"You want to speak about my mother?"

Romelu Lukaku was seething. A yellow card and a stern talking to from referee Paolo Valeri having done nothing to lift the red mist.

Inter's diminutive playmaker Nicolo Barella attaching himself to Lukaku's torso in a bid to calm the powerhouse striker was one of the more memorable sights of an action-packed first 45 minutes in this Milan derby for a place in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

Or the Derby della Madonnina, to give the game its full, grander title. A game that takes its name from a pristine golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

It seemed for all the world that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had not spoken about Lukaku's mother with such reverence.

Here was Milan's 39-year-old talisman, who suggested the youthful make-up of the Serie A leaders' XI was a factor in their 3-0 weekend defeat to Atalanta, deciding to display his own brand of leadership in the guise of juvenile schoolyard bully.

Ibrahimovic's crowing chuckle as mayhem unfurled around him (Arturo Vidal got involved - of course he did - for no apparent reason) was one of a player who had recently enjoyed a familiar feeling for the 499th time in his career.

Freed from shackles of their knife-edge Scudetto battle, both teams played with freedom and the intent to land a psychological blow. The fact each team had the same idea appeared to irritate all concerned, but it made for great entertainment.

It is doubtful Antonio Conte would consider such a cavalier selection in league combat as he rolled out on Inter's left flank here. Ivan Perisic was at wing-back, paying as much attention as you'd expect to the part of his position lurking after the hyphen.

That increased the defensive burden on Aleksandar Kolarov on, a defender who has worn 11 for the bulk of his career. Kolarov's shirt number is a statement of particular intent.

Ibrahimovic showed he recognised that point of weakness in the 13th minute, when he leapt athletically to meet a Rafael Leao cross, knocking Perisic and Kolarov to the ground in the process. Brahim Diaz was just unable to turn home.

Kolarov still seemed distracted when he backed off enough for the former Sweden international to fire though his legs and beyond Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

The script seemed written, goal 500 was surely on the way to take Ibrahimovic closer to yet another piece of silverware. Why not have some fun and wind up the opposition's star man.

Ibrahimovic's language and his message seemed appalling, with ESPN footage showing him at one point appearing to yell: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey."

A flaw in the plan to rile Lukaku was the yellow card that Ibrahimovic received for his part in the spat. Not a problem in itself, but in the 58th minute he clumsily and needlessly fouled Kolarov to collect a second booking.

Displaying none of his vast experience, Ibrahimovic had gone from hero to villain to idiot within half an hour of playing time.

And so, it was over to the youngsters and backup players who the star striker sometimes seems to consider walk-on extras in his one-man show.

First there was on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori, who was quickly disabused of the notion he had escaped chaos by leaving Chelsea this week. Thrust into a debut by Simon Kjaer's first-half injury, he made a brilliant last-ditch block to deny Lukaku.

Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez defended heroically down the Milan left but reduced numbers forced willing attacking players back to man unfamiliar barricades. Leao was pressed into action and brought down Barella. After consulting the pitchside monitor Valeri pointed to the spot.

Lukaku has been known to roll his penalties home. On this occasion, he tested the structural integrity of the crossbar and the ball ricocheted into the turf and home. Then there was a shouting match with a team-mate (Yes, Vidal; nope, no idea).

Enough mayhem? Nonsense. Valeri had to limp out of the action injured. Fourth official Daniele Chiffi looked like he was putting on the microphone and headset for the first time in his life and 10 minutes of stoppage time were required.

In the seventh of those, wantaway midfielder Christian Eriksen curled home a sumptuous free-kick, leaving Ciprian Tatarusanu no chance to add to his fine catalogue of eight saves.

Last act for Eriksen? Maybe. Definitely last laugh for Lukaku.

Ibrahimovic likes to call himself a lion but Tatarusanu and the Milan players he left behind were the lions here, roaring defiantly at wave after wave of Inter attacks before buckling at the last. Nine of Inter's 27 shots were blocked.

After fatefully dwelling too long in self-parody at the end of the first half, Ibrahimovic owes them an apology, and surely Lukaku is also due one. Perhaps they shouldn't hold their breath.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic went from hero to villain in Tuesday's Coppa Italia quarter-final defeat to rivals Inter as he was involved in an ugly incident with Romelu Lukaku and later sent off in a 2-1 reverse sealed at the death by Christian Eriksen.

Swedish striker Ibrahimovic went into the match just two short of a 500th career club goal and few would have bet against him reaching the milestone in the derby after putting Milan in front, but he was unable to see out a controversial encounter.

