(Reuters) - AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli said that if he had to choose between his side's striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Inter Milan forward Romelu Lukaku, he would pick the Swede "all his life" ahead of the Milan derby in Serie A on Sunday.
Former Manchester United team mates Ibrahimovic and Lukaku meet for the first time since their fiery exchange in last month's Coppa Italia fixture, a clash that was so heated it resulted in an inquiry by the Italian Football Federation.
Pioli believes that episode between both club's top goalscorers this season will not spill over into Sunday's encounter.
"What happened is now over," Pioli told a news conference ahead of the derby at the San Siro. "It will be a heartfelt battle between them but also one with great respect and sportsmanship.
"Tomorrow we have to be an attentive and determined team, to defend well and attack well. If had to choose between Ibra and Lukaku as my striker, I would keep Zlatan all my life."
Milan led the way in Serie A for much of the season, but a surprise defeat at Spezia last weekend opened the door for Inter to move to the top of the standings. Antonio Conte's side are one point ahead of their rivals, with champions Juventus eight points adrift in fifth.
There is a long way to go in the season, but the title race looks set to be an enthralling one, with Juventus' nine-year monopoly over the division under threat.
"Sunday is not decisive for the fate of the championship but it is important because we have been in the lead all season," Pioli added. "We are prepared for it being very important in the race for the title.
"If you approach a match looking for a draw, it may suit you, but you are closer to defeat than to victory. We will go out on the pitch to win."
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Christian Radnedge)