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The champions were outdone by their local rivals after Ignazio Abate's error handed Diego Milito the winner, but the phenomenal Nerazzurri skipper was the star man once more

By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor

There is actually no stopping the man. At 38-and-a-half years young, Javier Zanetti was at the heart of yet another Inter derby victory as the Nerazzurri overcame all the odds to beat AC Milan at San Siro on Sunday night, helping to continue a marvellous run which puts them within three points of the Champions League spots and just six behind leaders Juventus.

The momentum built up over the past two months, which has seen Claudio Ranieri’s men record eight wins in nine matches, was key in their belligerent display as the champions were kept out and then punished for the game’s key error nine minutes into the second half.

It was from Zanetti’s right-wing cross that Milan full-back Ignazio Abate misjudged a clearance and allowed the delivery to run through for Diego Milito, who carried the ball into the box and finished expertly into the far bottom corner beyond Christian Abbiati. It was about the only spot he could have scored in, but ‘Il Principe’ is clearly back in the mood.

As are Inter, thanks in large part to the return of a solid base not seen since the days of Jose Mourinho. Their porous backline was one of the main reasons behind their failures last term, and this season started no better in that respect. But under Ranieri there has gradually become a stoicism about the side, and nobody reflects that more than Zanetti.

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The old warhorse continues to defy the laws of physics. With his non-stop show of battling, tracking, chasing, harrying and sparking attacks, he put younger and supposedly more able players on both sides of the pitch to shame with his tremendous effort and determination. At the start of every season, people wonder aloud whether this will be Zanetti’s last, but every single time he proves he still has it in him to go on and on and on.

Football’s very own Duracell bunny, the Argentine is playing better than any other 38-year-old has surely ever done before him. And two other South American stalwarts have also hit a vein of form which has helped Inter’s current run, as Lucio and Walter Samuel once again put in sterling performances to see off Milan’s forward threat.

In truth, they could and should have been stretched more, but the Rossoneri failed to ask too many questions of their rivals’ backline, despite the huge possession stats in their favour. Zlatan Ibrahimovic remained their most likely decider throughout, but the close attention afforded him by Samuel in particular meant Milan would get fewer chances than normal through that route. And apart from one knock-down to Robinho which was fluffed by the Brazilian, there was never much to suggest an equaliser would materialise.

There was simply no creativity from Massimiliano Allegri’s men. A lack of width to stretch the play, a lack of firepower, and a lack of real heart when it was necessary, they were a shadow of the side they had been for the previous 12 fixtures. Their two men of top-notch quality, Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, were probably their best players once more, and the fact that Mark van Bommel was often their most threatening player on the ball – including when he thundered a shot off the bar late in the first half – told a story.

MATCH FACTS | Milan 0-1 Inter

 On Target

After a week the like of which he has never experienced, Alexandre Pato failed to rise to the occasion. A couple of neat touches to set up half-chances for Urby Emanuelson and Kevin-Prince Boateng apart, he did very little to showcase the talent which persuaded Silvio Berlusconi to put the kibosh on his proposed transfer to Paris Saint-Germain. He snatched at two of Milan’s better opportunities, and also lost the ball too often through poor control or badly-misjudged passes to leave his side bereft of go-to options in the forward line.

As for Abate, it’s not the first time a dreadful error on his part has broken open a derby. His aberration from a hopeful ball forward by Goran Pandev gifted Milito a goal in the January 2010 fixture which would finish 2-0 to the Nerazzurri, and his second major gaffe on the big night resulted in Milan’s first Madonnina defeat since that clash two years ago. If the sign of a very top player is the ability to learn from previous mistakes, Abate still has a little way to go. This writer stated yesterday that it was Milan’s game to lose, and the right-back was the man that made it happen.

For Inter’s part, they have certainly shown they can overcome their deficiencies of September and October, and with this result they have made a real statement of intent. Back in the shake-up at the top, the victory added to a great day all-round for them. A defeat for Udinese and Juventus’ draw with Cagliari has helped to make Nerazzurri followers dream again. But with huge away games still to come against all of the top seven – except Milan, whom they host in week 37 – there are still five or six huge tests to pass.

This wasn’t a bad start, though. Wesley Sneijder is fit again, Milito is scoring goals once more, and Lucio and Samuel are back to their bruising and battling best. Now they just need to keep it up for 20 more games. While they’re still playing catch-up after their abysmal start, the momentum is with them. And with Zanetti driving them on, they’ll continue to give it their everything to get back into the title race.

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