Having earned a first yellow card in an earlier altercation with Lukaku, who was clearly incensed by the 39-year-old's behaviour, Ibrahimovic was perhaps unfortunate to earn a second booking for what referee Paolo Valeri deemed a foul on Aleksandar Kolarov.

If Lukaku's mood was not already improved by Ibrahimovic's dismissal, he was definitely smiling after converting a 71st-minute penalty, and Eriksen's gorgeous late free-kick sealed Inter a spot in the semi-finals.

Ever the man for the big occasion, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be eyeing a looming landmark heading into Tuesday's Coppa Italia Derby della Madonnina.

Ibrahimovic enters the latest crunch clash between Inter and his Milan just two goals shy of 500 in club football.

The former Sweden striker drew a blank against Atalanta on Saturday, ending a run of scoring in nine consecutive Serie A starts, but will be determined to bounce back in this mammoth fixture.

"We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat," Ibrahimovic said after the 3-0 loss to Atalanta. "We have the chance to do it in a few days against Inter. That will be a good match."

A MILAN MAN

Enjoying a fine second spell with Milan now at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic's goals have fired Stefano Pioli's side back into title contention - despite the Atalanta setback.

The Rossoneri have not won the Scudetto since 2011 - in Ibrahimovic's first stint at the club - and are without any silverware since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

Inter's own trophy drought spans back to 2011, making this season - with the Milan clubs first and second in the table - and this quarter-final encounter huge.

Ibrahimovic has 13 goals in all competitions this term, including 12 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 80.

That far surpasses the 66 he scored in his time with Inter, while his total number of appearances for the Rossoneri has also nudged past his Nerazzurri tally, 119 to 117 after the Atalanta reverse.

Ibrahimovic will hope to be able to celebrate a 69th victory in Milan colours when they face their neighbours.

DERBY DELIGHTS

Derbies tend to be enjoyable occasions for Ibrahimovic, who has scored seven times for Milan against Inter - including a strike in his only prior such match outside of Serie A, inspiring a turnaround in the 2011 Supercoppa.

A goal and an assist in the first meeting with Inter following his return to Milan last year were in vain as the Nerazzurri won 4-2, but his brace this season secured a 2-1 win for the Serie A leaders.

Only once, in a 1-0 defeat in 2012, has Ibrahimovic failed to score for Milan against Inter, while he also netted twice in four matches for Juventus in the Derby d'Italia.

Yet the striker's Milan derby history goes back to before his arrival at the Rossoneri due to his previous allegiance to Inter.

He scored in his first two Inter appearances against Milan, meaning he has nine strikes in this famous rivalry - trailing only Andriy Shevchenko (14), Giuseppe Meazza (13), Gunnar Nordahl, Istvan Nyers (both 11) and Enrico Candiani (10).

Ibrahimovic has won six and lost four of his 10 Serie A derbies, also triumphing in that Supercoppa clash.

Stefano Pioli wants to see a reaction from his players in the Coppa Italia showdown with Inter following Milan's humbling home loss to Atalanta last time out.

The Serie A leaders went down 3-0 at home to Gian Piero Gasperini's side on Saturday, though they still have a two-point cushion over their next opponents at the halfway stage of the 2020-21 season. 

Next up is the small matter of a derby against Inter on Tuesday, an opportunity for Milan to quickly move on from such a disappointing result and reach the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia. 

The Rossoneri came out on top when the teams met earlier in the season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's early double proving enough in a 2-1 triumph. 

"It's a different competition, but one we care about. The league is a different story," Pioli told the club's official website ahead of the game.  

"The next derby will be in a month, with other important games beforehand, so this is just a Coppa Italia match. However, it is an important quarter-final we need to face in the best way. 

"As always, there are opponents to face, dangerous opponents, but we are determined to bounce back with a good performance.  

"The Coppa is a competition we care about and aim to win, because in the end all the big teams in the league find themselves in this position, facing off in the quarter and semi-finals.   

"We weren't particularly lucky in the draw. We are in the toughest section, but if you want to win the Coppa, you have to face everyone.  

"It's important to us and we'll do our best to win."

Pioli confirmed Ismael Bennacer is not quite ready to return - the midfielder is on course to be available for Saturday's trip to Bologna, though - while Hakan Calhanoglu is also still out.

New recruit Mario Mandzukic suffered an issue at the weekend after making his debut as a second-half substitute, albeit the striker has not yet been ruled out entirely.

Milan have not lifted the Coppa Italia since 2003, while their last Scudetto arrived a decade ago. Pioli appreciates there is pressure to succeed, particularly after a strong first half to the campaign, but insists that is all part of the job when in charge of such a big club.

