Stefano Pioli and Antonio Conte are relishing the prospect of a possible Scudetto shoot-out in Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina.
Inter lead Milan by one point at the Serie A summit heading into this weekend’s showdown after leapfrogging their bitter rivals last week.
With nine-in-a-row champions Juventus eight points adrift of top spot, albeit with a game in hand to play, the title is looking likely to end up at San Siro this season.
Milan are seeking a first Scudetto since 2011, a year after Inter last prevailed, and Sunday’s game may go a long way towards determining who finishes top come the end of the campaign.
It is the first time the sides will meet holding the top two positions in the table since April 2011 and Conte is expecting a unique derby in the behind-closed-doors contest.
“It will be different to the previous derbies because of the teams’ high positions – first and second,” Conte said at a news conference on Saturday.
“This is very satisfying for the city of Milan. There is a lot at stake, certainly more than just local pride.
— AC Milan (@acmilan) February 20, 2021
“We have to do our best to win the game and stay top of the table. It is an important match. When the table is like this you need to be even more determined.”
Milan beat Inter 2-1 in October and are seeking a league double over their city rivals for the first time since 2010-11.
However, Inter won last month’s eventful Coppa Italia quarter-final tie by the same scoreline and Pioli is anticipating a cagey affair in this latest tussle.
“Tomorrow we will play a derby like we have not seen for many years, with a lot on the line,” Pioli told reporters.
“Both us and Inter have a clear identity. The derbies are always balanced matches with many goalscoring opportunities.
“It is not necessarily decisive for the fate of the championship, but it is important because we have been in the lead all season.”
The big talking point from the most recent meeting between the sides was the coming together of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku.
But Conte, who won three titles during his time in charge of Juventus, does not believe tempers will flare this time around.
“It’s going to be a match with two teams trying to win and surpass each other,” Conte said.
“We must never forget that, even if this is a big game and a derby, it remains a sport. I don’t predict much tension in the atmosphere.
Ibrahimovic has scored 10 goals in all competitions in this fixture, including eight for Milan, and Pioli would not swap his striker for Inter star Lukaku.
— Inter (@Inter_en) February 19, 2021
“I respect Lukaku, but I prefer Ibra,” Pioli said. “Tomorrow’s game must be a collective effort; we must play as a team. It is the collective that highlights the qualities of the individual.
“We have to play well because we know how to do it, we have the technical qualities.”
Asked how his Inter side plan to deal with Ibrahimovic, Conte said: “You neutralise threats by working as a team and reducing the errors.
“Ibrahimovic is a top player who is doing very well for Milan. He has already scored against us this season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will score again.”
Milan have lost three league games since the start of 2021 – one more than over the whole of 2020 – and were held 2-2 by Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League on Thursday.
Pioli, who has constantly played down his side’s title aspirations, accepted an improvement is required on the back of some below-par displays.
“We did not raise our levels against Red Star – even the defensive phase did not see us as solid and compact,” he said.
“Tomorrow we must be very careful and determined. Our goal is to give the best, then we’ll see what we’ve achieved at the end of the season.”