The wing-back and central midfielder may not be the biggest stars in their teams, but they ought to play pivotal roles in captivating derby
Achraf Hakimi was probably the most relieved man inside San Siro when Lautaro Martinez tapped home into an empty net after great work from Romelu Lukaku on the break to send Inter Milan 3-1 up against Lazio last weekend.
Before the Argentine’s 64th-minute strike, the Morocco wing-back had five minutes to forget against Simone Inzaghi’s men: he’d missed an opportunity in the 58th minute to make it 3-0 to Antonio Conte’s side and then conceded a needless foul that led to the visitors fortuitously halving the deficit barely two minutes later.
The wide defender may not have had a telling influence in the game nor carried the same attacking menace that’s typified his first campaign in Serie A and was seen a few days earlier in the Coppa Italia despite Inter’s eventual elimination by Juventus, but he showed a different side of his game on the day.
Hakimi was involved in none of the hosts’ shot-creating actions, a rarity that’d only occurred in three league games this season. In those games, however, the North African had little time on the pitch, featuring for eight, one and 14 minutes against Atalanta, Sassuolo and Napoli respectively. On this occasion, the wing-back played 89 minutes.
Rather than the usual danger in the attacking third, the Moroccan sacrificed himself for the greater good, making 11 recoveries (second-highest count this term), matching his season-high tackles and interceptions tally and making more clearances (four) than he’d managed at any point this season.
The upshot of that Nerazzurri success not only saw them defeat Serie A’s form team in Lazio (Inzaghi’s side were on a six-game winning streak) but equally supplant their fierce rival AC Milan at the top of Serie A. Both sides do battle in Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina that feels like the most fascinating clash between the clubs in about a decade.
Milan’s 2-0 loss at Spezia, the side that went into gameweek 22 with the worst home record in the competition, and could be dismissed in isolation as a freak result; one of those David defeats Goliath shock results. However, the Rossoneri’s recent run since the turn of the year raises questions over the general direction of their season.
Stefano Pioli’s troops have already been beaten by Juventus, Atalanta and Spezia in 2021. By contrast, they suffered just two Serie A defeats in the whole of 2020. Throw in their Coppa Italia elimination against Inter into the mix and Milan have now lost four times since the turn of the year.
While defeats by the Old Lady and La Dea were understandable, the latest reverse against the new boys rankled greatly given it wasn’t one of those smash and grab victories for the little guy.
Vincenzo Italiano’s side prevented any on-target attempt for 90 minutes, outshot Pioli’s team 17-7 and edged the expected goals 2.0-0.4—Milan’s lowest xG value all season.
Interestingly, Franck Kessie’s underlying numbers somewhat typified just how Aquilotti forced the visitors into areas they weren’t particularly keen on. The Ivory Coast star had only three touches in the attacking third, equalling his lowest involvement since mid-October.
Perhaps more striking was the West African’s 28 touches in the defensive third. This was surprising for a player who barely hits the 20-touch mark in his own third of the pitch, averaging 17.2 touches per 90 this season.
In the forward areas, Kessie’s average so far is 11.4 per 90, but the paucity of involvement against Spezia meant Milan couldn’t be beneficiaries of the 24-year-old’s best attributes.
As a consequence, Inter come into Sunday’s mouth-watering meeting top of the table at this stage for the first time since Jose Mourinho guided them to the title in 2010. The Nerazzurri certainly won’t be winning the treble this time around, but there’s a sense claiming the Scudetto is the only justification for the heavy backing Conte has received in the last 18 months.
Inter out of the Champions League, not in the Europa League & now knocked out of the cup by Juventus.
Winning Serie A is the only option for Conte if he’s to retain his job.
— Seye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) February 9, 2021
Even though the ex-Italy boss has deservedly received criticism for the team’s underperformance in Europe and domestic cups, there’s a feeling ending Juventus’ nine-year top flight stranglehold will keep him in the job for another season at least.
Milan were the last side to taste league success before the Bianconeri, guided by Conte, began to dominate.
The Rossoneri, who actually dethroned Inter’s treble winners in 2011, have been away from Champions League football since 2014 and are desperate to return to the continent’s hallowed club competition after seven years away.
Fascinatingly, neither side have met in the derby sitting first and second in the table since 2011, and the current reality emphasises the resurgence of two of Italy’s historic sides.
A top four spot was the goal for Pioli’s team at the start of the season; still, there’ll be a tinge of disappointment if the seven-time European Cup winners fall away in the race for the Scudetto.
The Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Romelu Lukaku perspective may dominate pre-match headlines, especially after their heated altercation in that feisty cup game in late January. Be that as it may, Kessie and Hakimi remain vital components to the leading sides in Serie A looking for much more than bragging rights for the first time in ages in a Milan Derby like no other.