By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
It’s been a tremendous run for Claudio Ranieri’s Inter. Seven wins in eight games, including five on the trot, have seen them climb to fifth place from the depths of 17th in mid-November. On the face of it, it has been the perfect build-up to tonight’s derby della Madonnina as they face champions AC Milan for the first time since the Supercoppa Italiana which opened the curtain on Gian Piero Gasperini’s remarkably short stint as coach.
However, Ranieri’s rebuilding job is still some way from completion and, as his side remain eight points off the pace heading into tonight’s fixture, one has to believe that his opposite number Massimiliano Allegri hit the nail on the head this week when he said that Inter still face a near-impossible task if they are to challenge for the Scudetto.
|INTER'S 2011-12 RECORD v TOP SEVEN
The Milan boss adjudged that a defeat for the Nerazzurri would leave them needing 17 wins from 19 to win the Scudetto and, looking at the numbers, he wasn’t far off the truth. Inter’s 29-point haul so far sees them still 53 short of the Rossoneri’s title-winning mark of last season, suggesting that their final 20 games after tonight are more likely to see a focus on qualifying for the Champions League than living up to some misguided belief that a sixth league triumph in seven years is in any way possible.
There are many, though, who will suggest that the recent run of form which has seen a new confidence added to the Biscone squad could see them continue to rack up the victories, but their record against the league’s big boys is in stark contrast to the form guide. While Ranieri has put an end to much of the inadequacy on show during the Gasperini days, he has been no more able to raise his troops for the big league clashes as was his predecessor.
After the former Genoa boss claimed his only league point for Inter against Roma at San Siro, the three clashes against top-seven clubs which have followed under Ranieri have yielded a points total of zero. The controversial 3-0 defeat to Napoli was followed by a 2-1 reverse to Juventus, and the only setback experienced in the past two months came at the hands of third-placed Udinese.
Ranieri’s chances of yielding 53 points out of 63 look extremely slim at best. With six away fixtures, plus the reverse clash with Milan, still to play against the ‘seven sisters’, it appears that there is still quite a job to do still to clinch third, let alone first. Thumping victories over Lecce and Parma have clearly brought back a lot of confidence, but – with all due respect – they came up against very underwhelming opposition.
|"A victory would mean cutting down their chances of fighting for the Scudetto, so it is an important crossroads"
- Massimiliano Allegri
|"Is the derby a crossroads? As we said against Juventus, Napoli and Udinese, the three points are the important thing"
- Claudio Ranieri
With Napoli having reached the podium with 70 points last term, that must be seen as the absolute minimum target for Inter, leaving them 41 shy with 21 games remaining. The tough run of away fixtures still to come means that even that task is a difficult one to live up to as things stand.
Allegri himself, when not commenting on Inter’s title chances, has been busy talking contracts this week. Besides his own – which he has finally signed to secure his future with the Rossoneri until 2014 – he has also been left fielding questions on the future of Alexandre Pato amidst the ‘will he, won’t he’ Carlos Tevez transfer saga of the past few days.
His recent squabbles with the striker could have been seen as a point of weakness by some outsiders, but Pato’s decision to stay – for the time being at least – and the extension of the boss’ deal, will have come as a double boost over the past 72 hours.
The hurdles facing Inter
|1||The number of Inter coaches to win their derby debut under Massimo Moratti, that being Roy Hodgson.|
||Successive victories in competitive derbies for Milan, with a 2010-11 league double and August's Supercoppa win.
|8||Points separating the two great rivals heading into the derby (Milan 37, Inter 29)|
|37||Milan's 2011-12 goals tally is their third-highest at this stage of the season since Silvio Berlusconi took over the club in February 1986.|
|53||Points Inter need in 21 remaining games to match Milan's Scudetto-winning 82-point haul of 2010-11.|
When attention has been turned to the pitch, Allegri has been quick to point out his confidence in his entire squad. The reserves he has available has been a big factor behind the run of 10 wins and two draws in the last 12 games – a period during which they have lost Antonio Cassano for the remainder of the season and Gennaro Gattuso has remained unavailable. And the Rossoneri show little sign of slowing up.
While they, too, have struggled at times against the top seven, recording five points in five games, they have already been to Roma, Napoli and, crucially, Juventus, meaning that their bigger fixtures in the run-in come at San Siro. The clinical destruction of opponents has been at odds with the Bianconeri’s profligacy, too, with 32 goals having been racked up in the last dozen fixtures – four more than Juve have scored in their 17 matches in total this term.
Added to their seven clean sheets in eight games, it means that Milan remain the team to beat in Serie A. Inter’s rally has been encouraging without being unpredictable; they couldn’t have continued in their earlier vein of form. But tonight they face the league’s best, and, though such games often throw up strange results, it’s the Rossoneri who hold all the cards. The very fact that we head into the opening derby of the season with Inter already out of the title race proves just how big a gap there is between the two sides at the moment.
It’s Milan’s derby to lose.Follow Kris Voakes on