The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A night Milan has dreamt of

Milan: There are few things in football that Paolo Maldini has not experienced but even the AC Milan captain has to concede that Wednesday’s derby with Inter Milan in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final will be a unique occasion.

Counting all competitions it will be the 254th Milan derby meeting but never has the clash been in the spotlight as much as this game and never have the stakes been so high for both clubs.

“It will be a strange event — a foreign referee, played over two games, 180 minutes rather than 90 minutes in the championship,” 34-year-old Maldini, who played in his first derby back in 1985, told website Goalcity.

“We have played them over two-legs before in the Italian Cup of course but I would be lying if I said this wasn’t an occasion to savour,” added the defender who is his country’s most capped player of all time.

The Milan derby has had a vital say in the outcome of several Italian championship races but this time the prize is a place in the May 28th Champions League final in Manchester against either fellow Italians Juventus or defending European champions Real Madrid.

Few would like to bet on the outcome of the two games at the San Siro stadium that both clubs call home but Maldini says with so much at stake total commitment is guaranteed.

“We have to approach Wednesday’s game simply as if it was the final itself. It would be unforgivable to play without character in this match but knowing my teammates as I do that is not something I am even willing to consider,” he said.

Milan have enjoyed the better of the meetings in recent years and won both derbies in Serie A this season but Inter captain Javier Zanetti, the club’s longest serving player, says past form will count for little.

“Everyone has Milan down as favourites but I don’t see such a big difference between the two teams. We didn’t deserve to lose those games against them this season.

“This time we won’t let our fans down though, we will fight from the first minute until the last. I am convinced that you win derbies by heart,” said the Argentine.

Milan’s legendary defender Franco Baresi believes the contest could be decided in the first leg. “The first match is vital and Milan must make sure not to concede a goal,” he said.

“Even a 1-0 win could be enough. That’s not to say they should play with fear, but they have to keep things tight.”

However, it is not only form that points towards Milan having the advantage — while Carlo Ancelotti’s side have all their key players available, Inter will be without their top scorer in Serie A this season, burly striker Christian Vieri who is sidelined with a knee injury.

Inter coach Hector Cuper is expected to field fellow Argentine Hernan Crespo in attack along with another South American, Uruguayan Alvaro Recoba.

Cuper’s main problem is in midfield where Cristiano Zanetti is suspended and his most likely replacement, Frenchman Stephane Dalmat is not at 100 percent.

Milan have been boosted by the return from injury of midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf although the former is likely to start on the bench.

Seedorf said the game is keeping him awake at nights. “Everyone lives for moments like this. I can’t sleep,” said the player who was signed from Inter. “These are great times. It will be an unforgettable semi-final and hopefully it will end in victory for us.”

Seedorf said he was expecting an open game rather than a midfield scrap, even with plenty riding on the outcome.

“I don’t think it will be a midfield battle, in the previous derbies it didn’t happen,” said the former Real Madrid star.

Recoba believes Milan start as slight favourites because of their form in earlier rounds, but was upbeat about Inter’s chances.

“Perhaps they are favourites, and I say that because Milan reached the semi-finals by playing a bit better than us,” he said. “But in the derby that counts for nothing. When the referee blows the whistle everything is even. Then we will see who wins.”

Ancelotti will have to decide whether to stick with his preferred option of Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi in attack with Rui Costa operating behind them or whether to give space to Brazilians Rivaldo or Serginho.

Milan’s central defender Alessandro Nesta, who has played a pivotal role in helping his side reach the last four, says the two-legged derby is the highlight of his career so far.

“Many of the players, including me, have never reached this stage before and we will give 100 per cent effort to reach the final,” said the Italy international.

“This is a new experience for me and I’m loving every minute of it. Playing Inter is always tense. This is a massive, massive game for both sides,” Nesta said. Both Milan teams are virtually guaranteed of playing in next season’s Champions League through their league positions.

Probable teams

AC Milan: 12-Dida; 19-Alessandro Costacurta, 13-Alessandro Nesta, 3-Paolo Maldini, 4-Kakha Kaladze; 32-Cristian Brocchi, 8-Gennaro Gattuso, 20-Clarence Seedorf; 10-Rui Costa; 7-Andriy Shevchenko, 9-Filippo Inzaghi.

Inter Milan: 1-Francesco Toldo; 4-Javier Zanetti, 13-Fabio Cannavaro, 23-Marco Materazzi, 2-Ivan Cordoba; 7-Sergio Conceicao, 14-Luigi Di Biagio, 18-Stephane Dalmat, 5-Belozoglu Emre; 9-Hernan Crespo, 20-Alvaro Recoba

Referee: Valentin Ivanov (Russia).

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