"Last Saturday reminded us that if we can't maintain our level, we run the risk of losing against these opponents," he added.

"So, our objective is to make an even greater effort, a more determined one to try to maintain our standing through until the end of the season. 

"We want to be ambitious and win all our games. When we don't, we work even harder to make sure the situation doesn't happen again.  

"That's why pressure is a privilege we must live with, or rather we must want this pressure because we're at a great club - pressure and expectations are a part of that."

Inter beat Juventus. Juventus beat Milan. Milan beat Inter. For once it has been tough to predict the title race in Serie A.

Winning the Scudetto was not enough for Maurizio Sarri to keep his job at Juve last season, meaning Andrea Pirlo is under significant pressure as the Bianconeri chase a 10th straight league crown.

However, they have struggled to convince under the former midfield metronome and sit seven points adrift of leaders Milan in fourth, although they hold a game in hand.

There has seemingly never been a better chance for Inter, who are two points off top in second, and Milan to end Scudetto droughts that date back to 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively.

Fans and pundits will continue to have their say on who will sit top come the end of the season, and the Stats Perform AI team have also crunched the numbers to predict the champions for the 2020-21 campaign.

With the majority of the 20 teams having reached the halfway stage of the league campaign, they have simulated how the rest of the season may play out.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

 

INTER END JUVE'S REIGN

Although they sit second at the halfway stage, our model predicts Inter will end Juve's dominance of Serie A.

Inter have a 35.7 per cent chance of topping the table for the first time since their treble-winning campaign of 2009-10 and it is projected they will do so by a two-point advantage.

Not only do Milan surrender top spot to the Nerazzurri, they slip behind Juve into third with the top three separated by just three points. It would still represent their best finish since 2012-13.

Juve's chance of retaining the title is deemed to be 23.1 per cent, marginally better than Milan's 21.6 per cent.

ATALANTA RETURN TO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Gian Piero Gasperini steered Atalanta to Champions League qualification for the first time in their history in 2018-19 and made it back-to-back top-three finishes last season.

They are predicted to return to Europe's premier club competition by finishing fourth, edging out Napoli – they even have a 6.8 per cent chance of pulling off an unlikely title win.

Gennaro Gattuso's side have a 17 per cent probability of snatching the final Champions League qualification berth, with Atalanta's prospects narrowly superior at 17.4 per cent.

Roma are predicted to fall from their current position of third down to sixth but that is still good enough for them to deny arch-rivals Lazio qualification to the inaugural Europa Conference League.

The top six may need to beware of Sassuolo, Hellas Verona and Sampdoria, however. Sassuolo have a 0.3 per cent likelihood of finishing inside the top four, while Verona (0.6 per cent) and Sampdoria (0.3 per cent) also have an outside chance of stealing European qualification, though our predictor suggests Lazio will finish 12 points clear of Sassuolo in seventh.

 

GENOA AND TORINO ESCAPE DROP

At the turn of the year Torino were rock bottom with one win from their opening 14 games and Genoa were in the relegation zone with them.

However, Torino and Genoa have both moved out of the bottom three by claiming six points and eight points respectively over their past five games.

The two sides are predicted to maintain strong enough form to stay out of the drop zone, with Crotone (20th), Parma (19th) and Cagliari (18th) projected to suffer relegation to Serie B.

It is by no means a guarantee, though. Genoa are only 0.2 per cent more likely to come 17th than they are to suffer relegation by finishing 18th, while Torino's differential between 15th – where they are predicted to place – and third-bottom is 2.7 per cent.

Frank Lampard's appointment as Chelsea head coach was widely heralded by the club's fanbase, who were desperate for a returning hero to succeed in the dugout.

Just 18 months later and Lampard – the club's record all-time leading goalscorer who won 11 major honours at Stamford Bridge – has been sacked.

The Blues have proven in the past there is little time for sentimentality or to dwell on past successes and not even a player with the stature Lampard holds at the club has been granted extra time.

Lampard's first season in charge brought a top-four finish and an FA Cup final but a run of just two wins in eight league matches saw Chelsea wield the axe with the team ninth and 11 points off top.

A huge close-season recruitment drive that saw the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell arrive perhaps gave the Blues hierarchy itchy feet and brought about the end for Lampard.

With that in mind, we have looked at some hits and misses when players have returned to a club as boss.

