Leonardo finding success on the other side of Milan
By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
There is nothing in sports that really gets the juices flowing like a good rivalry. And you can make a case that there is no sport in the world that elicits more raw emotion than soccer.
One of the things that makes the sport unique is that, often times, the most heated rivalries are between teams separated by a few miles.
Proximity certainly has a way of bringing about a healthy dose of hatred, and the city of Milan, Italy is no exception.
Milan is home to one of the fiercest rivalries in club soccer, between AC Milan and Inter Milan.
There are only two colors that matter in the city, the red of AC Milan, and Inter's blue, and those colors don't mix, at least not very often.
So when former Milan player and manager Leonardo took over for Rafael Benitez at the helm of the hated Nerazzurri in December, it caused a bit of a stir.
The Brazilian made over 100 appearances for Milan in four seasons, and he was a key contributor to Milan's title-winning team during the 1998-99 season.
Leonardo was a key contributor to Milan's title-winning team during the 1998-99 season.
He even took over as manager of Milan in 2009 after the departure of Carlo Ancelotti, but lasted just one season.
In one of Leonardo's first games in charge of Milan, his team suffered a humbling 4-0 defeat to Inter, which no doubt put a target on his back that he was never able to escape.
Leonardo left the club by "mutual agreement" at the end of the season, but it was no secret that he clashed with club president Silvio Berlusconi, who told Corrier dello Sport that Leonardo was "too hard-headed."
Inter would go on to claim its fifth successive Scudetto, which only heaped more pressure on Milan to end the streak this season.
Things started well for the Rossoneri with Inter stumbling out of the gate under Benitez and Milan taking over the top spot.
But the equation changed just before Christmas when it was announced that Leonardo would be taking over at Inter.
Milan fans were very upset at the fact that a former Milan player was now trying to win a sixth straight title for Inter.
Leonardo's former teammate and legendary Milan captain, Paolo Maldini, also expressed his disappointment, telling Sky Sport Italia: "I would never accept a job offer from Inter like Leonardo did."
However, it is hard to blame the Brazilian for taking the job since many managers have to work for years in order to even be considered for such a lofty post.
With a very limited coaching background, it wasn't as though Europe's top clubs were lining up to sign Leonardo. So when the Inter job fell into his lap he would have been foolish to turn it down.
Jose Mourinho guided Inter to the treble last season before departing for Real Madrid, so Benitez was the one who was left with the unenviable task of following it up.
But with Benitez basically doomed to fail from the start, Leonardo inherited a team with plenty of talent that had underachieved over the first half of the season. But also one that had 13 points to make up on leaders Milan, albeit with two games in hand.
From the start, it looked as though Inter was a new team under Leonardo, winning its first five games under the new manager and beginning to chip away at its deficit.
In his first 16 Serie A matches in charge of Inter, Leonardo posted a 13-2-1 mark and has helped Inter close to within two points of Milan at the top of the table, with a chance to overtake them with a win in this weekend's Milan derby.
The match on Saturday is a massive one for both teams, even though there are still seven more games to follow, but Milan has to do something to change the momentum.
Milan has already been bounced from the Champions League by Tottenham, while Inter has moved into the quarterfinals with a dramatic 3-2 win at Bayern Munich in the second leg of their round of 16 matchup, helping Inter advance on away goals.
And after a favorable draw in the Champions League that will see Inter take on German side Schalke in the next round, you would expect Leonardo to guide Inter into the semifinals for the second successive year.
Both clubs are still alive in the Coppa Italia, with a potential meeting in the final still a possibility, but Milan has a lot of work to do in order to re-assert itself as Italy's dominant team.
If Inter does indeed win a sixth successive Scudetto this season, it will be very hard for Milan fans to accept.
But if Inter does so with a former Milan man in charge, it will be downright unbearable.