Date: Sunday, January 31st, 2016
Time: 14:45 ET / 20:45 CET
Venue: Stadio Giuseppe Meazza; Milan, Italy
As a rule I never like talking about 'must-win' games in football, because there are very, very, very few games which actually are, but perhaps we can describe this upcoming Derby della Madonnina as 'must-not-lose'. If we were to lose this match, we would almost certainly lose ground on Fiorentina and Roma in the race for Champions League qualification, and more importantly it would also be the third devastating psychological blow in the space of eight days. I don't know if we've ever lost to both Juventus and Milan in the same week before, but frankly it's not something I want to know either.
Having collected just 11 points in our last 8 Serie A matches, another slip-up on the biggest stage of all would be a hammer blow and risk definitively derailing our season. Ever since that fated match against Lazio before Christmas, something has changed within this team which goes beyond off-days or bad luck, and it has left Roberto Mancini under fire from a lot of fans for his inability to arrest the slump. On top of the fact that he still hasn't decided which system he would like this team to play with - I heard Pierluigi Pardo say last week that it's as if he is still at the 'brainstorming' phase with this group of players - the players appear to have lost the clinical and cynical approach which has allowed us to win so many 1-0 this season. It's not just that we were lucky beforehand and now things are evening themselves out - the uber-concentrated winning mentality that Mancio had instilled into this side has vanished, which you can see from the ridiculous manner in which we have thrown points away against Lazio, Sassuolo and Carpi in our last three home games.
One of the two reasons I have found to be positive heading into this do-or-die match relates to this problem we have with playing at San Siro - I think the fact that this is Milan's 'home' game may actually help us, given that the team won't have the entire stadium weighing down on them. They will be expected to take the game to us and it may suit us better, both tactically and mentally. The other reason for optimism is Eder, who I'm pretty certain will start this game (especially given that Ivan Perisic is unavailable). Eder has not got the weight of the last few disastrous games on his shoulders (such as that match we played on Wednesday which we shall not talk about) and arrives with 12 goals scored in 19 Serie A matches this season, so he could be the man to revitalise his dispirited team-mates. After that, I'm struggling, so let's just hope one of those two factors comes into play.
It's fair to say that Milan are not in outstanding shape either heading into this game, having made quite hard work of beating third-tier Alessandria in the Coppa Italia on Tuesday and dropped points at Empoli last weekend, but the sensation is that they're currently less bad than we are. Sinisa Mihajlovic's side have only lost 1 of their last 11 games in all competitions, and even on that occasion against Bologna they demonstrated that they are capable of creating lots of chances (as well as wasting plenty of them), so this appears to be a better side than the one we edged past back in September. They have finally found a formation that gives them a reasonable balance between attack in defence in their 4-4-2 system, with Carlos Bacca and Giacomo Bonaventura (who almost signed for us instead of them) being by far their two most dangerous players, who both have it in them to give poor Murillo some problems if he doesn't play like his old self. At the back they are also slowly improving after their defence demonstrated some limits early on in the season, with 16 year-old keeper Gigi Donnarumma claiming most of the headlines, although I still don't rate their full-backs particularly highly.
In short, Milan aren't great - but they are good, and we will need to improve on our recent performances to avoid defeat against a side who is gradually finding its feet in the race for European football. Pulling off a victory would be the perfect way to bid goodbye to what has been a horrendous January, and let's hope against all hope that that's exactly what we do tomorrow night. A draw wouldn't really help us much from a psychological point of view, and the other outcome really does not bear thinking about. It's time to sink or swim.
Milan (4-4-2): Donnarumma; Abate, Alex, Romagnoli, Antonelli; Honda, Kucka, Montolivo, Bonaventura; Niang, Bacca
Inter (4-3-3): Handanovic; D'Ambrosio, Miranda, Murillo, Telles; Brozovic, Medel, Kondogbia; Eder, Icardi, Ljajic