By David Rodich
Big soccer matches, maybe more than any other sporting contests, seem to start frenetically. The pitch soaks up the energy of the uber-passionate crowd, turning it into a virtual air hockey table of volatility for the opening 15 or 20 minutes.
Inter started Saturday’s derby (the most significant league battle with their rivals in almost two decades) removed and distant – hesitant and flatfooted – while their neighbors, in stark contrast, came fully ready to play.
There is only so much momentum at any given time in a match, and Milan owned it from the opening whistle with Pato scoring off a Robinho deflection before the clock even registered one minute. Inter was instantly deflated. They looked frozen in time – immobilized with frustration. They, although trailing Milan in points, were the favorites due to their form under Leonardo, but to the neutral spectator this goal (if not the immediacy of it) was not wholly unexpected. After all, with Lucio out, Inter fielded the walking liability of Ranocchia (he may someday be a solid defender) and Chivu, who usually plays on the outside, as center backs trying to hold the fort against the likes of Pato and Robinho. Ha. This game finished three nil, but it should have been more like five for Milan.
After the opening 25 or 30 minutes, Inter, the consummate scrappy competitors, finally came to life. Lucky to only be down by one, it looked as if the pendulum was starting to swing in the Nerazzurri’s favor, and sure enough, for the rest of the half they out-attacked and out-possessed Milan and were unlucky not to have produced a goal, especially in the closing 5 minutes. That was it though. That was their window.
The tide then turned against them again. In the 53rd minute, as Inter pushed forward, exposing themselves at the back with Leonardo’s so called ‘4-2 fantasia’ formation, Pato was sprung on a counter. The Brazilian, who had a standout performance in Ibra’s absence, would have been one-on-one with his countryman Cesar, but Chivu clipped him just outside the box, leaving the referee with no choice but to show the Romanian a red card, pushing Inter down to 10 men. Almost ten minutes later, Pato got his second goal by again calling on his quick but calm reactions as he headed in an Abate shot that was so poorly hit it turned into an accidental cross. Milan got one more from a Cassano penalty after the veteran was subbed in for Robinho, who could have had 3 or 4 goals himself.
This result doesn’t mathematically put Inter out of the Scudetto race, but one has to feel that after all their effort catching up Milan (who now control their own title destiny), it will certainly put a damper on the team’s chances, not to mention their mood. The Nerazzurri will have to bounce back quickly though as they face Schalke on Tuesday in the Champion’s League.