Candreva and Gabriel Barbosa have flickered sparingly – if at all in the case of the later Brazil forward.
Meanwhile, the Rossoneri have quietly become an effective unit over recent weeks, with Juventus handing them their only defeat in the past nine matches. The champions needed a contentious late Paulo Dybala penalty to do so.
Gerard Deulofeu has dazzled since joining on loan from Everton in January, scoring on his first Spain appearance in almost three years last month and apparently has Barcelona mulling their buy-back option.
Fellow winger Suso was similarly impressive against Palermo, joining Deulofeu on the scoresheet as top scorer Carlos Bacca made it five in five.
These players can write their own timely chapter in Derby della Madonnina history on Saturday before a forgettable present gives way to a promisingly lavish future.