Milan: Milan is gearing up for its biggest local derby in a generation as two of Europe’s grand old clubs face off on Wednesday in a blockbuster Champions League semi-final.
Two clashes full of colour, noise and drama await in one of the continent’s football capitals, AC Milan and Inter Milan battling at the San Siro for the chance to take the Italian city’s European trophy tally to 22.
Milan and Inter are no longer true giants like the other semi-final’s contenders Real Madrid and Manchester City, but Wednesday’s match will be unbeatable for atmosphere and played in one of football’s most evocative arenas.
“The atmosphere at the stadium is incredible… Everyone here is a fan, men and women alike. The pressure is there all the time,” said AC Milan defender Pierre Kalulu in an interview with AFP.
“When you first arrive here you don’t feel all that involved, but after a while you begin to feel that passion. You can feel that it’s a match which can change your season.
“You kind of go back to being a kid scoring a goal in the playground. You put all that in the Champions League and I can’t imagine what these matches will be like.”
Both team’s seasons hinge of the result of the all-Italian tie, with qualification for next year’s competition far from certain thanks to disappointing league campaigns which left last season’s main Serie A title challengers miles behind newly-crowned champions Napoli.
Inter, though, come into the match in blistering form and with a previously misfiring attack suddenly banging in the goals left and right.
Simone Inzaghi’s side have won five on the bounce, scoring 14 times in that run. Of those goals 10 have been scored by the forwards, with Romelu Lukaku in particular suddenly finding some form towards the end of what has been a largely dismal return on loan from Chelsea.
Since the start of April Lukaku has scored five times and set up four more in all competitions, and his well-taken goal in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Roma was the latest sign the Belgium striker might be getting back to his best.
Lukaku wants to stay at Inter but there is little chance that his loan will be extended beyond the end of a season, which could end with them crowned European champions or not even in the competition
“The most important thing is Inter. All I can focus on is helping the team,” said Lukaku.
Strike partner Lautaro Martinez has netted six times in as many appearances and set up three after breaking a worrying eight-match scoring drought and even Edin Dzeko is back in the goals after not scoring since January.
Milan, meanwhile, are sweating on the fitness of Rafael Leao, who in recent weeks has shown just how important he is to Stefano Pioli’s attack but picked up a thigh injury in the weekend’s win over Lazio.
Of the eight matches this season, which Leao has either missed through injury or not started, Milan have won only one.
The Portugal winger has started every single one of Milan’s 10 continental matches and was crucial to their getting past newly crowned Italian champions Napoli in the last eight.
Leao played the crucial pass for both Milan’s goals in the tie and his burst downfield for Olivier Giroud’s decisive tap-in in Naples exemplified the difference he brings to the team when he’s in the mood.
Without him Milan’s chances against an in-form Inter will diminish as the left flank, with Theo Hernandez, is such an important part of the way the team attack.
“We need to enjoy everything that will surround us up until the minute before kick-off, then we need to unload everything we have,” said Pioli at the weekend.
“Inter are in great form right now, and they’re a great team. I don’t think we’re favourites but it doesn’t matter, we’re in good shape.
“We’re in a Champions League semi-final, for almost all of us it’s the first time. We need to feel the electricity, the excitement of the occasion.”