You've got to take your hat off to Milan, the only city to have produced two European Cup winners, both of whom are now in the semi-finals of the Champions League, playing each other in the mother of all local derbies this week at the San Siro, the same stadium where they will play the return leg in two weeks' time. Manchester and Liverpool might fancy themselves two great football cities but, in terms of raw credentials, they cannot compete with Milan.
Nor can London, for that matter, which - by contrast with Nottingham and Bucharest - has yet to produce one winner in the world's number-one club competition. No London team has even made it to a final, a pretty lamentable record given that no other city in Europe has had nearly as many teams playing in the top division.
Milan have won the European Cup four times and been losing finalists twice. Internazionale have won it twice and been losing finalists once. They have had some fantastic players in the past, and they have some fantastic players today. Inter have Francesco Toldo, the world's best goalkeeper with the possible exception of Juventus's Gianluigi Buffon.
They have probably the world's best right-back in their captain, Javier Zanetti of Argentina. Fabio Cannavaro is a rock of a centre-half. Ronaldo, who played at Inter last season, reckons that the Colombian Iván Cordoba is as accomplished a defender as any he knows. The left foot of Alvaro Recoba, the Uruguayan midfielder, is as good as David Beckham's right. Hernán Crespo is the complete striker and the cup-tied Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Vieri - who is injured but may just make it back for the second leg - are the two most brutally successful centre-forwards alive.
As for Milan, they are the only team that for sheer individual talent come close to matching the collection assembled at Real Madrid. Real have their Big Five; Milan, their Magnificent Seven, none of whom need any introduction. Paolo Maldini, Alesandro Nesta, Fernando Redondo, Clarence Seedorf, Andrei Shevchenko, Rivaldo and Filippo Inzaghi.
And yet, of the two Champions League semi-finals being played this week, the one at the San Siro is the ugly sister. Any European game involving Real Madrid these days has an unmatchable allure to it. But Juventus, cruising towards the Serie A title well clear of the second and third-placed Milan pair, have emerged as the most rounded team in Italy this season, playing - thanks chiefly to their driving Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved - the most purposeful football.
Milan and Inter, by contrast, are a sorry sight. Inhabiting as they do what might with some justice be called the football capital of the world right now, they play the game in a petty, provincial style thrilling only to their own most partisan supporters. It is football as tribal contest, pure and simple, drained of daring and fun.
The fear of losing trumps all other considerations and defines the philosophy of play. Inter are, on the face of it, the guiltier of the two. The caricature catenaccio football they played in defeating Valencia in the quarter-finals will long fester in the mind. Inter, whose midfield functions exclusively as a first line of defence, do not play 4-4-2, or even 5-4-1. They play 9-1, breaking into an 8-2 formation at moments only of great urgency and despair.
All season they have been the most criticised of the top Serie A teams, with many commentators, as well as fans, calling for the coach Hector Cuper to go at the end of the season. Milan started off the season playing as if they had given their stellar cast instructions to play football the swashbuckling Spanish way.
The Real Madrids, Deportivos and Valencias had been dominating European football for the previous four seasons while the Italian teams had faded from view. The lesson, as a growing number of Italian football writers had come to believe, was crystal clear. Life, and much less football, is not so simple. As Gazzetta dello Sport' s respected columnist Candido Cannavò wrote a couple of months into the season: 'Italy is witnessing a disconcerting dichotomy: a Milan of beauty, freedom, symphony in attack_ and an Inter that plays ugly - but equally effective - football.' In other words, while Milan's virtue was being rewarded, so was Inter's vice.
They were neck and neck, as they remain today, in the league table. Somewhere along the line someone at Milan, presumably the coach Carlo Ancelotti, must have thought: 'Well, what's the point of playing this fancy stuff when the old way works just as well, and involves less risk?' No point whatsoever, came back the reply. Accordingly, as Gianni Mura of La Republica wrote a few days ago, 'Milan have taken one step forward and two steps back.'
The team's fantasistas were either put on a tight leash or on the bench. Rivaldo, alongside Ronaldo the star of last summer's World Cup, is the latest in a sad line of supreme footballers who have seen their talent asphyxiated by Serie A .
What is so criminal, or so depressingly wasteful at any rate, is how Milan spend vast fortunes hoarding the world's most skilful players and then do nothing with them. It is the philosophy of the miser, of the rich collector who buys the world's greatest paintings but instead of putting them on show for the public locks them away in a vault. If this sounds harsh, consider the statistics. They make far gloomier reading than Inter's, even.
After a roaring start in the Champions League, in which they won a 'Group of Death' that included Bayern and Deportivo scoring 12 goals, they have scored just eight times in their last eight European games. In Serie A they have scored 48 goals in 30 games before this weekend, a tally that would have been even more abysmal had they not put six past hapless, bottom-of-the-table Torino, in the riotous early days of the season Inter's figures seem almost noble by comparison.
With only one recognised striker - the formidable Vieri who has scored 24 times - available most of the season, Crespo having been out injured and Batistuta not being the player he was, they have scored 10 more goals than Milan in Italy and five more in Europe. Besides, Inter's greatest concentration of individual talent is in defence while, man for man, Milan's attacking potential is sensational.
All that said, statistics are a funny business. Often dangerously misleading. Every impartial observer of the Champions League quarter-finals would have agreed that Manchester United were the second most adventurous and exciting of the eight competing teams. Even less in doubt would have been the verdict that Inter were the most depressing and dullest.
And yet Inter have scored more goals per game on average (1.93) in what is considered to be the league with the most tightly marshalled defences in the world than Manchester United have (1.88), even though United play in a league where the defences are generally reckoned to be comparatively shambolic. Go figure. It is all, in the end, a mystery.
Maybe Inter will defy all predictions and beat Milan 6-5 on aggregate. Maybe the San Siro games will turn out to be more thrilling than the ones at the Bernabéu and the Delle Alpi. Could well be, in a way. The big Italian teams will rarely be accused of scoring high on artistic impressions, but for good old-fashioned nail-biters - at club or international level - they tend not to disappoint.
After all, the three ties the Italians won in the quarters of the Champions League all went down to the wire, hung utterly in the balance until the final whistle blew. In Real Madrid's victory over Manchester United the interest lay almost entirely in the spectacle. Only the most pessimistic of Real fans harboured any doubts, once Ronaldo had scored his first goal, as to the outcome of the Old Trafford match. Football is about drama as much as it about art.
Catenaccio or no catenaccio , whether the rest of the world takes much of an interest or not, the good citizens of Milan will be beside themselves with excitement - suspense will hang heavy at the splendid stage of the San Siro - over the next couple of weeks.
About the match I hope it gets more entertaining than the first because that would be good for Italian football. As for the outcome, I hope the Milanese win this match, you know my history with Interistas