While not all may agree with the striker's assessment that the Serie A duel is 'the most important derby in the world', the match mattered to the fans and his winner against Milan was brilliant
What do you buy the man who has it all? It is a question that the families of top-flight footballers might wrestle with at this time of year as they seek out Christmas gifts for loved ones with seven-figure incomes. Before Sunday's Derby della Madonnina, the Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Luigi Garlando took it upon himself to offer some suggestions – picking out presents for each member of Milan and Internazionale's anticipated starting XIs.
For Samir Handanovic he proposed a stick of glue, which the Nerazzurri's goalkeeper could apply to his gloves so as not to repeat recent ball-handling calamities. Mario Balotelli got a yo-yo, which would help him to learn "the art of getting up and down" the pitch. Internazionale's Rodrigo Palacio, meanwhile, would receive a Playstation. "[He can use it] to defeat the loneliness and boredom," explained Garlando, "since [the manager Walter] Mazzarri never puts a striker alongside him."
Palacio has indeed cut an isolated figure for much of this season, all alone up front in Inter's 3-5-1-1. The Argentinian had previously spent much of his career in deeper-lying roles, either supporting another striker or playing out wide in a three-man attack. But Mazzarri asked him to lead the line in Diego Milito's absence and Palacio has accepted the challenge – running himself into the ground in service of the team.
His is a similar role to the one that Edinson Cavani used to fill under the same manager at Napoli. Mazzarri's formations are designed to absorb pressure before creating opportunities for swift and direct counterattacks. With nobody else up front to distract opposing defences' attention, the striker must constantly keep moving to find space and make himself available to team-mates.
It is an exhausting job but one that Palacio had performed highly effectively thus far. Coming into Sunday's game against Milan, he had scored exactly one quarter of his team's 36 goals. His efficiency was startling. Gazzetta noted that 27.3% of his shots this season had wound up in the back of the net but none of those goals would mean as much as one scored in the derby.
In the days building up to their clash at San Siro, both Milan and Inter were reminded many times over about how this fixture had lost its lustre, diminished by the two teams' declining performance on and off the pitch.
Newspapers variously referred to Sunday's game as the "Paupers' Derby" or the "Austerity Derby".
A glance at the league standings was sufficient to confirm that these two teams were no longer operating at the levels to which they have been accustomed. Inter began the weekend 15 points behind league leaders Juventus. Milan were not even in the top half of the table. Both clubs were also coming to terms with significant boardroom upheaval.
The Rossoneri confirmed a new management structure last week, in which Barbara Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani will both hold the titles of Milan vice-president and CEO (the latter will retain control over sporting matters, while the former will be responsible for commercial areas). Inter, meanwhile, are still adjusting to life under their new owner, Erick Thohir.
Such change has been driven by financial considerations. Barbara Berlusconi had forced her father's hand with some pointed comments regarding Milan's business strategy. Massimo Moratti sold Inter to Thohir after realising he could no longer justify pouring so much of his own money into a business that lost tens of millions of euros per year. The Indonesian businessman has made it clear that his priority is to get the club back to a more sustainable financial footing.
And yet, to the players themselves, this rivalry did not feel any less important. Kaka still spoke with excitement about the prospect of scoring his 100th Milan goal in Sunday's game. "The derby is always the derby," said Inter's Javier Zanetti," preparing to play in his 47th edition of this fixture. "It means a lot to everyone."
To Palacio, it also felt like an opportunity to resolve some unfinished business. All the way back in December 2007 – more than four years before he joined Inter – the striker had faced Milan in another Christmas fixture, the Club World Cup final. He was playing for Boca Juniors at the time and scored his team's first goal in an eventual 4-2 defeat. This time he was determined not only to score but also to finish on the winning side.
In a poor-quality first half it was Palacio who created one of the few moments of excitement, finding room to receive a pass in the Milan area only for Cristián Zapata to foul him from behind. No penalty was awarded, however, and the game continued in its existing pattern, both teams becoming bogged down in a midfield battle that seemed to be going nowhere.
Inter's introduction of Mauro Icardi, another striker, in place of Esteban Cambiasso late in the second half changed the balance somewhat – giving Milan's defenders more to think about and drawing them away from Palacio.
But there was still nothing inevitable about the goal with which the veteran finally broke the deadlock in the 86th minute. Instead it was a moment of sheer inspiration, Palacio allowing a pass from Freddy Guarín to run across his body as he attacked the near corner of the six-yard box before flicking out a heel to clip the ball around his marker, Zapata. The Milan goalkeeper, Christian Abbiati, was likewise wrong-footed, as the ball ran past him and into the far corner of the net.
