extra special derby
Beckham goes head to head with Mourinho in local turf war with global appeal
In the freezing fog that yesterday hung over Milanello, it was training as usual for Ac Milan at the secluded training ground between the bustling city and the lakes.
Some light fitness work; a series of exercises to work on ball possession; a short match played on half a pitch.
The good news was that influential midfielder Clarence Seedorf was training again after injury. The bad news was that defender Alessandro Nesta, back to his awesome best this season, was still working alone in the gym, trying to shake off a niggling thigh injury.
About 15 miles away, at Appiano Gentile, Internazionale were also going through their training routines. Faced with a squad heavily depleted by injury, Jose Mourinho was forced to draft in five players from the youth academy to make up the numbers. The sight of playmaker Wesley Sneijder -- arguably Inter's most important player this season -- leaving early, having missed the session with flu, was a further worry.
In many respects it looked like business as usual at both camps but beneath the surface, and across the city, the tension is slowly ratcheting up ahead of tomorrow night's derby at San Siro, the most eagerly awaited for years.
The 'derby della Madonnina' -- named after the statue of the Virgin Mary on the city's Gothic cathedral -- is a thoroughly Italian affair, but at the heart of the drama tomorrow will be two exports from the Premier League and two big personalities in the modern game: Mourinho and David Beckham.
Inter's Portuguese coach, having last season maintained Roberto Mancini's record of domestic success but continental failure, is now putting his own stamp on the Nerazzurri. Hired to deliver the European Cup, which Inter last won in 1965, he is developing a squad which is more of a team rather than a collection of gifted stars, and is less predictable.
But Mourinho's influence is limited once the match begins, which is when Beckham can take centre stage. The England international has again been rejuvenated by his Italian experience, and in return he appears to have revived Leonardo's team. Playing a new attacking role, Beckham's mix of technical expertise and hard graft has been a major factor in the Rossoneri's post-Christmas form.
Arrigo Sacchi -- who steered Milan to two Champions League triumphs before coaching Italy to the World Cup final -- believes Beckham is likely to be the victor. "Beckham's been a great signing for Milan and one of the reasons that they're turning things round. And there is a limit to how much a coach can influence the outcome of a single match," he says.
Leonardo said Beckham was just as motivated as last year, when he was similarly on loan from LA Galaxy. The Brazilian, then one of Carlo Ancelotti's assistants, added: "He's so open to whatever I propose tactically that there has been speculation that he might even play as a full-back, but that's not something we've tried yet."
The only time Beckham has looked uncomfortable since returning to Milan was when he was this week ambushed outside a restaurant by a TV presenter for a satirical programme. That incident aside, he has looked at home.
By contrast, Mourinho's abrasive nature has won him plenty of critics, especially among the sports press, as 'La Repubblica' journalist Michele Serra explained: "Italian journalists don't like him because he treats them badly."
But Mourinho's stock among football men -- players and coaches -- could not be higher. Sacchi said: "As a person he's cultured, intelligent, clear-sighted and a perfectionist. As a coach, you just have to look at his record. He's won everywhere. He knows how to win."
Sacchi believes that with Inter having brought in so many new players this season -- including Samuel Eto'o, Thiago Motta, Sneijder and Diego Milito -- Mourinho's team is still developing. "He inherited (from Manchester City coach Mancini) a team that was used to winning in a certain way, with players getting results on the basis of their individual ability or strength.
"This year Mourinho brought in players who could help him synthesise the play to create a better team unit. But he's been unlucky so far with injuries to key players."
Mancini tipped Inter to go on and win the title but said that Milan had "the chance of a lifetime" to avenge a 4-0 humbling by Inter in August, which raised questions about the choice to replace Ancelotti with the rookie Leonardo. There is a wider aspect to this local squabble. Next month Manchester United and Chelsea visit San Siro for the first legs of Champions League second-round ties against, respectively, AC Milan and Inter. Alex Ferguson and Ancelotti will both be observing their opponents tomorrow, with the former doubtless taking a keen interest in Beckham's role.
The interest is mutual, for neither Italian team hide the fact their priority is Europe. Mourinho has been hired to win the Champions League. Massimo Ambrosini, Milan's captain, this week confirmed his team's focus when he said he would "sign up straight away" if offered a deal in which Inter win Serie A and Milan the Champions League.
Given both Milan teams are a work in progress, with Mourinho refining Mancini's approach and Leonardo establishing himself, tomorrow should provide Ferguson and Ancelotti with a guide as to their chances. (© Independent News Service)
Serie A Top three
P W D L F A Pts
Inter 20 14 4 2 43 19 46
Milan 19 12 4 3 35 19 40
Roma 20 10 5 5 33 24 35