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Milan might have lost the domestic battle to the southern city of Naples but it is a different story in the wider European context. Inter and AC had won the previous two Serie A titles – prior to Napoli claiming the crown last weekend – having capitalised on the malaise at Juventus to stake their claim to be Italian football's top dogs. Napoli appear to have snatched it away already but their northern rivals in Milan will argue that the winners of their Champions League semi-final over two legs – the first of which starts this evening – will qualify them for that title should they go on to lift the trophy in the final in Istanbul next month.

It is 18 years since Milan last troubled UEFA's master engraver, when they won in 2007 beating Liverpool 2-1 in Athens. Three years later it was Inter's turn when Jose Mourinho masterminded the Nerazzurri to their third European Cup with a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu.

You have to go back even further to find the last time these two sides met at this stage of the competition. The year was 2003 and neither team could be separated after 180 minutes which ended in two draws – 0-0 and 1-1. It took Andriy Shevchenko's away goal for Milan (inside the San Siro, the stadium both teams share) to decide the tie which subsequently became known as the away goals derby.

No derby in Italy is more incestuous. Milan and Inter are two halves of the same coin. The former was formed in 1899, the latter nine years later following an internal split. They play in the same stadium (it's worth repeating) and these matters alone are enough to give encounters between the sides the quality of a civil conflict, of a city riven down the middle.

Attempting to call which team will win over two legs is no easier than it was 20 years ago. They sit one place apart in Serie A this season. Inter are in the ascendency in fourth but they hold a mere two point lead on their great rivals with four games remaining.

In September, Milan won the first derby of the season (their home game) 3-2, a match in which their wizard-like winger Rafael Leao scored twice. But since then Inter have claimed the Supercoppa with a 3-0 victory in a match played in Riyadh back in January. Then they won again a month later when the two teams returned to San Siro and the natural order resumed with another single-goal victory with Lautaro Martinez scoring to give Inter back-to-back wins.


Much will depend on whether Leao, struggling with a thigh injury, passes a late fitness test ahead of this evening and, indeed, whether he remains intact until next Tuesday night. One thing that won't matter, of course, is away goals.

It certainly seems as if the impetus is with Simon Inzaghi's side. The brother of AC legend Pippo has presided over a relative financial mess at Inter yet has kept them competitive. Indeed, they appear capable of fulfilling a prophecy delivered by then Bayern Munich head coach Julian Nagelsmann back in November following the second of his side's 2-0 wins over the Italians in Group C which Inter nevertheless managed to qualify from despite the presence of Barcelona in it.

“They haven't been perfect,” said Nagelsmann. “But when you progress from such a tough group, you undoubtedly have to be among the favourites to win it all.”