Milan's metro looks like someone has dropped the plastic tubes from Kerplunk on the floor. It's all green, red, purple and yellow lines. Midmorning in Milan this Sunday, and the Derby della Madonnina is still hours away. But the city has been up thinking about it since dawn, and although kickoff at San Siro isn't until 8:30 p.m., you'd think it was imminent judging by the colours on display. A guy across the train has a red and black scarf tucked into his back pocket. His jersey is under a hoodie. He looks like he should have a pint in his hand. Instead, he's taking a finely wrapped tray of pastries to nonna's.
Others are out for a passeggiata, your quintessential Italian stroll, around Piazza Duomo under the golden glare of the Madonnina after whom the derby takes its name. For a city renowned as one of the four fashion capitals of the world, its residents think nothing of dipping in and out of the high-end shops on via Monte Napoleone with polyester stripes over cashmere sweaters. The Interisti are the most conspicuous in this well-to-do part of town. It is their turn to host, after all, and some strut around like Conor McGregor, playing up to the idea of them as Bauscia, local dialect for posers who think they're all that. But who can blame them? Luciano Spalletti himself said on the eve of the game that he walks around his neighbourhood "chest out, hands behind my back," proud to represent the Nerazzurri.
For all the style Milan are associated with from the Arrigo Sacchi and Carlo Ancelotti years, the catwalk looks of Paolo Maldini and the wealth and power incarnated by former owner Silvio Berlusconi, this club's traditions lie in the working class, the blue collar, offering an explanation for the nickname Casciavit, Milanese for screwdrivers.
At Porta Garibaldi, where passengers on the green M2 line change onto the purple M3 for San Siro, supporters mix without the whistles that have greeted the players who have swapped one club for another over the years -- the Ronaldos, the Giuseppe Meazzas, the Zlatan Ibrahimovics, Andrea Pirlos and Christian Vieris. A woman in her 30s, dressed in the shirt that Inter wore in Jose Mourinho's first season at San Siro, is having a go at a man of the same age in a Milan jersey. This isn't tribalism. It's a domestic, your typical husband-and-wife tiff, and that's about as tense as it gets en route to the stadium.
A nonaggression pact has existed between the ultras with the odd interruption since the Mundialito in 1983, and as you walk out of the metro station and are confronted by San Siro as dusk falls, fans spiralling up its towers as if it were a city on a sci-fi planet, attention turns to what the Boys and the Irriducibili have got planned in the Curva Nord, where the Inter ultras jump up and down.
It's blowing a gale at San Siro. The banners in both ends are fluttering, and at one stage a monitor in the press stand is pulled from its sockets by a gust. "The symbol of the Milanesi," captions the Nord's choreography showing a devil, the emblem of Milan, scrambling away from a huge snake, the spirit animal of the Interisti. The reply of the Sud, where the Fossa dei Leoni, the Nativi and Brigate Rossonere make a noise is instead of two hands snapping a serpent in half.
Before the game, Inter's big summer signing Radja Nainggolan said: "Here you can feel the fans like in few other grounds in Europe." Il Ninja wasn't wrong. It's a sellout at the Meazza -- 78,725 are crammed in under the red girders -- and when the game kicks off, Milan make an early signal of intent with Suso and Hakan Calhanoglu doing what Suso and Calhanoglu do: shoot from distance. For much of the first half, though, Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic wouldn't have much to do at all. When Milan do break forward, poor decision-making lets them down. Gonzalo Higuain, on a six-game scoring streak, didn't have a touch inside Inter's penalty area until stoppage time before the interval, and Suso, the leading assist provider in Europe's top five leagues, struggled to get into the game as Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic tracked back and shuffled across to help out Kwadwo Asamoah.
Meanwhile, the attacks of Inter provoke more sudden intakes of breath. Mauro Icardi, whose hat trick clinched Inter victory in the derby last November, had the ball in the back of the net after just 10 minutes only for the goal to be ruled out for offside. Bearing their fangs like the basilisk in the choreography, Inter looked primed to strike again when Gianluigi Donnarumma fluffed a cross from Asamoah and Matteo Politano dribbled his way into the box. But it came to nothing, and in the end the player who was left feeling the sting from a biting challenge was Nainggolan, who came off worse in an almighty clash with Lucas Biglia. The €24 million signing from Roma grit his teeth but had to withdraw 10 minutes later and now looks set to miss Wednesday's trip to the Camp Nou to play Barcelona.
His exit promised to swing the momentum back in Milan's favour, and as Nainggolan's replacement Borja Valero bounced off Franck Kessie into Asamoah, it seemed all the prematch talk about Inter being the more physical team was wide of the mark. In flashes, Milan were the image of manager Gennaro Gattuso from back when he was a player. And yet Inter still appeared to be the ones who had the keys to unlock the game. Stefan de Vrij hit the post as Milan failed to clear a corner, and Icardi must have been inches away from getting a toe on the end of a ball that Sime Vrsaljko floated over towards the far post.
Listening to the Sud, though, you'd have thought Milan were winning. Singing the songs they've borrowed from San Lorenzo in Argentina and basking in the red afterglow of the flares let off in the stairwells, the ultras almost had something to celebrate before the break when Suso, finally discovering some time and space on the ball, found Mateo Musacchio at the far post. Handanovic seemed to forget he could use his hands and the ball snuck in. Not for the first time, the linesman's flag was up, and Milan joined Inter in having a goal chalked off for offside.
In the second half, it looked as though the game was drifting to a 0-0 like in April. The international break perhaps bore some responsibility for breaking up the rhythm both teams had started to find. But both managers wanted to win the game and upped the ante. Spalletti threw on Keita Balde Diao for Perisic and Antonio Candreva for Politano. Gattuso meanwhile went with two up top, hooking the disappointing Calhanoglu in the hope Patrick Cutrone would find a goal like the one that knocked Inter out of the cup last Christmas. The youngster has made a name for himself for being in the right place at the right time, but before the academy graduate gets any ideas, no one is better at that than Icardi, whose killer instinct was as fatal to Milan as the actions of Donnarumma and Musacchio in the lead-up to his 92nd-minute winner. But the movement, the timing and the intelligence Inter's No. 9 demonstrated must be considered centre-forward play as art.
For the victors there is no better time to see your rivals put to the sword than after the 90th minute. It was the seventh goal Inter have scored in the final quarter of an hour this season -- the Zona CesarInter or Inter-Time, as it deserves to be known. It sent the Nerazzurri third in the table, the players under the Nord and the Interisti cheering all the way to the Metro. Chest out, hands behind their back, proud that for another five months at least the derby belongs to them.