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping down in May 2018, only to return 10 months later. He has already won LaLiga and the Supercopa de Espana in his second stint, though a slump this term has left his long-term future shrouded in doubt.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job in 2014. Conte is now battling to end the Bianconeri's domestic dominance as head coach of Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try to save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning just 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league position in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a relegation play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

JURY'S OUT

Mikel Arteta

Arteta served Arsenal with distinction as a player between 2011 and 2016, captaining the club and winning the FA Cup twice. Success in football's oldest cup competition followed last term, with Arteta having replaced Unai Emery in December 2019. After finishing eighth, Arsenal defeated Liverpool on penalties to win the Community Shield but eight defeats from 19 league games in this campaign have left Arsenal 11th and 13 points off top spot.

Andrea Pirlo

Lampard's opportunity at Chelsea arrived when Maurizio Sarri departed for Juventus, but his stint in charge at the Bianconeri lasted just one season despite winning the Serie A title. Pirlo won four Scudetti, the Supercoppa Italiana twice and the Coppa Italia during a four-year stint as a player in Turin and was appointed head coach just a week after being installed as Under-23 boss. So far it has been a mixed bag in Juve's hunt for a 10th straight title, with six draws and two defeats in 18 matches leaving them seven points back of league leaders Milan – albeit they do have a game in hand. Pirlo also collected a first trophy courtesy of victory over Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana last week.

Former Milan midfielder and head coach Cristian Brocchi is hopeful the Rossoneri can maintain their charge for a drought-ending Serie A title as they vie for domestic silverware with neighbours Inter.

Milan have not won the Scudetto since 2011, but the Italian giants top the table at the halfway stage of the season – two points clear of Inter despite a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Atalanta.

Following years of pain, Stefano Pioli's Milan and their fans are daring to dream as they rise to the summit of Italian football once again.

Monza head coach Brocchi was part of the successful Milan era between 2001 and 2008, after a brief spell with city rivals Inter, winning two Champions League titles, the Scudetto, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana.

While Brocchi attempts to lead Monza from Serie B to the top flight this season, the 44-year-old's heart still beats for boyhood club Milan as they prepare for Tuesday's blockbuster Coppa Italia quarter-final against Inter.

Brocchi, who oversaw seven matches in charge of Milan before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella in 2016, told Stats Perform News: "Milan are a family for me.

"I arrived there at nine, was in the all the youth ranks. I won everything with Milan and when I quit I managed to be Milan's coach for a short period. I will never feel colder toward Milan.

"I root for them, watch every game and hopefully, as they are doing great, they can go on down this path."

Milan have already beaten Inter in 2020-21 – a three-minute brace from Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the Rossoneri past the Nerazzurri 2-1 in October's Serie A showdown.

The two teams will meet again at San Siro, where a Coppa Italia semi-final berth is on the line amid an intriguing title race, with nine-time reigning champions Juventus, Roma, Atalanta and Napoli also vying for honours.

Brocchi is no stranger to the Derby della Madonnina, having also experienced the build-up from the opposing side during his stint with Inter in 2000-01.

"First of all, I think the most beautiful derby ever played was the one in the Champions League semi-final in 2003 [Milan prevailed on away goals after a 1-1 draw]. It was the ultimate derby for adrenaline and all the feelings you can feel," Brocchi said ahead of Monday's Serie B showdown with Brescia.

"The Milan derby is emotional, everybody wants to win and even if now it will be played without public, it still gives us great feelings."

All eyes will be on Ibrahimovic in Milan, where the 39-year-old continues to defy his age to inspire a title charge this term.

Ibrahimovic, who re-joined Milan from LA Galaxy in January 2020 having featured in the last Rossoneri team to celebrate league success almost a decade ago, has scored 12 goals in just nine Serie A matches this season.

After scoring twice in a 2-0 win over Cagliari on January 18, it meant Ibrahimovic managed to find the back of the net in nine successive starts for the first time in his career in Europe's top five leagues.

Ibrahimovic – who made his 600th career appearance (excluding playoffs) in the loss to Atalanta – is just two goals shy of reaching the 500 mark in club football.

"Strong players have no age as long as they feel fine. Ibra is an example, he is still strong physically," Brocchi continued.

"He is serving with character and class all the young player at Milan, who as I said before for us [Monza] with [Mario] Balotelli and [Kevin-Prince] Boateng. We have young players that can run for them too.

"Milan did the same. They assembled a squad of youngsters full of enthusiasm, legs and speed with a strong leader, Ibra, who is still at the top of his game and can be the icing on the cake of this winning choice." 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic feels Milan have become "fragile" and is seeking an instant response to Saturday's 3-0 thrashing against Atalanta when they take on fierce rivals Inter next.

