MILAN (AP) — Less than a month after their heated spat, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Romelu Lukaku meet again in the highly-charged Milan derby on Sunday, with the stakes higher than they have been in the past 10 years.
There was a huge argument — and head-to-head clash — between Ibrahimović and Lukaku just before halftime of the Italian Cup quarterfinal on Jan. 26 and both players were given yellow cards. The row between the former Manchester United teammates continued after the halftime whistle and a visibly furious Lukaku had to be restrained.
The confrontation is currently under investigation by the Italian soccer federation.
A spectacular mural depicting the clash was painted just outside the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. It appeared on Valentine’s Day, with the message: ‘Face to Face, Heart to Heart.’
Lukaku’s Inter Milan beat Ibrahimović’s AC Milan 2-1 in that match to reach the semifinals but there is arguably much more at stake this weekend.
It will be first against second when Serie A leader Inter visits Milan, with just one point separating the teams.
The last time the two went into the Derby della Madonnina occupying the top two spots in the table was in 2011, when Milan was above Inter. The Rossoneri won that match and went on to win the league title – the last team other than Juventus to do so.
“It’s much better to go into the derby ahead of them. It’ll be a great game between two teams with big ambitions,” Inter coach Antonio Conte said.
Milan won the league match earlier in the season, with Ibrahimović scoring twice and Lukaku netting for Inter in a 2-1 victory for the Rossoneri.
They are again likely to take center stage at San Siro. Lukaku — and Inter — will be full of confidence after the Belgium forward scored twice last weekend to take his tally to 300 career goals and help the Nerazzurri beat Lazio 3-1.
Lukaku also set up Lautaro Martínez for Inter’s third, sparking scenes of wild celebration with Conte enveloped in a group hug.
“We celebrated like that and all hugged together because we really feel this and we’re a team,” Martínez said. “We’re united, we showed great character and played well. This is who we are.”
There were contrasting scenes the previous day when the Milan players trudged off the field with their heads down after a shock 2-0 loss at Serie A newcomer Spezia.
But Milan coach Stefano Pioli is confident that was just an anomaly.
“I think the worrying thing would have been if we’d played like Milan and we lost the match,” he said. “Seeing as we didn’t play like Milan, we’ve turned the page and we’re thinking about the next match.”
Milan has the chance to get back on track before the derby as it visits Red Star Belgrade on Thursday in the first leg of the round of 32 in the Europa League.
But while the importance of that match is not being underplayed, Milan midfielder — and childhood Red Star fan — Rade Krunić admits that is not the game being talked about by him and his teammates.
“Honestly, we’ve been talking mainly about the derby,” Krunić said. “Obviously we take it game by game, as coach Pioli said, but we know that in Milan the derby is everything.”