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Gun-slinging, goal-grabbing forward Piatek has AC Milan in buoyant mood

  /  autty

In all honesty, too many recent Milan derbies have been mundane.

Two frumpy teams with only local pride to battle for. Even the old line about 'two bald men fighting over a comb' was out of place. The grooming tool at stake was missing half its teeth.

But Sunday night's clash is different.

AC Milan are on brilliant run and can't wait for the game. Inter have suffered a traumatic start to 2019 and are decimated by injuries, but have ruled the roost in recent years.

Milan's mood is a marked contrast from last year. As Christmas approached the Rossoneri were scratching around for a result and perma-frowning new striker Gonzalo Higuain was slogging away with little reward. It was drab fare.

Gennaro Gattuso's team suffered the humiliation of elimination from their Europa League group, then failed to score in four consecutive Serie A matches, drawing 0-0 three times and losing to home to Fiorentina.

Gattuso, known as Ringhio ('growl') was under intense scrutiny as the seven-times European champions slipped to sixth place. Italian deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini even criticised 'Ringhio's' tactics.

But that seems like a lifetime ago now though, thanks to a new arrival. Polish centre forward Krzysztof Piatek joined Milan in late January for £30million. He had caught the eye at Genoa, scoring 19 in 21 games in all competitions.

A host of strikers have found the Red and Black shirt too heavy in recent years, including Fernando Torres and Higuain. There was curiosity to see whether Piatek was a flash in the pan. The 23-year-old has been a revelation though.

Piatek, whose name translates to 'Christopher Friday' has grabbed seven goals in nine appearances for Milan. The fans already adore him, it's a case of 'Friday, I'm in Love' as someone once sang.

Piatek lives for goals. As Gattuso commented 'he's like RoboCop. He doesn't say much, only that he wants to score goals and conquer the world'.

He's the guy managers, directors and supporters dream of, professional and hungry. There's no diva-esque behaviour.

The comparisons with another son of Eastern Europe, Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko, have been constant. Ultra-serious Sheva wasn't a muscle-bound bruiser, but was strong and durable. Piatek is the same.

'Sheva' hit the mark regularly in the derby, and many Inter fans are deeply worried that this could be a case of deja-vu.

The precise Pole is also reminiscent of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. He knows where the ball is going, and uses his slightly gangly frame to devastating effect.

There is no unnecessary flamboyance in his finishing, it's usually low and in the corner. The former Cracovia player can also score from nothing, which is a blessing, because even Milan's biggest cheerleaders admit that there isn't a lot of creativity in their play.

Just when you thought he couldn't have any more appeal to supporters, there's his celebration. After despatching the ball into the net he fires off two imaginary pistols, the left arm under the right.

The move has gone into calcio folklore, copied by young and old. Although it's not as easy as it looks. 'You never cross your arms', he explained in a Polish TV interview.

It's misleading to apply all the credit for the Rossoneri renaissance to their gunslinger however.

Another winter recruit, Brazilian Lucas Paqueta, has added unpredictability and samba flair from left-midfield. The 21-year-old has settled into European football quickly since signing from Flamengo.

And a 'young-old boy' has also been influential in a turnaround which guided the side to third place a few weeks ago. Gianluigi Donnarumma suffered the first crisis of his brief career last year after his public contract spat with the club.

His form dipped and the teenage phenomenon was anything but secure. But as 2018-19 has progressed the giant stopper has been fantastic and only conceded four league goals in 10 matches since Boxing Day. The Boy Wonder, now 20, is back.

The supporting cast also numbers classy captain Alessio Romagnoli in central defence, mercurial winger Suso and Tiemoue Bakayoko.

A hero at Monaco but mystery at Chelsea, 'Baka' has apparently been taking special pointers from Gattuso in training. He is now an impenetrable shield at the team's core.

Fans were sceptical, but now appreciate the Frenchman for his energy and appetite for breaking up opposition attacks.

Patrick Vieira played briefly for Milan but left before blossoming into a global superstar. Milan followers hope Baka could be the new Vieira, and want the club to sign him outright from Chelsea.

After a winter of discontent, a top-four finish and victory in the Coppa Italia (they are in the semi-final) is the target. That would be some achievement from Gattuso. They have won five league games in a row and are undefeated since December 22nd. The Derby can't kick off soon enough.

Inter are in less joyful spirits. A slew of negative results and the ongoing uncertainty about the future of striker and ex-skipper Mauro Icardi have taken their toll.

Any Nerazzurri fan will tell you that they often begin the new year with a rough patch, but this has been particularly uncomfortable.

Icardi was stripped of the captaincy after his wife and agent, Wanda Nara, made disparaging comments about her husband's team-mates live on Mediaset programme Tiki Taka.

Since the demotion the Argentine has been absent through a knee problem. His friend and compatriot Lautaro 'The Bull' Martinez has stepped in and done well, scoring some fabulous goals.

But the doubt regarding Icardi's return is a worry. He is a proven goalscorer and often does the business in the derby, including a hat-trick last season and a last-minute winner earlier this campaign.

It's in everyone's interests to get him fit and re-integrated into the squad as soon as possible. Nara has offered several olive branches and her hubby might need to swallow industrial amounts of pride, but it will be worth it.

The date of his comeback is unknown, but Inter need him, and he needs them. Their disjointed, blunt display in the Europa League defeat by Eintracht Franfurt (which knocked them out of the tournament) exemplified their lack of cutting edge.

Icardi has got an outside chance of being in the squad for the derby, although if he can't recover Martinez will be back to spearhead the team after missing the Euro exit through suspension.

Controversial but talented Radja Nainggolan is almost certainly unavailable for Sunday. The Belgian midfielder was beginning to play well, until a calf issue sidelined him.

The good news is that metronomic Croatian schemer Marcelo Brozovic should be fit enough to start. Another cause for optimism is that Inter haven't lost a Serie A derby for three years.

Inter boss Luciano Spalletti is under pressure, but a victory against the city rivals could partially rectify the ills of the past few months and start a spring revival.

Milan fans hope their new gunman can replicate Sheva's habit of torturing the neighbours. They'd love to experience the 'Friday feeling' on Sunday night.