Milan derby: Balo keeps his cool but Inter's switch saves the day

SERIE A Sat 23 Feb Palermo 0-0 Genoa Sun 24 Feb Sampdoria 2-0 Chievo, Parma 1-2 Catania, Atalanta 2-3 Roma, Juventus 3-0 Siena, Cagliari 4-3 Torino, Internazionale 1-1 Milan Mon 25 Feb Udinese v Napoli, Lazio v Pescara Tue 26 Feb Bologna v Fiorentina

When AC Milan and Inter met in the Derby della Madonnina back in October, Walter Samuel stooped to conquer to head home the only goal of the game and hand the Nerazzurri an eight-point advantage over their city rivals.

At that stage it wasn't as if either club looked capable of challenging Juventus for the title or even matching Napoli in the chase for second place, but coming into Sunday evening’s showdown at the San Siro expectations were much changed.

Massimiliano Allegri’s side had not only clawed back the eight-point gap on their neighbours but had overtaken them and the other contender for the final Champions League spot, Lazio. On their charge up the table, Milan had suffered just one defeat in 13 and been unbeaten in eight outings, including that amazing midweek victory over Barcelona.

While Milan have gone from strength to strength and been buoyed by their European exploits, Andrea Stramaccioni has overseen a dramatic decline in his side’s fortunes. Last weekend’s 4-1 defeat at Fiorentina let them with just four victories from 14 league matches, although they had taken some comfort by qualifying to the next round of the Europa League.

Whatever the form of the teams, the stage was set for another evening of genuine spectacle at what is termed “La Scala dello Calcio” in homage to the city’s world-renowned opera house.

All eyes were on the main soloist, Mario Balotelli. Unable to take his place in the Champions League, having already played for Manchester City, the former Inter player was out to grab the spotlight.

It is hardly traitorous to swap one Milanese shirt for another. Some of the top names in the game have done it: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo, Christian Vieri, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo and even Leonardo, as coach.

Intra Milan: Others who swung both ways

However, none have ever received the sort of malevolent provocation that was reserved for Balotelli, whose entrance was greeted with a chorus of “Balotelli, son of a whore".

It set the tone for an evening in which parts of the Curva Nord, where Inter’s ultras gather, were waving inflatable bananas accompanied by a chorus of monkey noises. The player retained his composure, although at one stage he had to be refrained by Javier Zanetti as he pointed towards his abusers.

Balotelli could have silenced half of the stadium if he had taken either of the two presentable first-half chances handed to him, with Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic also making a stunning reflex save from a close-range header. In the first instance, Balotelli was left free on the edge of the six-yard area; he may have been able to connect with it first time but ended up miscontrolling. Soon after, in a similar position, he could only sidefoot the ball straight at Handanovic, although his aim was better when kicking the post in anger.

Balotelli’s frustrations continued through a relavtively low-key performance following a blistering start to his return to Serie A, during which he scored four in three games, but he was admirable in his restraint considering the abuse he received.

It was left to Stephan El Shaarawy to shine the brightest, finishing wonderfully with the outside of his right foot on 20 minutes when sent free by Kevin Prince Boateng. In tandem with another young Rossoneri Matteo De Scigilio, the rising star formed a daring partnership along the left flank that had Inter on the back foot throughout the first half.

El Shaarawy (r) celebrates the opener

In truth, Milan should have been out of sight by the break but Balotelli’s misses coupled with the heroics of Handanovic would prove telling.

Stramaccioni used the half-time interval to re-jig his line-up, with Zanetti switching positions with Yuto Nagatomo to nullify El Shaarawy. Meanwhile, the coach also sent forward as a lone striker Antonio Cassano – another high-profile defection between the clubs, and a cautionary tale of raw talent going to waste and, of late, to seed.

Cassano's vision and technique may be as sharp as ever, but he plays the game from a standing start that rarely progresses to much more than a light jog. Without Diego Milito, who has been cruelly cut down with a career-threatening knee ligament rupture, to provide the link play between the midfield and attack, too many of Cassano’s runs from the left infield ended up with a square pass or the ball lost in a sea of opposition challenges; indeed, it was his loss of possession that led to Milan scoring.

Leaving him up front enabled the athletic Freddy Guarin to take over the mantle of link-man, in doing so freeing up Rodrigo Palaccio to play right across the line.

However, it was an inspired substitution that brought Inter a deserved equaliser. Ezequiel Schelotto had arrived in January from Atalanta with no great fanfare; little was expected from the Italo-Argentine. But the 23-year-old, nicknamed El Galgo (the Greyhound), has written his name into Inter’s history books by following a regal line that includes Ricky Kakà, Andriy Shevchenko, Ibra and Ronaldo who have all scored on their derby debuts.

Schelotto, overcome at the equaliser

It was no wonder the hirsute winger burst into tears after heading in a pinpoint cross from Nagatomo. It was one of those evenings when emotions were raw – at times a little too much so.