Even on that Playstation that Garlando wanted to give him, Palacio might still have struggled to conceive a more deviously brilliant strike. It was enough to win the game for Inter, Milan unable to respond in what little time they had left. Afterwards, Palacio celebrated it as a "beautiful, beautiful goal". "I need to thank [Guarín] for the pass," he added. "I tried and it went in, fortunately, but it is also the most important goal of my career. It arrived in a derby, the most important derby in the world."
Not everyone will agree with that final assessment. Perhaps not even Palacio will, once it has all had time to settle in, but if nothing else here was proof that the Paupers' Derby still mattered to somebody. The evidence from the stands at San Siro suggested that many others had likewise been swept up in the moment.
Thohir, attending his first Milan derby, was among them. The owner, who had previously spoken on many occasions about the need for a team to entertain, as well as win games, brazenly described this as a "superb match". That assessment was somewhat at odds with Garlando's in Monday's edition of Gazzetta. "Don't say we didn't warn you," he wrote. "As expected, this was the most technically poor derby in Milanese history."
But even the most disappointing performance is forgotten easily enough in the wake of a victory. It will be rather harder for Milan to put the negativity aside. This was their sixth defeat of the season, one that leaves them 27 points behind first-placed Juventus, not to mention 17 points adrift of the Champions League places, heading into the winter break. By contrast, the Rossoneri are only five points clear of the relegation zone.
Even the most perfect Christmas gift might not be sufficient to distract the club's players from a season as disappointing as this one.
• There were major developments in Italy's ongoing "Last Bet" match-fixing investigations last week, as four men were arrested, and the homes of 11 current and former footballers were searched by the authorities. Most of the headlines went to Gennaro Gattuso, the most high-profile player to receive a home visit, but truth is that he has not yet been charged with anything, and he might well not be in the future, either. More significant were the civilian arrests. Prosecutors believe that they may have identified the elusive "Mr X" and "Mr Y" who they allege were speaking to players to arrange fixes. Through extensive phone taps, they have evidence that Francesco Bazzani and Salvatore Spadaro were speaking to players before and after games, although lawyers for each man insist that these were simply innocent friendships. This story will continue to play out in court over the months ahead, but in the meantime as many as 30 Serie A games are now under investigation, including, worryingly, several from 2013.
• Juventus finished 2013 on a high note, squashing Atalanta 4-1 and ending the year five points clear at the top of Serie A. Given that second-placed Roma are at present on course to finish the season with 91 points, that is quite a statement of intent. Of course, the two teams will also play one another as soon as they return from the winter break. That game has the potential to set the tone for much of the next five months. Overall, Juve have collected 2.405 points per game in this calendar year. It is the most they have had since Serie A went to three points for a win in 1995.
• Roma can also feel pretty satisfied after reaching the winter break as the only unbeaten team left in Serie A. They welcomed Francesco Totti back into their starting lineup on Sunday, and promptly demolished Catania 4-0. "If it was up to me, I would play Juve right away," said manager Rudi Garcia. "I would not sign up for a draw, we want to win."
• A miss of the season contender from Gervinho, in that win over Catania.
• Also scoring freely this weekend were Torino, who trailed at home to Chievo for most of the first half, but wound up romping to a 4-1 win. The Granata still have some work to do to catch Inter or Fiorentina in the Europa League places, but the fact that anybody is even mooting such a prospect is a fair indication of how well this team is playing under Giampiero Ventura. Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci (who combined for three goals on Sunday) are fast establishing themselves as one of the most prolific strike partnerships in the league.
• Giuseppe Rossi goes into the winter break as Serie A's top goalscorer, having found the net once more against Sassuolo this weekend. His 14 league goals represent an incredible 42% of all those scored by Fiorentina so far this season.
• Vladimir Petkovic is expected to lose his job at Lazio imminently, after his team signed out for this year with a 4-1 defeat away to Verona. Only Catania have collected fewer points away from home than the Biancocelesti so far this season.
• It is not yet clear, meanwhile, whether this goal from Alessandro Diamanti will be enough to save Stefano Pioli's job at Bologna. The club has been strongly linked with Roberto Baggio, who completed his coaching qualifications in the summer of 2012, and is looking for his first opportunity in club management.
Bologna 1-0 Genoa; Atalanta 1-4 Juventus; Roma 4-0 Catania; Sampdoria 1-1 Parma; Sassuolo 0-1 Fiorentina; Torino 4-1 Chievo; Verona 4-1 Lazio; Internazionale 1-0 Milan; Livorno 1-2 Udinese; Cagliari 1-1 Napoli.