Inter came out flying for their Champions League semi-final against Milan, but the evening was really a reminder of Italian club football’s recent revival.
For some of us who grew up (or – cough – were young adults) during the 1990s, Italian football became a very big deal indeed. Shortly after Sky Sports paid £304m for five years of Premier League rights in 1992, Channel 4 paid £1.5m for a season’s worth of live action from Serie A.
On Saturday mornings, the magazine show, Gazzetta Football Italia, would have a round-up of all of the previous week’s action and news, presented by James Richardson and with voiceovers by Kenneth Wolstenholme. On Sunday afternoons would follow a live match, usually with commentary from the late, great Peter Brackley. The Premier League was still rebuilding after decades of neglect. Serie A felt like the most glamorous league in the world.
There have been many reasons why this situation has changed over the last thirty years. Municipally-owned infrastructure built or last renovated for the 1990 World Cup – or in many cases earlier – was never properly maintained, which has been a key factor in the league attracting smaller crowds than others. The average attendance in Serie A is 29,000. In the Bundesliga, it’s just over 42,000 and in the Premier League, it’s just topped 40,000 for the first time.
This doesn’t affect the biggest clubs. Milan and Inter both average over 70,000 for their home matches. But other factors have impacted them. Repeated financial scandals or issues related to match-fixing have had a negative effect on the reputation of the league.
Serie A hasn’t been able to keep up in terms of broadcasting revenues, either. The Premier League’s current broadcasting contract is worth £1.6bn a year. Serie A is worth £825m, just over half as much. As recently as this week, the Milan CEO Giorgio Furlani admitted that his club are having difficulty competing with all Premier League clubs in the transfer market.
It has become easy to forget in recent years, particularly in relation to Milan and Inter. But these two clubs have won ten European Cups or Champions League between them, and both have won it this century; Milan in 2003 and 2007, and Inter in 2010. And the two clubs aren’t even guaranteed Champions League football for next season, either.
As they took to the pitch for this match, Inter were in fourth place in Serie A and Milan were in fifth, with four games of the season to play. Should Lazio or Juventus slip, they could both yet qualify via their final league positions. But as things stand one of these clubs could yet miss out on this very tournament next season.
So this match was important, and they really wanted us to know. Milan were the home team for the first leg and they were determined to make the most of having three sides of the San Siro. “HELL IS EMPTY TONIGHT. ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE”, read the banner behind one goal.
Shortly before the teams took to the pitch, the ultras released their tifo, a literally awesome display spanning three sides of the stadium. And it was making a statement that is about more than just Milan vs Inter, or even Milan. With five clubs in European semi-finals this season and an all-Milanese in the semi-final of the Champions League, the grandeur of Italian club football is back.
Within twenty minutes, Milan’s ultras may have been forgiven wondering why they’d bothered. Inter were absolutely rampant, taking a 2-0 lead within fifteen minutes and hitting the inside of the post.
The two goals came about from players who should be familiar to English football watchers – Serie A has a habit of occasionally throwing names at you that have lain dormant in your sub-conscience for some time. Edin Dzeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, for example.
Dzeko is now 37 years old, the sort of age at which a footballer normally starts to draw comparisons with the elderly amongst fans – many of whom are considerably older than 37 themselves – but he rolled back the years with a fabulous volley into the top corner from a corner on the left after eight minutes, and three minutes later Mkhitaryan, the copy-writer’s dream, charged into the penalty area like a steam engine, took a touch of the ball to steady himself, and leathered it past a slightly shell-shocked looking Mike Maignan to double their lead. A couple of minutes later, Hakan Calhanoglu shot from 25 yards and hit the inside of the post.
Milan were all over the place, and they weren’t helped by losing Ismael Bennacer – recently linked with a possible return to Arsenal – to injury. He was replaced by a more attacking midfielder, Junior Messias; not a straight swap, and every time Inter surged forward, they seemed to be finding a straightforward route to goal.
The Milan defence’s range fell between jittery and outright panic-stricken, and even though the game settled after that frantic opening, every time Inter did get forward they simply carved through what passed for a back line like a hot knife through butter.
After half an hour, the referee blew for a penalty kick for Inter after a challenge by Simon Kjaer on Lautaro Martinez, only to change his mind after checking the screen on the advice of the video assistants. Was there contact? A little. Was it ‘enough’? Doubtful. Was it a ‘clear and obvious’ error? Didn’t look like it.
Milan started the second half much more brightly and even hit the base of the post just after the hour, by a long distance the closest they’d come to scoring.
The introduction of Divock Origi – SEE? – had given them a little more width, but they continued to look vulnerable every time Inter managed to counter and the ‘away’ team started to control possession better again from around the midway point on, but it did start to feel as though Inter really wanted little more than to close this game down. If an opportunity for a third goal presented itself, then fine, and with Milan’s defensive performance that had to be considered a possibility. But they weren’t going to go rocking any boats over it.
This was comfortable for Inter, and Milan have much thinking to do ahead of the second leg. But more than anything else, this was an evening that served as a reminder of the sheer scale and heft of Italian club football.
The supporters went all in on this match, just as they will for the second leg. There has been considerable talk surrounding these Champions League semi-finals that the other tie between Real Madrid and Manchester City was the “real final”.
Well, not quite. They may be the best two teams in the tournament this season, but Milan and Inter are perfectly capable of putting on a huge spectacle themselves, one worthy of this stage of the peak of world club football. Italian club football still has work to do to address the issues that have held it back for years, but occasions like this, when the San Siro looks and acts like the very centre of the universe, are a reminder of what it has to offer.
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