Previously unbeaten in 27 league matches stretching back into the 2019-20 season, Milan have now lost two of their last four games - they also went down 3-1 to Juventus earlier this month. 

Goals from Cristian Romero, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata condemned Stefano Pioli's side to their latest defeat, but they are still top at the midway point of the season as closest challengers Inter could only manage a 0-0 draw with Udinese. 

However, Ibrahimovic accepts being winter champions will count for little unless Milan regain some consistency and end their decade-long wait for Scudetto success. 

"We lost two games after more than 30 matches that we didn't lose," he told Sky Sport Italia.  

"The team is a bit fragile because when certain players are missing, we lack a bit of experience. They are replaced by young players, but this is no excuse.  

"We make many sacrifices; we work and we are first for a reason.

"But being top at this stage does not matter. We are halfway through the championship, so far we have done well but still nothing this is the most difficult period because there are so many games and now we just have to continue." 

Asked if Tuesday's Coppa Italia quarter-final with Inter has now taken on even more importance, Ibrahimovic said: "We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat.  

"We have the chance to do it in a few days and then against Inter. That will be a good match." 

Milan's club-record run of scoring in 38 successive league games was ended in Saturday's loss at San Siro, a game in which the Rossoneri managed only two shots on target. 

Ibrahimovic was unable to test Pierluigi Gollini with any of his five efforts, while his 36 touches of the ball were the fewest by any home player to take part in the entire game. 

The veteran striker, who has 12 goals in nine league outings this term, admitted afterwards that he felt isolated up front. 

"In the first half I was too alone in attack," he said. "I didn't have anyone close to support me, but it could also be because of the pressure from Atalanta that put us in trouble.  

"Today many things were missing, it was not our day. Now the important thing is to recover and think about the next match to redeem ourselves."

Antonio Conte insists Inter will continue to focus on themselves and not Milan after missing out on the chance to leapfrog their rivals at the top of Serie A. 

A week on from beating fellow Scudetto contenders Juventus 2-0, Inter failed to get going as they were held to a goalless draw away at lowly Udinese on Saturday. 

Conte's side attempted just 10 shots at the Dacia Arena - their joint-fewest in an away league match this season - in a game that saw Conte sent off late on for dissent. 

Milan lost 3-0 to Atalanta on Saturday but Inter could only close the gap on the leaders to two points at the midway stage in the campaign. 

The Nerazzurri have now triumphed in only one of their last four Serie A matches, having won their previous eight in a row, and Conte accepts an improvement is needed. 

"As I always say, we need to think only of ourselves and not others, such as Milan. We just have to focus on improving our performances and results," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"We just try to work and get the best out of ourselves. I think that amid the many, many difficulties we had this year, Inter are having their say and are real protagonists. 

"Inter deserve that for their history. The second half of the season is still to play, but what we've done for the last year and a half has been wonderful." 

Conte was issued a yellow card and then a swift red by referee Fabio Maresca as the game entered added time, while team manager Lele Oriali was dismissed after the final whistle. 

Explaining the touchline commotion during a game otherwise devoid of many talking points, Conte said: "We had a disagreement over the amount of stoppages awarded. 

"The referee booked me and then chose to send me off. I thought four minutes weren't enough to add on in the circumstances.  

"Then the referee makes his decisions and we have to accept them, even if we do not agree with those decisions." 

A number of visiting players had an off day against an Udinese side without a goal in six successive league games against Inter - their longest such streak against any side in the division. 

Achraf Hakimi in particular struggled, losing possession more times (23) than any other player, with Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku failing to get on the end of balls into the penalty box. 

"We could've been more precise today and lacked quality in the final ball," Conte admitted. "When we put crosses in, we usually have four players push into the box.  

"That's usually the intent, then it's about the accuracy of the cross. For instance, Nicolo Barella's cross was what created the goal for Arturo Vidal against Juventus.  

"You need both the cross and to get bodies into the box." 

Focus for Inter now switches to Tuesday's derby with Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals, though Conte is prioritising the league over domestic cup success. 

"We know that Serie A represents something important for the club and on an economic level, so winning the Scudetto or qualifying for the Champions League is more important than the Coppa Italia," he said.  

"Having said that, we still respect the tournament and want to do well. Inevitably, we will evaluate the situation, see who has recovered and who needs more playing time.  

"Nobody is underestimating this match and we'll try to win, as we always do. We don't put limits on ourselves, but we must find the right approach to beat Milan and go into the semi-finals."

Stefano Pioli insisted Milan had "nothing to be ashamed of" after an imperious Atalanta side condemned them to a second Serie A defeat of the season.

