AC Milan vs. Malaga: 6 Things We Learned

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2012

AC Milan vs. Malaga: 6 Things We Learned

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    AC Milan came into the San Siro Tuesday looking to end Malaga's unbeaten Champions League debut and avenge their uninspiring 1-0 loss at La Rosaleda last month.

    The first objective was achieved, albeit not exactly in the way the Italian giants wanted.  All the Rossoneri could manage was a come-from-behind 1-1 draw, despite holding a slight edge in possessions and putting double the number of shots on goal, outshooting the Spanish outfit by 15 overall.

    What have we learned from the latest round of Champions League action for these teams?  Let's find out.

San Siro Is Not the Fortress It Once Was

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    The San Siro is the largest soccer stadium in Italy, holding a shade over 80,000 people. Not only is it the home of Milan and Inter, two of the largest and most successful clubs in the world, it is also the place where FIGC brings the national team when they know a game is critical—such as last month's World Cup qualifying matchup against Denmark.

    Looking on that, it's surprising to look at Milan's recent numbers in their aging home.  The rossoneri have only won one of their last five home matches in the Champions League, and have lost three home matches in Serie A so far this season.

    One can look at some of the matches that I've just quoted and start pointing out flaws in it.  Two of those Champions League matches last year were against Barcelona—a 3-2 group stage loss and a goalless draw in the first leg of the quarterfinals. One of the three home losses was to Inter, which makes the home field advantage debatable.

    But to be unable to score a single goal at home against Belgian outfit Anderlecht and lose to significantly inferior domestic opponents Sampdoria and Atalanta spells trouble.  Milan's fans have been speaking with their feet this season, leaving their underperforming team to play before less than full houses at points this season.

    Milan has been looking with a jealous eye at the new Juventus Stadium and will probably end up having to either buy the San Siro from the city of Milan or construct their own stadium in order to keep up with Juve and other teams that have stadium plans either in conception or, in the case of Roma, already rolling.

Urby Emanuelson Could Be a Top Player If He Finds His Cutting Edge

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    The Dutchman was denied a goal by a fine save from Malaga keeper Wilfredo Caballero on a wicked curving free kick, but also wasted several good opportunities in front of goal.

    Emanuelson has shown great promise this season as an attacking midfielder.  The 26-year-old has shown great strides in adapting to the position after playing as a left-back for the majority of his career at Ajax.  He has become a very good facilitator at the front of the midfield and has proved to be a set-piece ace, but he's been wildly inconsistent.

    The best comparison to him is Claudio Marchisio, who in the last two years has finally found the killer edge in front of the goal that has turned him into one of the world's best young midfielders.  Emanuelson has shown improvement, but he must make the same transformation as Il Principino did in order to be the player that Milan see him as, and truly need him to be, in their current situation.

Milan's Strikers Aren't Zlatan

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    Stephan El Shaarawy is a fantastic young striker, and could turn out to be the leader of Milan's front line for years to come.  He's scored eight times in all competitions this year and has generally looked stellar on the left-hand side of Massimiliano Allegri's attack.

    But at 20 years old, he's not close to a finished product.  Tuesday was a rare day this season when he didn't look on form.   He was regularly tracking back to aid the Milan defense, but that's not where Allegri wants to see him play.

    Beyond him, Milan don't have any forwards who would be looked at as true killers.  Giampaolo Pazzini and Robinho are both players who were once looked at as potential world-class players early in their careers but have proven that they aren't line-leaders on a continental and international scale.  Alexandre Pato is incredibly talented but can just never stay on the field.  Bojan Krkic is another talented player who, like El Shaarawy, is very young and needs time to develop into a true killer forward—although he played very well against Malaga.

    In short, no one on this team is Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Granted, not many people in the world are Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but unlike last year, this season the rossoneri share the weakness of their rivals in Turin—the lack of a front-line killer striker.  It's very difficult to navigate the Champions League without one, as both Milan and Juve are finding out.  It may take another year or two for Milan's babies to grow up before they are again competitive against Europe's elite.

Milan's Midfield Is Up and Down

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    Milan's midfield was less than consistent on Tuesday.  Riccardo Montolivo's tenacious pursuit of the ball while on defense called to mind a young Gennaro Gattuso at times, but he was unable to impose his will in attack and thus far this season has not been the Pirlo-like influence on the game that Milan was hoping they were getting when they signed Montolivo on a Bosman over the summer.  He hasn't been bad, but he also isn't dominant either.

    Another of Milan's up-and-down midfielders is Man City signee Nigel de Jong.  He of the karate chest-kick was inconsistent in the extreme today.  He started brightly, makings several authoritative tackles and gaining possession for Milan in the midfield.

    But five minutes before the half, he was easily beaten by Isco on the dribble as the Spaniard slalomed through the Milan defense to set up Malaga's opening goal.  From then on, his play spiked downward, as he was unable to contain the Spaniard and allowed a few more dangerous moves.

    Unlike teams like Juventus, Real Madrid, and Barcelona, who have midfields that are fully able to dominate a match, the rossoneri are deploying a middling range of midfielders that can't take and keep possession to the point where they can dominate a match.

Depth May Become a Problem

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    Sulley Muntari has already been out much of the year, hampering Milan's efforts in the midfield.  Now, the defense may see depth issues as well.

    Italy international Ignazio Abate lasted only six minutes before pulling up injured.  With a defense that was coming into the season suspect after the loss of Thiago Silva, Milan fans will have to hold their breath for the news on the man who might be their best defender.

    If Abate can't play for an extended period of time, it will leave the wing defense to a shaky Kevin Constant and the promising but unproven Mattia De Sciglio.  With the middle of the Milan defense not inspiring huge amounts of confidence after the summer's major downgrade, the Milan giants will have some nervy moments in the back if Abate is to miss any serious amount of time.

Milan's Next Game Is a Six-Pointer

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    Going into the November 21 rematch against Anderlecht, Milan are in second place in the table with a mere one-point lead over the Belgians.  With Malaga facing a scuffling Zenit St. Petersburg side that day needing only a point to guarantee themselves as group winners, the matchup between the Italian giants and the Belgian champions is exceedingly important.

    If Anderlecht win the match at home, they'll head into December's group finale with a two-point lead needing only a point to advance and relegate the rossoneri to playing on Thursdays in the Europa League.  That point would have to come against Malaga, but against a Spanish team that would have nothing to play for and may well rest key players like Isco to keep them fresh for La Liga and the knockout rounds.

    Milan would play a Zenit side that they beat in Russia, but the match was a horror show for the rossoneri.  They scored two goals in three minutes through Emanuelson and El Shaarawy, but coughed up the lead on either side of halftime, and while they took the initiative at the end, they only escaped with a victory due to an own goal 15 minutes from time.

    Neither team have been playing particularly well this season, but Milan will want to go into the final match guaranteed to advance, and the only way of doing that will be to get a result on the road in Belgium.  Goal difference does favor the Italians, but a draw would keep the status quo, and force Milan to beat Zenit with almost no margin for error.  Beating Anderlecht is the only way to guarantee that Milan stay in the Champions League.