“You can’t lose if you don’t play.” Marcia Daniels may have thought she was giving sage advice to her husband in The Wire but tomorrow Zlatan Ibrahimovic will face the prospect of losing precisely because he isn’t playing. The Swede has many salient characteristics; karate black-belt, freakish height and a galactic-sized ego but the fact that, no matter the domestic league in which he plays, he does not lose titles must be one of the most striking. In the past seven seasons, whether in Holland, Italy and Spain Ibrahimovic has won the domestic title. In the early stages of the season the giant striker was virtually winning games single-handedly as Milan raced into a commanding lead over their rivals. And once again as we enter the final stretch of Serie A, his Milan side is top of the pile.
But that hardly tells the story behind tomorrow’s derby. Because only a few months ago, Inter were 13 points behind Milan and the Rossoneri juggernaut was looking firm favourites for the Scudetto. Because the one of the other salient characteristics of Zlatan is that he can be ever so slightly temperamental. To the point that in the 1-1 draw against Bari last month he smacked Marco Rossi and landed himself a ban which see’s him miss the Milan derby. Because, since Leonardo took over from Benitez and they began to look a bit more like the Grande Inter of Jose Mourinho and the title race has been reignited. With twelve wins from their last fifteen games the Champions have narrowed the gap at the top to a mere two points. It would have been difficult to imagine Inter under Benitez going into the derby with confidence as high and the gap as close as it is now.
There can be no doubt that this derby is huge. Possibly the most intense in over a decade. The momentum of the title race is firmly with Inter as AC Milan stutter and stumble, watching their lead vanish. A defeat in the derby would not be the end of their title bid but it would see them knocked off the top of the pile after 19 straight weeks at the top. With Napoli and Udinese also jockeying for position a defeat for either side in the derby could be a huge turning point in the title race.
The best team may have gone out against Spurs (at least according to Gazzeta Della Sport) and Inter may have scrapped through against Bayern by the skin of their teeth but the contrast encapsulates the respective form of either side in recent weeks. Milan huffed and puffed but didn’t have the ability to get the win while Inter have rode their luck to outrageous extremes but have the knack of pulling through somehow.
Compared to Inter under Mourinho this Inter have all the stability of a man’s first attempt on a unicycle but they have a seat of the pants energy which Milan look unlikely to match. As he watches from the sidelines, Zlatan might just reflect on the fact that while you can very much lose if you don’t play, it’s almost impossible to win. For a man so used to lifting trophies this could be one of the biggest missed matches of his career.