Having seen their unbeaten start to the campaign ended by Juventus on January 6, the Rossoneri suffered a second loss in four league games as they fell 3-0 to Atalanta at San Siro on Saturday.

Cristian Romero, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata scored in a one-sided victory that stretched Milan's winless run against Gian Piero Gasperini's side to seven in the top flight.

However, Milan were confirmed as winter champions as Inter's 0-0 draw at Udinese means they will be top of the table even after each side in the league has played 19 games.

Pioli watched his team muster just two shots on target as a club-record run of scoring in 38 consecutive league games came to an end.

But the coach sees little reason to be overly concerned about losing to the reigning champions and an Atalanta side who have recorded 36 points from their first 19 matchdays, their best return in a 20-team division.

"We started well, with a lot of players in attack," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"They played very well. I'm disappointed with how we conceded the first goal from a dead ball, and the second one killed the game.

"It wasn't supposed to be like that, we could have done more, but we didn't manage it. Atalanta's strong points were evident, but we had to play better from a technical point of view.

"They were stronger than us tonight, but we're strong regardless. A game like this can happen. We know the league is competitive and difficult.

"I think defeats to Juventus and Atalanta are nothing to be ashamed of. Atalanta were physically superior, more intense, winning all the duels and the second balls as well.

"It's tight when you reach this level. We'll analyse the defeat, try to see where we can improve and focus on the next match."

Milan face Inter in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals on Tuesday before heading to Bologna next Saturday in Serie A.

Atalanta struck a blow to Milan's Serie A title hopes after winning 3-0 against the league leaders at San Siro on Saturday.

A first-half header from Cristian Romero and a penalty after the break from Josip Ilicic set the Rossoneri on course for just a second league loss of the season.

Stefano Pioli's side secured the title of winter champions by staying top at the halfway stage of the season, but Inter have closed the gap and the rest of the chasing pack will feel emboldened by the result.

Duvan Zapata struck a clinical third goal on the break to make certain there would be no comeback from Milan, who are now winless in seven home league matches against Atalanta stretching back to January 2014.

New signing Soualiho Meite almost marked his debut with a goal three minutes in, the midfielder sending a header high and wide from Sandro Tonali's corner.

Atalanta began to build some pressure and found the breakthrough 26 minutes in, Romero stooping to nod the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma from Robin Gosens' delivery.

The visitors doubled their advantage just seven minutes into the second half, Ilicic firing a penalty beneath Donnarumma after Franck Kessie had caught him in the face with a raised arm.

It should have been 3-0 on the hour mark, Zapata heading over after being picked out by a brilliant Ilicic cross from the right.

Pioli handed a debut off the bench to Mario Mandzukic, and he nearly marked his Serie A return with an immediate impact, Pierluigi Gollini doing well to get a hand down and claw away his shot.

As Milan sought a lifeline, Atalanta hit them on the break in ruthless fashion.

Romero slipped in Zapata - who had hit the post with a header in his side's previous attack - and the forward rifled a left-footed shot beyond Donnarumma.

What does it mean? Milan are winter champions but Scudetto battle is on

Inter's goalless draw at Udinese means Milan stay top of the table at the midway point of the season despite this defeat.

Still, their lead over the Nerazzurri is now down to two points as they have now lost twice in their previous four league games.

Atalanta are up into fourth, although they have played two games more than Napoli and Juventus below them.

Ilicic shines at San Siro

With Alejandro Gomez almost certain to leave this month, Atalanta's creative burden is firmly on Ilicic's shoulders, and he did not disappoint here.

He created five openings from crosses, one of which set up Romero's opener, and ended with more shots (seven) and more on target (three) than anyone else.

No milestone magic from Zlatan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was making the 600th appearance in regular-season league competition of his storied career, but this was not much of a way to celebrate.

The 39-year-old played the whole game but had just 35 touches of the ball, completed only 15 passes and did not muster a shot on target.

What's next?

Milan face Inter in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals on Tuesday before heading to Bologna in Serie A next Saturday. Atalanta meet Lazio twice next week, in the cup and then the league.

Silvio Berlusconi, Adriano Galliani, Cristian Brocchi, Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Gabriel Paletta.

There is a real Milan vibe about Monza, who are nestled 15 kilometres north of the Lombardy capital, as the ambitious club stand closer than ever to achieving their goal of Serie A promotion after spending their entire existence in the lower leagues.

Monza are owned by former Milan president and Italy prime minister Berlusconi, who returned to football in 2018 after selling his beloved Rossoneri a year earlier.

