Rafael Leão signed off, as he so often does, with his favourite emoji, the little man riding a surfboard. He had given no interviews after Milan’s game against Internazionale so we had to make do with a two-word social media post, less a comment than a vibe: “Derby Waves.”
Perhaps that was a perfect synopsis of a game of relentless, roiling drama. An evening when two halves of a city took turns to ride the crests and then tumble back beneath the water, swept along by irresistible tides that would not allow anyone to stop for breath.
With just under 21 minutes on the clock, Marcelo Brozovic gave Inter the lead, punishing Milan’s high press. Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu chased Joaquín Correa and Lautaro Martínez high up the pitch, but the Englishman got lost as the Argentinians swapped passes. There was nobody left to fill the space behind as Brozovic won a step on his marker, Charles De Ketelaere, and raced through to score.
Seven minutes later, Milan drew level. Sandro Tonali pounced on a sloppy pass from Hakan Calhanoglu and attacked the penalty area, leaving Stefan De Vrij stranded as he offloaded to Leão, who arrowed in from the left flank. The Portuguese finished first time across goal.
We were only just getting started. Milan and Inter would combine for 37 shots – the most this fixture has seen for 13 years.
Stefano Pioli said before kick-off that whoever won the individual duels would win the match. He sent his team out to prove it: Milan playing Inter one-on-one all over the pitch. Their aggression threatened to spill over at times, and Theo Hernández was fortunate not to see a second yellow before the end, but Milan found reward for their endeavour. Tonali would intercept passes twice more in midfield, each time launching immediate attacks.
Inter had a more patient plan, sitting in a low block that sought to draw their opponents forward and leave space for fast breaks. The plan worked perfectly for Brozovic’s goal but would be undermined in the second half by the paucity of their defending.
Milan’s Ultras have worked up a new chant this season, celebrating Olivier Giroud’s winning goal from February’s derby with a chorus of “Si è girato Giroud” – “Giroud on the turn”. For the next meeting, they might need to adapt it to “Giroud standing still”. The striker evaded his markers on Saturday by staying exactly where he was.
Leão received a throw-in by the left side of the box and sent in a low cross toward Giroud on the corner of the six-yard box. Inexplicably, Inter’s defenders moved away, leaving space for the Frenchman to sidefoot home.
Milan’s third goal was something else entirely. A long ball down the left found Giroud, who laid it off to Leão with a volleyed heel flick. To score from here did not appear straightforward: there were still two defenders in front of him on the edge of the box. But Leão is not a straightforward footballer.
Like a surfer pumping a wave, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and accelerated, leaving De Vrij and Bastoni drowning in his wake. He lost balance at the end, legs giving way as he fell to his left, but by then the ball had already been dispatched to the far corner of the goal. 3-1 to Milan.
It was a strike worthy of settling a derby, but this derby was not the settle-down sort. Inter sent on Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Edin Dzeko and Federico DiMarco. Within moments, the first of those players had exchanged a one-two with Matteo Darmian down the left. The Italian swung a low ball in toward the six-yard box and Dzeko volleyed it in off the near post.
There followed almost half an hour of helter-skelter Inter attacking.
Milan’s goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, became the hero of the hour, blocking a Martínez header at point-blank range and tipping a searing Calhanoglu effort over the bar. Milan clung on for a 3-2 win.
For Milan, this felt like another landmark result: the first time in 11 years that they have recorded back-to-back wins over their neighbours in Serie A. At full time, Pioli warned a reporter: “Don’t call our team young any more … We are mature now, self-aware.” They were certainly the younger team in this derby, though, with only three starters over the age of 25. Inter had one player, Alessandro Bastoni, below that age. What does it say about the Nerazzurri’s longer-term prospects that their comeback attempt was fuelled by a 36-year-old Dzeko, who had a hand in all of their main chances late on?
More immediately, how worried ought Simone Inzaghi be about the fact that his team have conceded eight times in five games? The Inter manager fought hard to persuade his bosses not to sell any of his starting defence this summer, as Paris Saint-Germain circled Denzel Dumfries and Milan Skriniar. The club was persuaded that these were essential components of a prospective title bid.
Might a change at goalkeeper improve the outlook? Samir Handanovic was not principally at fault on any of Inter’s goals, but his numbers this season look grim. André Onana arrived on a free transfer from Ajax in the summer. This result will only increase the pressure on Inzaghi to grant him his debut.
And what of the manager’s part in all this? Inzaghi blamed individual mistakes for the defeat, and we should remind ourselves that he was without this summer’s headline signing, Romelu Lukaku. But what had he done to adapt his team after seeing Pioli’s deliberate choice to overload the left flank, pushing Tonali from midfield to join Hernández and Leão? It was no accident that all three of Milan’s goals came down that side.
It was hardly a flawless performance from the Rossoneri, but who cares when you are winning, and when you have a player like Leão to enjoy? The last player to register at least two goals and an assist in a derby for Milan was Andriy Shevchenko back in 2001. Yet there were those who criticised Leão after he failed to score in the first two games of this season, suggesting his head had been turned by interest from Chelsea.
Not that he would have worried. In an interview with Dazn this March, Leão explained his surfing emojis and on-pitch celebrations by saying that he appreciated the athletes’ resilience. “When they mess up a wave, they get back on the board and they get better. I think that’s the right way to be. You can try and you can mess up, but you need to keep learning, find solutions for the mistakes you made.”
Milan hope that they did not mess up by resisting Chelsea this summer, declining offers worth close to €100m (£86m) for a player who is out of contract in 2024. Gerry Cardinale, founder and managing partner of RedBird Capital, the fund who took over the club this summer, was in the stands on Saturday to watch the team first-hand. There can be no uncertainty, among the club’s hierarchy, over the importance of persuading the player to sign a new deal.