A rivalry-defining Euroderby: What a Milan Derby in another Champions League semi-final means to Inter and AC Milan fans

There aren't many games bigger than a Champions League semi-final, and not many fixtures bigger than a Milan Derby between AC Milan and Inter. Twenty years after it last happened, we've got a Derby della Madonnina with a place in the final on the line.


If you asked any Inter and AC Milan fans how they felt about the prospect of facing either Benfica or Napoli in the Champions League quarter-finals in recent weeks, you were likely to get a similar answer. “Yeah, it’d be great to go through – but I’d be rather knocked out now than have to face them in another semi-final,” might have been the response.

That was a lie, of course. But one that had various shades of truth. Both sets of fans have already been there 20 years ago, and they know exactly what is a stake for the only city in the world to boast two European Cup/Champions League winners (Manchester could come next, Madrid has come close before).

The 2003 semi-finals represented an unprecedented chapter in the Milan Derby, taking the magnitude of the Derby della Madonnina to a completely new level, one that made those memories stay vivid to date. Whether you were a Nerazzurri or Rossoneri fan, chances are that you still label that occasion as either one of the best or worst moments in your footballing life.

AC Milan’s Curva Sud during the first Derby della Madonnina of the 2022/23 Serie A season. (Photo: Conor Clancy, Total Italian Football)

That’s especially the case if you belonged to the side of the naviglio (the canal which is said to symbolically split the city into two halves – Inter’s and Milan’s) that emerged as the winner after two draws, courtesy of the away-goal rule, and went on to beat Juventus in the Manchester final, arguably the ultimate pleasure that an Italian football fan could feel.

And while Inter supporters are terrified at the thought of going through a similar nightmare once again, Milan’s had the chance to see first-hand the devastating effect the 2003 derby had on their cousins and, of course, they also fear this could be their turn to endure the pain.

Put in other words, as much as a win would be enough to send half of the city in delight, helping them to leave behind a disappointing season regardless of the final outcome, no one would’ve wanted to face the risk of missing out on the Istanbul final due to their city rivals, which is why every single debate between the two fanbases in recent weeks has been revolving around one main point: playing it down. Perfectly aware that they are rooting for two deeply flawed sides, all they can do is pretend to have low expectations, with the illusion that such an approach can make a potential loss less painful.

But how did the Inter vs AC Milan semifinal in the 2003 Champions League play out, and how it relates to the repetition which is taking place 20 years later?

Inter vs AC Milan: 2003 Champions League semifinals – The game nobody has forgotten

Back in the 2002/03 season, both Inter and Milan were going through a grim time, having won their last Serie A titles in 1989 and 1999 respectively.

Notably, Hector Cuper‘s Nerazzurri side came off a season that marked one of the darkest moments in the club’s history, with their 4-2 loss at Lazio on May 5, 2002, allowing rivals Juventus to leapfrog them on the final matchday. On the other side, coach Carlo Ancelotti had not enjoyed a brilliant start on the Rossoneri bench either, with their fourth place in the previous season followed by an inconsistent path that was not in line with owner Silvio Berlusconi‘s expectations, putting him under pressure.

While AC Milan could certainly boast better quality, with their starting XI featuring the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and Andriy Shevchenko to name a few, some of their players would only hit their peak in the winning course that would unfold in the following seasons, which contributed to making the contest against a weaker Inter side more balanced and hard-fought than it would have been a couple of years later.

Christian Vieri, who was ruled out of both games due to injury, and Hernan Crespo, who had just recovered from a lengthy hamstring issue, were the main threats in a compact Hector Cuper’s outfit, whose stubbornness make them a trick team to face anyway.

Both AC Milan and Inter had scraped through their opponents in the Champions League quarter-finals and, just like today, they were deemed to be part of what was considered the weakest half of the draw, with giants Juventus and Real Madrid battling it out in the other semifinal.

AC Milan’s Stadio San Siro. (@acmilan)

For all of this, the two sides’ conservative approach resulted in a shabby 0-0 draw in the first draw, followed by another tense, tight fixture that would go down in history as “the most important Milan Derby ever“.

It was Shevchenko, in what was his least prolific season with the Rossoneri, to open the scoring seconds from half-time, to silence the home fans in a packed Stadio Giuseppe Meazza that knew by that time that Inter needed at least two goals to progress against a side that had defeated them in both Serie A derbies that season, without even conceding.

It looked like a mountain too high to climb, at least until when substitute Obafemi Martins equalised seven minutes from time, setting up some dramatic and unforgettable final minutes. Whoever was lucky enough to have bought one of the about 80,000 tickets sold probably still remembers Christian Abbiati‘s miraculous calf save to deny Mohamed Kallon at the death of the game, as well as the shift in noise that took place inside the Meazza.

As the final whistle was blown, the loud “Inter, Inter, Inter” chant gradually faded to make room for the roar coming from the away end: “Non vincete mai” [“You never win”] they sang, while many Rossoneri fans flooded the streets of Milan in jubilation before even knowing that Juventus would also seal a place into an all-Italian final the following day by beating Real Madrid 3-1.

Twenty years and countless Milan derbies have passed since that moment and, as much as every fixture between the two Milan sides is tense, for every one of them the two fanbases were somehow thankful that they didn’t have to deal with the same pressure they had felt around that Champions League Derby della Madonnina. Now, though, all of that changes and all of that stress and tension is back.


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