By Kris Voakes
Just as was the case in December’s reverse fixture, the 160th Derby della Madonnina was far from a classic. But AC Milan fans will not care one bit about the way their side carved out the 1-0 win that puts them back in with a real shout of Europa League football next season.
Nigel de Jong’s second-half header from Mario Balotelli’s pinpoint free-kick settled the contest, pushing the Rossoneri to within a point of sixth-placed Torino in the race for the final continental berth.
It will also have given coach Clarence Seedorf something to smile about following CEO Adriano Galliani’s admission before the game that the Dutchman’s future will be discussed at the end of the season. A derby win, combined with an improvement in results over the past six weeks, will surely stand the rookie boss in good stead when those talks take place.
He will probably need to take Milan into Europe, though, if he is to be assured of a job beyond the summer, and the Rossoneri will likely be required to collect six points from their final two matches against Atalanta and Sassuolo to give them a real chance to pip Torino and Parma to sixth spot.
But for the moment, at least, he can boast a win in his first Milan derby as a coach. It came thanks to a set-piece supreme midway through the second half, Balotelli placing a free-kick perfectly into the gap between defence and goalkeeper around the six-yard line and De Jong sending a bullet header beyond Samir Handanovic.
It was a moment of quality which was distinctly out of keeping with the rest of the match. On the day that Juventus clinched a third successive Scudetto triumph, the events at San Siro largely rammed home the multiple reasons why these two sides find themselves 36 and 39 points behind the champions in the league table.
What’s more, Walter Mazzarri and Seedorf – if he remains in charge next term – will know from the larger part of the derby that their squads need to be paid a great deal of care and attention before they become any kind of challenger for the Serie A crown again.
Inter proved themselves to be structurally sound at the beginning of the season, but have too rarely displayed the flair and vigour needed to rival the likes of Juventus, Napoli and Fiorentina. Their fans will hope that the expected departures of a number of their elder statesmen will pave the way for a renewed energy about the club next term.
Meanwhile, Milan remain short on any depth of quality. Much depends on the ability to either build a team around Balotelli or to sell him and make the most of the proceeds. His match-winning assist apart, this was another up and down evening for the Italy striker, meaning there will remain a question mark as to the best course of action.
Seedorf, though, can sleep easy for one night at least. His smile at full-time appeared to not only reflect his joy at taking three points off his former club, but also spoke of a man who knows that light could yet be appearing at the end of the tunnel.