Monday , February 17 2020

Inter’s array of ex-Premier League stars face baptism of fire in most important Milan derby in years

Ashley Young knows all about cross-town tussles in Manchester and Birmingham. Christian Eriksen competed in 15 north London derbies and tasted the explosive atmosphere of the Ajax-Feyenoord rivalry.

So when the former Premier League stars walk out on Sunday for their first Milan derby at a sold-out San Siro, at least they will have some idea of what to expect.

Inter are strong favourites given AC Milan’s current chaotic state, yet this is the sort of match that defines a season – perhaps even an era. Win it, and they will remain within a maximum three points of Juventus, winners of the last eight Serie A titles.

Ashley Young and Christian Eriksen know what it’s all about to play in a fierce derby match

Several ex-Premier League stars will walk out for Inter at a packed San Siro to face AC Milan

Several ex-Premier League stars will walk out for Inter at a packed San Siro to face AC Milan

Lose it, and they would likely drop six points behind Juve, who are at ninth-placed Verona on Saturday night – a game Maurizio Sarri’s side, inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo, will expect to win. 

If Inter cannot beat Milan now, when their players, coach and structure are so clearly superior, they will face numerous awkward questions about their ability to handle the pressure.

Such accusations have frequently been levelled at Inter in the modern era, which is why they hired one of the most demanding coaches in the business last summer.

Young celebrates passionately after United secured a derby victory over rivals City last year

Young celebrates passionately after United secured a derby victory over rivals City last year

Eriksen competed in 15 north London derbies during his eight-year spell with Tottenham

Eriksen competed in 15 north London derbies during his eight-year spell with Tottenham

Antonio Conte is a demanding coach and was brought in to win games like the Milan derby

Antonio Conte is a demanding coach and was brought in to win games like the Milan derby

Working with Antonio Conte is exhausting – just ask the hierarchy at Juventus and Chelsea. He is a coach who pushes his players to the limit, both tactically and physically, and is not afraid to take a swipe at his bosses if his transfer targets do not arrive.

Take this example, after Inter had thrown away a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League in November. Speaking live on television to former England manager Fabio Capello, Conte directed his anger towards his employers.

‘We should have planned this season out much, much better,’ he said. ‘We proved that we can trouble anyone if we are on form, but there are players who have played non-stop. I am fed up of saying it.

INTER MILAN’S SIGNINGS THIS SEASON AND THE SERIE A TABLE

Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid) – free

Alexis Sanchez (Man United) – loan 

Victor Moses (Chelsea) – loan

Ashley Young (Man United) £1.5m

Lucien Agoume (Sochaux) – £4m

Stefano Sensi (Sassuolo) – loan

Gabriel Brazao (Parma) – £5.4m

Eddie Salcedo (Genoa) – £7.75m

Ionut Radu (Genoa) – £10.8m

Nicolo Barella (Cagliari) – loan

Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – £17.5m

Matteo Politano (Sassuolo) – £19m

Valentino Lazaro (Hertha Berlin) – £20m

Romelu Lukaku (Man United) – £73m 

‘It’s not about the club, it’s that we have to work together and big mistakes were made. We cannot play in Serie A and the Champions League constantly pushed to the limits.’

Conte’s payback for this high-maintenance behaviour is trophies: three consecutive league titles with Juventus from 2012-14, the Premier League in his first season with Chelsea (2016-17) and the FA Cup in his final one (2018). The less said about his Champions League record, the better, but in domestic football, Conte has proved himself a virtual guarantee of success.

Perhaps that is why Inter’s directors, with Conte’s former Juventus boss Beppe Marotta at the forefront, chose to grant his wishes in January.

Victor Moses, so important as a wing-back in the 3-4-3 system that helped Chelsea to the title three years ago, had his loan at Fenerbahce cancelled so he could link up with the Italian again.  

AC Milan fans provided a red-hot atmosphere for the last derby match back in September

AC Milan fans provided a red-hot atmosphere for the last derby match back in September

Victor Moses was vital to Conte's success at Chelsea and he pushed for his signing in January

Victor Moses was vital to Conte’s success at Chelsea and he pushed for his signing in January

Young will fulfill a similar role while Eriksen had long been admired by both Conte and Marotta. With the Dane’s contract running out at Tottenham, and with Real Madrid no longer in the picture, Inter was the obvious move.

With Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku already at the club, Inter’s XI on Sunday will look very familiar to Premier League fans who watch the game. Conte pushed hard – in vain – for Lukaku when he was at Chelsea but got his man last summer, and the move has paid off spectacularly.

The Belgian has scored 21 goals in all competitions this season, and every one must make Manchester United – who signed former Watford forward Odion Ighalo on loan to cover their striker shortage in January – feel ever more uncomfortable.

Always partial to a bit of point-scoring, Conte said ‘I am very happy to have insisted on signing [Lukaku]’ after the centre-forward’s double brought a 2-0 victory at Udinese last Sunday. 

Romelu Lukaku has scored an impressive 21 goals in all competitions for Inter this season

Romelu Lukaku has scored an impressive 21 goals in all competitions for Inter this season

Inter must beat AC Milan or they will fall behind Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus in the title race

Inter must beat AC Milan or they will fall behind Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus in the title race

Young, Moses and Eriksen will hope to continue follow the example of other former Premier League players now thriving in Serie A. Chris Smalling is having an impressive campaign at Roma after moving on loan from Manchester United, while Lucas Leiva, the former Liverpool midfielder, is an important member of a Lazio side challenging Inter and Juventus for the title.

A leading Italian agent told Mail Online: ‘There’s a big focus on youth in English football at the moment, and Italy is a good option for players there, as long as they have the knowledge and intelligence to adapt to a different style of football.’

It may be too soon to talk about a full-scale resurgence at Inter, but things are certainly moving in the right direction, and fans are starting to recall the glory days of Jose Mourinho, who led Inter to the ‘Triplete’ – Serie A title, Italian Cup and Champions League – in 2010.

And if Eriksen, Young and Co can help Inter to victory on Sunday, that chatter will only grow louder.