By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - A Milanese renaissance has seen Inter and AC Milan reclaim their status as the powerhouses of Italian soccer this season after a decade of underachievement.
It has been 10 years since Milan last won Serie A and 11 since Inter's last Scudetto.
But one point separates league leaders Inter from their neighbours ahead of the most highly anticipated Milan derby in years on Sunday.
Daniele Massaro won four league titles and two Champions League trophies as a striker in the all-conquering Milan teams of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello between 1986 and 1995.
He is hopeful Stefano Pioli's side can bring back the glory years after launching a title challenge few expected at the start of the campaign.
“Milan have been extraordinary so far. Nobody was expecting it,” the 59-year-old told Reuters.
“The objectives for this season were definitely a bit different, but this team surprised us.
"The target is to get back into the Champions League. But we’re seeing something extraordinary from this team, and they’ve played the most as a team despite injuries, COVID, and a physical dip that is quite normal at this point of the season.”
Sunday's 'Derby della Madonnina' will be the first since April 2011 that repersents a clash between the league's top two teams.
Both clubs are focused on ending Juventus' nine-year stranglehold on the title but Inter’s elimination from Europe, after finishing bottom of their Champions League group, leaves them with a less demanding schedule for the final 16 rounds of the Serie A season than Milan who are in the Europa league.
“I hope it will be a head-to-head battle until the end,” said Massaro, who now works as a Brand Ambassador for Milan.
“Obviously we have more matches to play, having progressed in the Europa League. But we definitely have good squad depth, like the other teams who are up there fighting for top spot.”
Milan drew 2-2 at Red Star Belgrade in the first leg of their Europa league last-32 tie on Thursday.
Massaro starred for the Rossoneri during one of the greatest spells in the club’s history and scored twice in a 4-0 Champions League final win over Barcelona in 1994.
Those days might feel distant to Milan now after years of being starved of silverware, but their ex-striker is confident they are on course to return to where he feels they belong.
“Milan is absolutely aiming to return to the top level,” he said. “We’re all working towards that target, from the technical staff to the commercial team, to the communications department.
"In every sector we want to get Milan back to what it was up until a few years ago, one of the most decorated clubs in the world, where this great team deserves to be.”
The signing of veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in January 2020 had a transformative effect on a young Milan squad, which went 27 league matches unbeaten last year.
The Swede has surpassed expectations this season by scoring 16 goals in 18 games at the age of 39, but Massaro believes his off-field impact has also been crucial.
“It’s pointless to hide from that fact that when Ibra arrived he gave a great personality and responsibility to all these young players,” Massaro said. “We are one of the youngest teams in Europe. I think he’s an example.
“I had many team mates blessed with extraordinary technical gifts but also personality, and they were drivers and leaders who made you understand how you should train, behave and what it meant to wear the Milan shirt.”
The club have launched the 'Derby Together' initiative, allowing fans across the world to purchase a virtual ticket for Sunday’s game with all proceeds going to Fondazione Milan in support of the most vulnerable people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The club has so far sold over 22,000 tickets.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris)