AC Milan v Inter: Gattuso leads swift shift in rivals' fortunes

Getty Images

It was only December when reports emerged the axe could be set to fall on AC Milan boss Gennaro Gattuso, with Arsene Wenger the man on everyone's lips.

Only two wins in seven matches that month, and Ivan Gazidis' arrival from Arsenal, increased pressure on Gattuso and prompted speculation over former Gunners manager Wenger.

Ex-Chelsea and Juventus head coach Antonio Conte was also linked with a return to Italy via Milan.

Since the New Year, however, Gattuso and his Milan have only lost once in 12 games in all competitions – including five successive Serie A victories heading into Sunday's derby against Inter.

Across the city divide, Luciano Spalletti's Inter have stuttered as they deal with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding former captain Mauro Icardi.

With Milan in form and on track to qualify for the Champions League, Rossoneri great Gattuso has fans dreaming again.

 

Difficult December

Already under pressure following Leonardo's return, the month of December only plunged Gattuso's position into further doubt. Back at the club as they continued to overhaul their senior hierarchy under new owners Elliott Management, sporting director Leonardo was forced to deny links with Conte in July. Five months later, the 49-year-old Brazilian then dismissed reports Gattuso could be replaced. Leonardo's backing came after a five-match winless streak, which included a run of four league games without a goal against Torino, Bologna, Fiorentina and Frosinone. At that stage, Inter were third and seven points clear of fourth-placed Lazio following victories over Napoli and Empoli to close out 2018.

Higuain out, Piatek in

Gonzalo Higuain's arrival from Juventus at the expense of Leonardo Bonucci after just one season was meant to signal a new era at San Siro, with the Argentina international seen as the man to follow in the footsteps of Andriy Shevchenko and others. Many believed Milan were the winners of that deal too after also signing promising defender Mattia Caldara. It did not go according to plan, however. Higuain – often a frustrated figure on the pitch – left for Chelsea and a Maurizio Sarri reunion having scored just eight goals in all competitions. Milan wasted little time replacing the former Napoli striker, turning to Genoa sensation Krzysztof Piatek in a €35million deal in January. With Brazilian star Lucas Paqueta's transfer triggering memories of Kaka, Milan enjoyed an upturn in form. After making his debut against Napoli, Piatek opened his account with a double against the same opposition in the Coppa Italia three days later. Milan only lost once in January – against Juve in the Supercoppa Italiana – as Gattuso celebrated his true number nine.

Atalanta comeback

Leaving the Italian capital with a point against Roma thanks to Piatek further highlighted Milan's resurgence, which the Poland international and Paqueta backed up at home to Cagliari. But, it was the win at Atalanta that really impressed. One of the most entertaining teams in the league under Gian Piero Gasperini, Atalanta were stunned by a red-hot Milan. With another Piatek brace, a settled front three and a midfield trio of Franck Kessie, Paqueta and Tiemoue Bakayoko – finally returning to his Monaco form – performing well, doubts over Gattuso quickly disappeared. As for the Nerazzurri, they went through a turbulent February. After playing as Inter snapped a three-match losing run against Parma, Icardi was stripped of the captaincy and replaced by Samir Handanovic. The 26-year-old has not featured in the eight matches since.

Milan leapfrog Inter

Repaying the faith shown and solidifying the rebuilding project under Elliott Management, Gattuso's Milan continued to fly high as they went from fourth to third, dislodging Inter for the final Champions League automatic qualifying spot. A fourth successive league win at home to Sassuolo, coupled with Inter's shock loss away to Cagliari, saw Milan take full advantage to leapfrog their bitter rivals in the standings. Absent from the Champions League since 2013-14, Milan cemented that position – only six points behind second-placed Napoli – with a gritty victory on the road against Chievo, where Piatek enhanced his status as a fan favourite.