Sitting atop the Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) since the mid-1700s is the famous Madonnina (little Madonna) statue; it was placed there with the belief she would always be at the highest point in the city.

This was, of course, long before football was played in Milan. But her neutrality and significance in the capital of Lombardy has meant the hotly-contested derby played between Inter and Milan has duly adopted her moniker. 

Results in the Derby della Madonnina – a game for which the form book goes out the window – have traditionally been very even.

There have been 78 Inter victories to 76 for Milan; 66 draws have also been played out in the 220 official meetings. 

“The derby is always an unknown quantity,” Luis Figo, who made 138 appearances for the Nerazzurri, including four in the derby, told Sky Italia.

“Current form counts for very little. Anything could happen. I have wonderful memories of the derby. The atmosphere was always fantastic and our results were always positive.”

That is true, but right now the two sides couldn’t be more different in terms of current form and mentality. Inter were much the stronger at the start of the season. Having long since completed their takeover by Chinese investors, they looked to be more stable than their calamitous neighbours.

While the Rossoneri floundered under Vincenzo Montella, who struggled to mould a squad made up of almost entirely new players, Inter were unbeaten and topped the standings at round 15.

They had taken 39 points from those opening matches despite not having played particularly convincingly under new boss Luciano Spalletti.

Meanwhile Milan, who by this time had sacked the ailing Montella and replaced him with the managerially inexperienced former midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, languished in eighth place. They had just 21 points, almost half that their neighbours had collected. 

Milan's aim of securing a Champions League place seemed in tatters, but it's from that point that results turned, for both clubs. Gattuso's side improved drastically while Inter capitulated.

Eleven rounds later and Milan had racked up a total of 44 points. Gattuso was unexpectedly able to pull his team from the depths of despair and turn them into a force to be reckoned with.

The gap between the two clubs now stands at just seven points. Inter are on 51 and have collected just 12 points from 11 games. The Rossoneri earned 23 in the same period.

With an impressive victory over Roma last weekend and a midweek penalty shootout win over Lazio that saw them reach the Coppa Italia final, Milan’s unbeaten run of 13 matches in all competitions is their longest since 2009.

Without bringing in any players in the January transfer window, a change of mentality and team spirit is responsible for their upturn in fortunes. 

“Gattuso changed me,” Hakan Calhanoglu, a player that had initially struggled after joining in the summer, told after the shootout with Lazio.

“He talks to me so much and tells me to play free of pressure in my mind. He’s more like a mental coach than a football coach.”

The same could be said for Spalletti, although not in a flattering sense. Inter signed defender Lisandro López and brought in Rafinha from Barcelona in the winter window but continued their slump until an unconvincing 2-0 victory over bottom side Benevento last weekend.

Often a controversial figure, Spalletti became an unpopular figure in his last job at Roma, begging the question of whether his abrasive and seemingly awkward persona has an effect on dressing room morale when results dip.

“Spalletti did really well at the start of the season to get unexpected results,” said former Inter boss Marcello Lippi, a man who won the World Cup in 2006 with Italy. “Then something jammed, I think something on a psychological level.”

On paper it looks as though the Rossoneri are a dead cert to take the three points in the derby. However, Figo is right. When the iconic Stadio San Siro is packed full on Sunday night, it will be truly impossible to predict the outcome of such a highly-charged encounter, especially as nominal away side Inter will be buoyed by the return from injury of deadly marksman Mauro Icardi.

It is hoped this fixture will provide the same kind of entertainment that has been served up in recent years. But that is also an unknown. 

The only thing we can be sure of is that the Madonnina will be standing proud in her position looking over the city, just as she has always done.

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