A quarter of an hour before the Derby della Madonnina kicked off, Inter’s team manager at the time Andrea Butti knocked on the referee’s dressing room door. He had a special request to make Emidio Morganti on behalf of Inter’s owner Massimo Moratti. A week earlier on December 16, 2007, Milan had triumphed over Boca Juniors 4-2 in Yokohama. Pippo Inzaghi had scored a brace, just as he had done in the Champions League final against Liverpool in Athens that summer.


At the open top bus parade, Massimo Ambrosini had held up a banner telling Inter they could “stick the Scudetto up their arse.” Milan had eclipsed them. But Moratti rose above it. The Diavoli were European and World champions once again and he thought it only right to recognise their achievement. He wanted Morganti to let his players form a tunnel of their own and applaud their Milan counterparts onto the pitch one-by-one at San Siro.


It was a gesture of great class from the Italian champions. Millions around the globe were watching. It had the attention of every discerning football fan. A fortnight before the game, Kaká had become the sixth Milan player to receive the Ballon d’Or. Five of his teammates, the legendary Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and the World Cup winners Andrea Pirlo, Inzaghi and Rino Gattuso figured in the top 30. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Serie A’s most dominant player, was on the list as Inter’s representative.


The match itself went back and forth. Pirlo curled in a trademark free-kick to put Milan in front but Inter got back on level terms before half-time through ‘the Gardener’ Julio Cruz. The turnaround was completed by Esteban Cambiasso. He clinched victory half an hour from the end to maintain a six-point lead over Roma at the top of the table going into Christmas.


Roberto Mancini was in the dug-out for Inter that day. He was in the final season of his first spell in charge of the Biscione. Inzaghi, as we’ve already established, was also on the pitch. How the scene they now survey has changed in the meantime. Milan are seventh. Inter are ninth. Not since 2000-01 have they encountered each other in similar positions. Prior to then, you have to go back to the late 40s and early 50s.


The difference between now and the turn of millennium is both clubs had a core of outstanding elite players who’d define their generation. They also had owners who were willing and able to spend more than anyone else. Had they invested a fraction on what they lavished in the transfer market on infrastructure like their academies and stadia, developing their brand in new markets and concentrating on other money-making ventures maybe Milan and Inter wouldn’t be where they are now. Instead resources have dwindled – ultimately they’re finite too – and when the credit crunch happened in 2007, Italy and the business interests of its captains of industry were left more exposed than many other nations in Europe.


Calcio had done little to make itself recession proof. Milan sold Kaká to Real Madrid in 2009, the beginning of a spending review. Their austerity drive would be briefly interrupted in response to Inter winning a fifth straight Scudetto and the treble – Ibrahimovic and Robinho were bought. But after reclaiming the title and failing to retain it, the policy started in earnest again as Fininvest, the family holding company, turned off the taps and made it clear that Milan has to become self-sustainable. For Inter, the treble they achieved in 2010 was the realisation of a dream for Moratti, who emulated his father Angelo’s feat from the 60s. It was also the culmination of more than £1bn in spending since the mid-90s. Now the time had come, as Moratti put it, for this beautiful daughter, his favourite, who had been spoilt and indulged to be sent to university to learn discipline and to stand on her own two feet. With a heavy heart, he sold a majority stake to the Indonesian Erick Thohir a year ago.


The golden age was over and a study in the magazine Panorama last month laid it bare with a series of sobering statistics. Consider the Deloitte Money League: if you combine Milan’s [£225.8m] and Inter’s total turnover [£144.4m] it amounts to just £370.2m. That’s less than Real Madrid, less than Barcelona and less than Bayern Munich. What it boils down is they have fewer resources to buy players. Their transfer spending is down by 80% on what it was five years ago and the payroll has been slashed too.


Take La Gazzetta dello Sport’s annual review of player wages. In 2011-12, Milan were paying out €160m to their players and Inter €145m. That’s a grand total of €305m net. Their highest earners were Ibrahimovic [€9m p/a] and Wesley Sneijder [€6m p/a]. The contrast with now is stark. Milan have cut theirs to €94m and Inter’s is down to €70m. If the decrease wasn’t staggering enough in and of itself, reflect on this: Fernando Torres and Philippe Mexes currently have the highest salaries in Rossonero [€4m p/a] while Nemanja Vidic and Rodrigo Palacio are the ones who take home the most among the Nerazzurri [€3.2m p/a]: players if not past their best then out of form or in the cold.


A line from Gazzetta’s Luigi Garlando before the first Madonnina of last season still applies. A ground known throughout the world as La Scala del Calcio after the city’s famous opera house, San Siro won’t be welcoming as many virtuosos on stages as in other years. Instead of violins for instruments, the respective orchestras of Inter and Milan now only have pots and pans with which to make music.


And yet some of its appeal has been rekindled in the last fortnight. There’s a buzz about it following the return of Mancini to Inter while the presence of another icon on the Milan bench in Inzaghi does also give the derby a lustre it lacked 12 months ago when Walter Mazzarri and Max Allegri were in situ. There’s a lot at stake too. As a city defined by 10 European Cup wins, being outside of the Champions League looking in hurts their pride and their pockets. Milan and Inter need to qualify for it again for their identity and for its revenue.


Sunday’s derby is a sell-out. The ultras are preparing their choreographies and have been granted permission by the Questura to bring drums into San Siro for the first time in seven years. The atmosphere should be fantastic. The Madonnina might not glisten like she once did and is in need of restoration work but this fixture remains a compelling spectacle. It still gets the pulse racing. “Think of the line traced by an electrocardiogram,” Andriy Shevchenko told Gazzetta. “It goes up and down. A heartbeat is like this. Life is like this, even that of a football club. Milan and Inter will get back to the top, but they have to start from this derby, which is worth a lot more than three points. It could be a turning point for both.”