Rafael Benitez's short reign at Inter has already been overshadowed by the sparkle of his successor's. With the Nerazzurri following Brazilian Leonardo in a rapid climb up the Serie A standings, league-leading AC Milan appear scared of losing what, at one point, had been a double-digit lead in the points standings. Since Benitez's methodical approach was superseded by Leonardo just rolling the ball out and saying "Go play, boys", what was once a fifteen-point differential has been cut to two.
Both Inter forward Samuel Eto'o and Leonardo have gone on record as saying the derby won't decide the title race, but such talk is fatuous. This match is probably the most crucial in Italy for the entire year. Though there are several matches remaining for the season, a win for either could well mean the death-knell for their rivals' aspirations. Should the Rossoneri win, the gap would be five points again and breathing room. If the Nerazzurri triumph, they would overtake their nemeses and continue AC's poor-ish run of form - a mild slump which has seen their grasp on the title downgraded from "quite strong" to "quite shaky".
AC Milan are missing serial pest Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man who has scored or assisted in over 40% of their goals this season, but could regain Andrea Pirlo from a lengthy injury-enforced absence. The loss of Ibrahimovic could well be compensated for by Nerazzurri centre-back Lucio, who is also suspended. Should Clarence Seedorf and Pirlo be required to play heavy minutes for Milan it could prove problematic as age and injury have currently robbed each of his ability to play ninety minutes of their best football.
It's likely that pace could prove the ultimate factor here as both defences struggle to cope with outright pace (doesn't everyone?) For Inter, the key will be - as always - Wesley Sneijder and his ability to get the ball to deadeyes Eto'o and Pazzini. His task will be made all the more difficult by the presence of Marc Van Bommel, the man for whom the term "Midfield Destroyer" was invented. The Rossoneri's speedy forward trident of Antonio Cassano, Robinho and Alexandre Pato are likely to be crucial in determining who will be Milan's (and probably Italy's) champion of 2011. Game on.