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Inter Milan v AC Milan: Could derby signal start of Serie A title challenge?

Former Arsenal and Manchester United forward Alexis Sanchez is one of six ex-Premier League players in Inter Milan’s squad
Inter Milan v AC Milan
Venue: San Siro Date: 17 October Time: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app

Saturday’s Milan derby could well be the best, most enthralling and most unpredictable of the past decade. And possibly the strangest of them all, with the Giuseppe Meazza an empty cathedral.

Because of Covid-19 safety measures, there will be only 1,000 lucky spectators at the San Siro to watch Inter Milan host AC Milan at 17:00, but it comes at a time when both sides appear to be on the up after periods of stagnation – neither has won any major silverware since 2011.

This weekend’s derby could provide clues as to whether a challenge to Juventus’ nine-year strangle hold on the Serie A title will come from a Milan club, but some signs are already there.

Inter proved their worth last season by reaching the Coppa Italia semi-finals and finishing runners-up in the Europa League and Serie A, one point behind serial winners Juventus.

Despite a positive season, club and coach Antonio Conte almost parted ways in August because of disagreements over club management, communication and market strategies.

Although Covid-19 hit their Chinese owners too, the Nerazzurri were active during the transfer window, something Conte will have appreciated.

AC Milan also have plenty to be happy about. Unbeaten in 19 games in all competitions, the Rossoneri were the best Serie A team after the lockdown, finishing the season on a high with nine wins and three draws in their final 12 matches.

Things haven’t changed during the summer either. Milan are now top of the table, have scored seven goals and conceded none, and have navigated their way through Europa League qualifying.

Those looking for the faintest hope of vulnerability at Juventus will point to an inexperienced coach in Andrea Pirlo, a period of transition with new youngsters like Arthur, Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa fitting in, and an obsession to win the Champions League drawing their energy.

So could it be the year for one of the Milan clubs?

Looking at what happened last season and during the transfer window, Inter are more than credible contenders.

They have filled the key gaps that prevented them from winning any piece of silverware last season.

A lack of depth in midfield has been addressed by the signing of the much desired Arturo Vidal and the return of Radja Nainggolan.

And some quality on the flanks arrived with Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid, as well as with returning Ivan Perisic, a Treble winner at Bayern Munich.

Ivan Perisic
Perisic made 35 appearances on loan at Bayern Munich last season, but has returned to Inter this campaign

Yes, not all targets were hit – a move for Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante did not materialise and a competitive right winger would have been a plus – but keeping Lautaro Martinez, after his expected transfer to Barcelona did not go through, will have pleased the fans and his strike partner Romelu Lukaku.

Inter will look to Christian Eriksen, the match-winner for Denmark against England on Wednesday, to stand up and become a true option for Conte, who is struggling to fit the former Tottenham attacker into his plans.

Few in Italy fully consider AC Milan as true title contenders, despite being brilliant since football resumed after lockdown.

Their hopes rest with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, not only with his personal attributes but also his influence throughout the team.

The former Sweden forward has had a massive impact – scoring eight goals in his past six appearances, including the back end of last season – and has raised self-esteem across the squad. He is the one who has helped youngsters like Sandro Tonali, Rafael Leao and Jens Petter Hauge develop.

But how fit will the impressive Ibrahimovic be over the course of a full season, having turned 39 this month?

He will be available on Saturday, having completed his quarantine after a positive coronavirus test, while captain Alessio Romagnoli has finally recovered from a calf injury.

But both sides could be affected by absences.

The players returning from their respective national teams will have their Covid-19 tests on Thursday and will only train on Friday, some of them after an intercontinental trip. One day to prepare for a derby – who will cope best with it?

Six of Inter’s players have already tested positive, including Ashley Young, and they will do everything to make sure Alessandro Bastoni, one of Conte’s defensive pillars, is cleared to play.

It all builds to one massive game and, after a frustrating decade, with a brand new stadium on the horizon and performances improving, the future looks bright for both of Milan’s clubs.

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