Sliding Inter need derby win to keep Europa League spot hopes alive
Grudge matches, almost by definition, are unpredictable -- and Saturday morning's Derby della Madonnina isn't any different.
It's a bit of a pity, because Inter still look better on paper than their Milan counterparts and really need this win, especially after the recent run of results they've had.
They could arguably do with a prestigious victory more than they would have if they had ended up in a title race. After all, a team fighting for the Scudetto would already have a Champions League spot sewn up, and would have six more games to make up for a derby defeat.
This year's Nerazzurri, on the other hand, have none of these things, and precious little left to gain from the current campaign, outside of marquee games like this. Inter have plenty to lose, too, the worst-case scenario being a team assembled to the tune of €130 million failing to land a Europa League spot.
It's at times like these Inter fans often turn to their own quote machine, the sorely-missed Giuseppe "Peppino" Prisco. The famous lawyer and Inter vice president once told journalists before a derby that "the president wants [Inter] to win 3-0. I'm more generous towards Milan, I'll be happy with an own goal at the death".
Forget all the talk about Serie A needing a poster game to increase its appeal: the Nerazzurri could do with a scrappy win, and the decider -- as far as many of us care -- could come from a deflection off Alessio Romagnoli's left butt cheek, or another Gianluigi Donnarumma clanger, for that matter.
The problem with Milan, however, is that their success has been as contrary to reason as your typical derby. Ever since they were humbled 4-2 by Napoli in August, they've never looked bad in a big game. In fact, they were unlucky to lose to Roma in December, and were cruelly deprived of a point by a dubious penalty call at Juventus last month.
Inter, on the other hand, have mostly flopped in ties like this, conceding three to Napoli and Roma under Stefano Pioli's tenure. They needed a last-gasp Ivan Perisic header just to level the reverse fixture, after the Nerazzurri had allowed their opponents numerous chances to extend their 2-1 lead.
Even worse, Vincenzo Montella has turned a down-on-its-luck Milan side into a feel-good story, a unit that is far more resilient than it should be, one able to do just about enough to get points in even the most hopeless of situations.
Whether it's because a downed Gianluca Lapadula was able to assist Carlos Bacca, or because Gerard Deulofeu dribbled all of Bologna's defence to serve Mario Pasalic the winner against Bologna, the Rossoneri somehow keep the scoreboard ticking. Suso or no Suso, they shouldn't be anywhere near as good as this Inter side, and yet currently they're two points ahead.
The good news is that Roberto Gagliardini should be back for this game, allowing Geoffrey Kondogbia to morph back into a superstar. Even Eder might get a start, an improvement over the tired and inaccurate Antonio Candreva.
Optimists will add that the bookies are heavily leaning towards the home win -- and significantly steering clear of the draw -- and that giving Ever Banega a run of games is important. Speaking of that, the fact that Joao Mario cost more shouldn't matter. If Inter have spent €45m on the Portuguese international, he'll probably end up staying, so they may as well see if they can get something out of Banega.
If one former Sevilla man has struggled to make a consistent impact, Carlos Bacca can also look isolated up front, a consolation for Gary Medel (another Blanquirrojo) who will hope to play longer than 36 minutes this time.
Inter fans will also hope that Milan take the game to their opponents, as Torino and Crotone did. Inter want to avoid a repeat of the reverse fixture, when their possession often translated into lethal counters and wide-open spaces for Suso.
Who knows? Maybe this derby will finally buck the trend and favour Inter, the better squad, or respect its history and help the struggling Nerazzurri flip the script.
Either way, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Stefano Pioli's men do well this weekend...only to come to a grinding halt against Fiorentina next week.
Edoardo Dalmonte covers Inter Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @EdoDalmonte.