Juventus’ long domination of Serie A finally ended last season thanks to Inter, but their success never looked likely to be the start of a new monopoly in Italy’s top flight.
With Inter Milan not only losing their mastermind Antonio Conte but also arguably their two best players in Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, Simone Inzaghi was always going to have a tough task on his hands in their attempts to successfully retain the Scudetto.
AC Milan fans will have watched on frustrated last season, their own improvement paling in comparison to that of their bitter rivals, who finished 12 points clear of the Rossoneri at the top.
Of course, Milan only secured a top-four finish at all on the final day of the season – but there is much cause for optimism at the club and Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina suggested the positivity is well-placed, even if Stefano Pioli’s team only got a 1-1 draw.
Let’s not forget, Milan’s record in this fixture has been dreadful in recent times. Inter won five of the past six in Serie A, while the Rossoneri’s run of three successive home defeats in the derby was their worst such run since 1934.
Milan went into the match knowing a win would take them top after Napoli dropped points against Hellas Verona, but arguably the most important thing here was to avoid a defeat – victory for Inter would have brought them to within three points of their bitter rivals.
And to be fair to Inter, they looked every inch a side out to win.
It didn’t take long for one of the main pre-game narratives to come into focus as Hakan Calhanoglu, playing his first derby for Inter since leaving Milan in pre-season, won a penalty from Franck Kessie and then stepped up to take the resulting kick.
His celebration left no doubt about his thoughts on the jeers being aimed his way, as he cupped both ears in the direction of the home fans, with the Turkey midfielder becoming only the fourth player since 1994-95 to score in his first Milan derby after making his previous appearance in the fixture for the other team.
It was the kind of start you hope from every derby match, with the emotions and intensity turned right up inside the first 10 minutes, and Milan were certainly up to the challenge.
Their response was quick – though they had more than a helping hand. Fikayo Tomori was the man who ran off in joyous celebration as the Inter net bulged, though replays amusingly showed he didn’t even touch the ball as Stefan de Vrij put past his own goalkeeper.
The gripping end-to-end nature of the match soon brought another twist.
Matteo Darmian darted onto the ball, surging inside Fode Ballo-Toure and into the box, luring the Milan left-back into a clumsy lunge. Penalty.
But Calhanoglu didn’t fancy the opportunity to get a second, instead allowing Lautaro Martinez to step up, and the Argentinian failed to beat Ciprian Tatarusanu in the Milan goal.
Milan started to fade towards the end of the first half, with Inter creating two more fine opportunities just before the break and then remaining in the ascendancy in the second period.
Martinez saw a stinging drive go just over and then Calhanoglu inexplicably failed to get a volley on target at the back post as he blasted across the face of goal.
But Pioli’s substitutions worked very well. Ismael Bennacer’s introduction brought a little more poise and intricacy to the Milan midfield, while Alexis Saelemaekers showcased his trademark endeavour.
In fact, the Belgian went closest to breaking the deadlock as his long-range effort came back off the post and Kessie put the rebound wide.
Inter managed to hold on in the face of the late onslaught, and while a point seemed a fair result, it’s already a fourth draw for Inzaghi’s men. That’s five matches they’ve failed to win, and although they remain third, you get the feeling they need to start turning those into victories if they are to stand a chance of retaining the title.
They certainly have the personnel to do so, while Milan’s showing provided a little more evidence that last season’s second-place finish wasn’t a fluke, with this the first time in the three-points-for-a-win era that the Rossoneri have amassed as many as 32 points from their first 12 matches.
Of course, Napoli will hope to prove otherwise, but there remains the very real possibility that the Scudetto will be staying in Milan at the end of the campaign.
The second derby of the season will likely have some say in which of the two clubs prevails, and that in itself is glorious.
It had arguably lost much of its lustre in the eyes of the neutral in recent years, with the collective standard of their squads somewhat lacking in comparison to the fixture’s glory days back in the early 2000s and it rarely having relevance due to Juve’s domination.
But one thing Sunday’s contest showed is that the Derby della Madonnina is once again becoming Italy’s most relevant fixture.