After purchasing the club through his Fininvest company, Berlusconi turned to his trusted right-hand man Galliani – who was born in Monza – as CEO. Their partnership helped turn the Rossoneri into a superpower, with eight Serie A titles and five Champions League/European Cup crowns among the 29 pieces of silverware between 1986 and 2017.

Monza are also coached by former Milan midfielder and boss Brocchi, while the Serie B outfit also boasts ex-Rossoneri players Balotelli, Boateng and Paletta.

After completing their rise from Serie C to the second tier of Italian football amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2019-20, Monza are well and truly in the promotion mix – fourth and six points adrift of leaders Empoli, while they are only two points behind Cittadella, who occupy the final automatic spot through 18 games.

Moving up to Serie A would mean a Milan reunion for many of Monza's staff and players, as well as Brocchi – who won the Scudetto and two Champions League titles among other honours at San Siro between 2001 and 2008 before spending a brief period in charge eight years later.

"It is a dream that hopefully will come true. To have brought the Milan mentality coming from our board – always striving to build an important organisation similar to the Milan that won so much worldwide," Brocchi told Stats Perform News.

"Board, manager and some players have worn that shirt and the dream to recreate Milan here in Monza is beautiful and emotional."

"It is a tough season. There are many strong clubs, the ones relegated from A [in 2019-20] who have retained all the important players and those who last season had built up a squad for promotion and failed, so I think this year's Serie B is the hardest of recent times," he continued.

Monza – back in Serie B following a 19-year absence – are no ordinary second-tier team in Italy, with all eyes on the Bagai due to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi's presence has changed the landscape for Monza, who tried to sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic before the star striker opted to return to Milan in January last year. However, Monza have since lured Balotelli and Boateng to the club.

"Working for Berlusconi and Galliani's club is grand because all media attention is on you. For sure everybody thinks Monza have to win every game because these two people have gone down in football history winning so much. And this is exactly our goal," Brocchi said.

"I know very well Berlusconi and Galliani's wish is to reach Serie A and win every game. We share the same mindset because I have grown up with them since I was nine. To me it is an honour to be the manager here.

"For sure it is beautiful and important for me to manage in a club like Monza that are very ambitious. It is not easy to take a club from Serie C to Serie A but it is emotional because you have a lot of responsibilities and adrenaline is always rushing. As I said, to face strong clubs with your own aim and manage to overcome them, would make this even better." 

Brocchi, who oversaw just seven matches as Milan coach before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella, continued: "Monza's aim is to improve. We started from C, we are in B and we want Serie A. The difference between us and other clubs is that once in Serie A we won't have the goal of avoiding relegation at the last game, but to rank in the top 10.

"Mr Galliani wants us to always be a strong team going for great objectives. This is what will happen should we win this league."

Balotelli and Boateng are set to play a key role in Monza's push for promotion following their high-profile arrivals.

Boateng has made an immediate impact, with the former Milan and Barcelona midfielder – on average – scoring a goal every 243 minutes in Serie B this season, the best average among Monza players with at least 90 minutes played.

Only Dany Mota has fired more shots on target than Boateng (23 to 10) among Monza players this term and the talented Portuguese forward has four league goals.

Balotelli – coming off a difficult spell at Brescia before their relegation from Serie A – scored with his first touch in Serie B on debut for Monza last month before being sidelined through injury.

"They [Balotelli and Boateng] arrived here in Serie B thanks to the acquaintance they had with Berlusconi and Galliani and even with me as a manager, since I trained them at Milan and we had a great relationship," said Brocchi, who was handed his first senior head-coaching role at Milan after replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic almost five years ago, having previously worked with the club's youth team.

"They settled in very well, they always train hard, they lead by example by showing the will to take me, Berlusconi, Galliani and Monza to Serie A. So far they have been important, let's hope they can give us even more in order to make this dream come true."

The experience of Balotelli and Boateng complements an exciting core of Monza players, including Mota and Brazilian full-back Carlos Augusto, as well as talented loanees Davide Frattesi (Sassuolo), Andrea Colpani (Atalanta) and Davide Bettella (Atalanta).

Both Balotelli and Boateng have tasted Serie A success in their careers to go with respective Premier League and LaLiga honours, with the latter part of the last Milan team to celebrate Scudetto glory in 2010-11.

The strategy of sporting director Filippo Antonelli and Brocchi to invest in promising young talent has continued to deliver results on the pitch.

Monza have allowed the fewest headed goals (one) in Serie B this season, while Brocchi's side have conceded 10 goals from inside the box – the least in the league, while they have scored five goals inside the opening 15 minutes of play – the joint most in 2020-21.

