With so little between the sides and the pack chasing, the derby will not be decisive but that makes it all the more fascinating
In the end it was Clarence Seedorf who broke ranks. "The derby is a decisive game because on a psychological level it means a great deal," announces the Milan player in Friday's Gazzetta dello Sport, apparently putting himself at odds with both his club's manager and vice-president. Massimiliano Allegri and Adriano Galliani have been at pains over the past few weeks to insist that, when it came to the Scudetto race, this weekend's Derby della Madonnina could absolutely not be termed as decisivo.
It's really just a question of semantics, of course, as Seedorf goes on to add that defeat "would not be the end" of Milan's title dreams, but the fact that the question is being asked reflects how drastically the situation in Serie A has changed since the winter break. At the turn of the year Milan were 13 points clear of Internazionale, albeit having played two games more. Now that gap is down to two points. Win on Saturday and they knock Milan off the top of the table for the first time in five months.
Recent history suggests we will have a winner on Saturday, too, as there has not been a draw in the past 14 editions of this fixture. The man who decided the last meeting, however, will not be present. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who won and dispatched the penalty when Milan won 1-0 in November, is suspended following a punch on Bari's Marco Rossi. Some may call it karma – Ibra was very lucky to stay on the pitch (though admittedly he was not the only one) in the last derby after a horrendous challenge on Marco Materazzi.
There is no doubting that his absence is a huge blow to Milan. Ibrahimovic is not only the team's top scorer with 14 league goals but also their leading provider of assists. It is also true, however, that he had been in a poor run of form, scoring only once in his past nine club appearances and even then only from the penalty spot. In his absence Robinho is expected to start up front alongside Alexandre Pato. The pair have 21 goals between them but they too have struggled for goals in recent weeks.
They will have their opportunities, though, against a weakened Inter defence. The Nerazzurri will be without both their first choice centre-halves – Walter Samuel is out for the season, and Lúcio suspended – and while both their likely replacements, Andrea Ranocchia and Christian Chivu, now look set to be fit, neither is likely to be 100% after recent injuries of their own.
But goals at both ends have always seemed likely at Inter since Leonardo took over. In their first 15 league games of the season, under Rafael Benítez, Inter scored only 20 goals and conceded 14, on the way to collecting a modest 23 points. In the same number of games under Leonardo they have scored 36 and conceded 18 – their more open approach helping them to collect 37 points from a possible 45.
Part of that is down to the players Leonardo has had available, too, of course, and as well as the new signings Ranocchia, Giampaolo Pazzini and Yuto Nagatomo, Leonardo will also have a fully fit Júlio César, Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta and Maicon at his disposal. None of those four made it on to the pitch in the previous encounter. This meeting, too, could be defined by its absentees. Samuel Eto'o has expressed relief that "my friend Pippo Inzaghi" will not be available for Milan, while Andrea Pirlo may return for the Rossoneri but is unlikely to be fit enough to start.
That, though, will not be the only source of intrigue on the sidelines. Leonardo, after all, will be coaching against Milan for the first time after more than a decade at the club in his various capacities as player, scout, manager and more. The manager acknowledged that he is likely to take plenty of flak from the crowd at San Siro, with Milan formally the home team, but denied being concerned. "For me football is fun," he said. "I am happy to live through this beautiful experience."
Whether he will still feel the same way by the end of Saturday night remains to be seen, but if Inter do win their fans won't be the only ones celebrating. Third-placed Napoli are only one point behind Inter, and will host the Nerazzurri at the Stadio San Paolo in their penultimate game of the season. Fourth-placed Udinese, meanwhile, are two points further back and themselves face Milan on the final weekend. Their presence so close behind the two Milan clubs suggests that this one game cannot, indeed, be entirely decisive. But it certainly will be fascinating.