"Monza are a mix of experienced players and great young talents. The right mix to achieve our goals. Players like Balotelli and Boateng can help Mota, Carlos Augusto, Frattesi, Colpani or Bettella, all under-21 players for Italy and Portugal," the 44-year-old Brocchi said.

"You can't only field experienced players, you have to look for the right mix and this is what Antonelli and I looked for. I think experience helps youngsters and their exuberance helps the expert ones."

Ante Rebic, Rade Krunic and Theo Hernandez have been cleared to return to action for Milan.

It was confirmed prior to Milan's game with Juventus on January 6 that Rebic and Krunic had tested positive for coronavirus and they have not played since.

Hernandez and Hakan Calhanoglu returned positive results from tests administered last Saturday, ruling them out of the game with Cagliari on Monday.

However, Milan revealed on Thursday that Hernandez's result was a "false positive", while Rebic and Kurnic have now tested negative.

A club statement read: "Milan announces that both Ante Rebic and Rade Krunic underwent a molecular swab test with negative results and this morning had the medical exams required to resume professional activity.

"Further examinations have shown that Theo Hernandez was a 'false positive'. The documentation has been provided to the health authorities and the player can now resume training."

Milan sit top of Serie A with a three-point advantage over local rivals Inter, who they face in the Coppa Italia next week.

Before that, though, they entertain Atalanta in a league clash at San Siro on Saturday.

Could Harry Kane land in Paris?

With Kylian Mbappe tipped to join Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain are reportedly eyeing replacements.

Mauricio Pochettino has a familiar face in mind…

 

TOP STORY – POCH WANTS KANE IF MBAPPE LEAVES

Paris Saint-Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino wants to sign Tottenham striker Harry Kane, according to El Chiringuito de Jugones.

That is if PSG star Kylian Mbappe leaves the Ligue 1 champions for LaLiga holders Real Madrid.

Pochettino coached Kane for five years at Tottenham before he was sacked by Spurs in November 2019.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky Sport Germany claims Bayern Munich star David Alaba will not decide on his future until he has spoken to Barcelona. Marca reported that Madrid had struck a deal to sign Alaba on a free transfer at the end of the season. However, Alaba is reportedly holding out for Barca as the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and PSG try to lure the Austria international.

Martin Odegaard has asked to leave Madrid on loan due to his lack of game time, reports Marca and Diario AS.

Romelu Lukaku has no intention of leaving Inter for City, says Express Sport. Lukaku spent two years at United before moving to Italy in 2019. Pep Guardiola's City have also been linked with Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland amid doubts over Sergio Aguero's future.

- Mundo Deportivo claims Manchester City defender Eric Garcia could join Barca this month or at the end of the season.

Milan are eyeing Barca's Junior Firpo on loan, while Serie A rivals Napoli are also interested, according to Calciomercato.

- Eurosport reports Tottenham are looking to prise Danny Ings away from Southampton. Ings is reportedly stalling on a new contract as he eyes a Champions League club.

Mario Mandzukic has returned to Serie A by signing a contract with league leaders Milan.

Former Juventus striker Mandzukic has agreed a deal until the of the season with the Rossoneri, though it includes the option for a one-year extension.

The 34-year-old arrives on a free transfer after terminating his contract with Al-Duhail, having joined the Qatari club from Juve last year.

He will offer support to fellow veteran attacker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has scored 12 goals in eight Serie A appearances this term.

Speaking about Mandzukic after scoring a double in a 2-0 win over Cagliari on Monday, Ibrahimovic told Sky Sport Italia: "I'm happy we have two that scare our opponents."

Mandzukic made 162 appearances in all competitions across four and a half years with Juve, scoring 44 goals and setting up another 19.

His 48 goal involvements (31 scored, 17 assisted) in Serie A from the start of 2015-16 until the end of 2018-19 – the last season in which he featured – were only the joint-18th most in the league.

While he may not have been prolific he was an important part of a Juve side that won four straight Scudetti, three of which came as part of a domestic double with success in the Coppa Italia.

Mandzukic scored a memorable overhead kick in Juve's Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in 2017 but lifted the trophy during two seasons at Bayern Munich, where he also won two Bundesliga titles and the Club World Cup.

Across the nine seasons in Europe's top five leagues he has previously featured in, which covers his stints with Juve, Bayern, Atletico Madrid and Wolfsburg, he has averaged a goal involvement every 140.1 minutes.

Milan are also expected to sign Fikayo Tomori on loan from Chelsea for the rest of the season during the January transfer window.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.